Teaching Excellence: Why Years in a Classroom Don’t Always Define Great Teachers

As the fall school semester comes to a close, teachers from all over Houston are reflecting on their work so far this year.  This is especially true at public charter schools like YES Prep, where our intensive Teaching Excellence program ensures that our novice teachers—up to a third of our overall teaching program—receive the support and development they need to perform well in the classroom.

A recent article in the Huffington Post points to an often heard criticism of charter schools, Teach For America, and of the education reform movement as a whole.  The looming questions proposed in the aforementioned article include :

–    How can inexperienced teachers effectively teach high-risk students, a group that has traditionally needed the most attention and assistance?

–    If these new teachers aren’t staying in the classroom and making a career of education, are we doing more harm than good?

The facts at YES Prep speak for themselves.  We are successfully facing the challenge of undoing the wrongs of educational inequity for our kids via a commitment to Teaching Excellence that is unparalleled.  The result is a 100% of our graduating seniors are accepted into 4 year colleges; more than 90% of these students are the first of their families to attend college. These colleges have told us that we graduate the best students from underrepresented minorities.

The reality is we are succeeding where others have fallen short often because our novice teachers are willing to teach in low-income neighborhoods, are willing to work relentlessly for and with our students far beyond the standard work week, AND receive the coaching they need to learn how to be the best teachers they can be.

Kati Haycock, President of the Education Trust, is quoted as saying that teachers should have to demonstrate high levels of proficiency before teaching “poor” kids.  Haycock is a longtime supporter of TFA, and she recognizes both the benefit of bringing bright, talented graduates into the field while also recognizing the risks.  I too can see how beneficial that would be for our students.  At the same time, the staffing challenge would prove to be unbelievably difficult.  Until the surplus of experienced and successful teachers start showing up in droves to work in the education community, we at YES Prep will continue to meet the needs of our students with cohorts of beginning teachers that we support and train rigorously in their first year.

Critics say that children in poverty need experienced teachers.  My argument is that all children need EFFECTIVE teachers.  Effective teachers learn quickly, make adjustments, listen to feedback, apply changes and make sure that every minute of their class is working towards an academic goal.  Experience does not always equal effective.  Beginner does not always equal ineffective either.  However, effectiveness in teaching comes directly with a teacher’s willingness and ability to grow in order to meet the needs of students.

Unfortunately, YES Prep isn’t immune to teacher turnover, just like every other educational institute in the country. This issue continuously comes up in the criticisms of programs that recruit and develop new teachers.  Retaining these supreme teachers is certainly a top priority at YES Prep, and we are continuously striving to find best practices in doing so.

At YES Prep we ensure our teachers are in a school where they felt supported, always have a strong principal, and were given opportunities to grow and lead that were based on merit and performance. When I hear criticism about the teacher turnover rate, not only as it relates to beginning teachers, my follow-up question is was the aforementioned needs of the teacher met and exceed?  Unless we have schools in which people can engage and see themselves as part of a larger mission, it is difficult to compel smart and driven individuals to stay and forgo other opportunities.  

Ultimately, at the end of the day, as our kids are loading buses to go home, we need to feel like we have put our all into ensuring our students received the best education we could provide.  This can be measured solely by the dedication of the teacher and his or her passion for igniting knowledge in their students, regardless of the amount of years the teacher has spent in the classroom. 

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