Wednesday, November 15, 2017

When the Student Becomes the Teacher

I can still remember my first teaching job and how exciting it was to begin my career! It was a real whirlwind as I transitioned from being in the classroom to standing in front of the classroom. Like all young adults there were a lot of things that I needed to figure out, highest on the list of priorities was finding a place to live. As luck would have it, a college buddy landed a teaching job in the same town so we were able to get an apartment together. This was great since I wouldn't have been able to afford rent on my own. 

Yes, the salary wasn't a lot but I was thrilled that someone was actually going to pay me to do something I loved to do! My first teaching contract: $18,100! We were paid twice a month, so my take home pay was around $572 (it's weird that I still remember that). Obviously this was not a lot by today's standards (well not a lot by yesterday's standards either), but at first it was enough to pay the rent and have a few bucks left to buy some groceries. About six months later the student loan payments began and it just wasn't enough. But I was living the dream, so I managed to make it work. 

Those early days may very well have set me on the path where I find myself today. While it became apparent making ends meet on a teacher's salary was going to be tough, there were other things that I just wasn't ready for, even in spite of the joy I was experiencing in the classroom. I was simply handed a set of keys and told, 'first room on the left'. From that point forward, I very rarely saw the principal. My induction program was one day long and mind numbing. After that I was on my own. Fortunately I developed good relationships with a couple of veteran teachers who were able to offer advice and counsel from time to time, but the content area we were teaching was so different that at times it just didn't apply. As the year progressed experiences began to shape my view as a teacher, and at times made me wonder if I had made the right decision. For sure, I loved teaching--but the 'stuff' that sometimes came along with it was something else! Disruptive  and uncooperative students. Unsupportive and at times hostile parents. Turf wars with other teachers. Then there was the pay; which is something we'll touch more on in a future post.

Decades late, I hope we are making the transition from student to teacher easier for this generation. For starters, our mentoring and induction program is much more robust than it ever has been before. We owe that to teacher leadership and compensation plans that have become a staple in schools all around Iowa. This has enabled us to partner our new educators with veterans who have been successful in their classrooms. This two year commitment from established teachers give rookie teachers a lifeline for all manner of encounters they may experience their first two years. We have also found these relationships forms strong bonds of collegiality between the educators. Where a veteran can help a new teacher 'learn the ropes', a new teacher can help a veteran with an emerging technology or a new teaching strategy. Over this two year period, our mentors work closely with new teachers as they navigate the beginning of their career. They are the shoulder to cry on when something goes wrong, because inevitably it will. They are there help unpack the Iowa Teaching Standards and define what makes a good artifact that demonstrates effective use and development of assessment. And they are there at the end of that two year journey when that new teacher becomes a veteran, converting their probationary license to a standard license.

Of the 10 new teachers at Hudson this year,
5 are brand new to the profession.
We have also become much more deliberate about immersing our new teachers in a professional work environment. It is sometimes easy to forget these new teachers were dependent on their own parents just a few short months prior to joining our faculty. Issues of retirement, health insurance, filling out a W-4; in most cases these are things they have very little experience with. Indeed, becoming a professional educator has a much different set of responsibilities than washing dishes in the college cafeteria or working at the desk in the university library. So, instead of handing off a set of keys and pointing them down the hall, we now have embedded a five day program at the start of their career, right before the veteran faculty return to prepare them for these new experiences. Our time together is spent learning about all of these aspects of work that have become automatic for us, and what it means to be a teacher in the Hudson Community School District. They learn about our assessment systems, our student management program, our policy and philosophy on homework, how we like to communicate; and yes, even how we go about cancelling school on a snow day.

Now that we are midway through the month of November, I am taking time to visit with each of our new teachers to see if the newness is starting to wear off. So far, I like what I am seeing and hearing. They are beginning to settle into their roles and have had great experiences with mentors, students and parents. A common theme throughout our conversation is an appreciation of all the support they are receiving from the staff.

What wasn't surprising, but nevertheless important were comments about the heavy workload. While there was an acknowledgement that evenings would be spend correcting papers, planning lessons, and analyzing data; the amount of time spent on these tasks is surprising to the new teacher. Others shared how surprising it is that technology plays such an important role in the day to day operation of school, from communicating with teachers and parents, to delivering instruction and administering grades. These teachers also have shared that some of the best things that have happened to them this year are those moments when they see the hard work beginning to pay off, and the relationships they are developing with students and colleague.

As discussed last week, if there is a looming teacher shortage it is important that we do what we can to attract and retain our talent. Now that we have them here, making sure they have the support and resources they need is but one part of ensuring we are able to keep them here.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

A Looming Teacher Shortage?

Teachers participate in professional development led by
Hudson instructional coach.
Last week while at a superintendent meeting we began to discuss teacher recruitment and the growing concern with finding quality applicants for some positions. Shortages in a variety of content areas have long been a challenge in Iowa schools. In fact, the Iowa Department of Education publishes a list of teacher shortages annually. And here at Hudson, we haven't been immune to the effects of teacher shortages in some disciplines. Our business education position was vacant for years prior to us finally being able to hire an outstanding teacher to fill this role. Then, of course, our challenge in finding an FCS (Family and Consumer Science) teacher has been well chronicled. We got incredibly lucky first semester this year when we were able to lure Mrs. Stanek out of retirement to help us out for the fall term. Then fate smiled on us, as Mr. Dieken, working in conjunction with our partners at North Tama were able to hire a December graduate who actually has all the requisite endorsements to permanently fill this position beginning in January. Hopefully this will, in fact, be a permanent placement and we will be able to hold onto this teacher come spring hiring season. 

The aforementioned positions come as no surprise to us, nor to any school district in Iowa. They have long been on the Department of Education's shortage area list. Further, this is exacerbated here because of the size of our high school. Full-time positions in these content areas aren't possible because the number of students we have enrolled doesn't warrant a full class load. Although with a projected increase in enrollment, this could soon change in Hudson. But, we are focused on the here and now. Luckily we have been able to collaborate with surrounding districts and create full-time positions out of part-time positions by sharing a teacher. However, if the pool of potential candidates is very small to begin with, it becomes quite challenging to attract someone to a position where they will have to travel between two districts. After all, why would you if you didn't have to? As school leaders, this can be frustrating. Nonetheless, it has been our 'modus operandi' for several years.

But there are signs that it could get much more challenging. When the teacher leadership and compensation system launched four years ago, teachers across all disciples and content areas began to assume positions as instructional coaches, curriculum leaders, professional development coordinators; the list goes on! The benefits of teacher leadership are countless, but at the same time, this created numerous teaching positions that needed to be filled in classrooms all around the state. The first ripple in the pond was a shortage in substitute teachers. I began to hear from colleagues they were having problems finding substitutes. Why? Well, those who had previously been substitute teachers began to fill the void of classroom teachers. 

Then in Western Iowa, superintendents began to report a shortage in elementary teachers. When hearing this, I was very surprised. I often have commented that in Hudson, we merely have to think that an elementary teaching position may be opening soon; and then find ourselves with numerous applicants. Now, I do believe that geography has a lot to do with our ability to find teaching candidates, but I am savvy enough to know that what happens in Western Iowa will ultimately impact our part of the state. In that same superintendent meeting last week, a colleague from not very far away from here turned to our table and stated, "We had an elementary teaching position open and only had three applicants. Two of them were 'unhireable'."

Much of this is because students entering teacher preparation programs are down. Consider this: in the mid-'90s the University of Northen Iowa was preparing roughly 600 teachers annually. Over the last 8-10 years, that number has dropped to 450. Of all the traditional teacher prep programs in Iowa, public universities have dropped by 4% in recent years while private institutions have seen a decrease of 2%. It should also be noted that this isn't just an Iowa problem. If the current trends continue, by 2025 we could see a nationwide shortage of teachers approaching 100,000.

Mobility is an issue as well in Iowa. Once we get them here, we need to keep them here! Around 6.7% of teachers change schools each year and 18.9% change schools in a five-year span. So for us, it is not only about attracting talent, but it is about retaining those teachers once we have them in our classrooms. Next week we'll talk about steps we are taking to mitigate this potential shortage and make certain we continue to employ very high-quality educators.