In the Classroom

For new teachers, school support can make the difference between staying or leaving

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A second-grader in Wayne Township works on a reading assignment.

A purple graduation gown casually hung against a wall in the front corner of Mandi Beutel’s second grade classroom at Chapelwood Elementary School, almost like an afterthought. Like she might’ve had it dry-cleaned and just forgot to take it home.

But this one, scavenged from Goodwill and strung up near her 1998 college diploma and honor cords, was there to set the tone for the first-year Wayne Township teacher’s classroom. Just like Beutel overcame obstacles to get to college and her dream career, she wants her kids to know they can, too.

“I want the kids to see what it looks like,” Beutel, 35, said. “It’s not for me, it’s for them, so they can see it, so it’s tangible. You can hold it, you can touch it, here you go.”

Beutel made the switch to teaching from a successful career in healthcare, and she had no qualms about leaving. Her school played no small role in her dedication to a job many might argue is harder to be in than ever: lately there have been complaints abound about inadequate pay, emphasis on high-stakes tests, and increasingly, challenges attracting new teachers to the profession and later, keeping them there.

Recruiting and retaining teachers are issues at the forefront for many schools across the state, as well as legislators and policymakers, as some school districts continue to report difficulty filling teaching jobs. Although the data on whether the state is seeing a true teacher shortage is inconclusive and doesn’t span every region or subject, it’s real for many Indiana educators.

But none of those things made Beutel think twice about going back to school to earn her license — and she credits Chapelwood’s many supports for new teachers for helping her feel stable and successful after just a scant few months on the job.

“I wanted to fulfill my purpose and my calling in life,” she said. “I left a career with a salary that I’ll probably never see again as a teacher, but every day I walk through these doors, there’s purpose and meaning in coming to work every day.”

A plan to support new teachers

Chapelwood’s first-year teachers are expected to hit the ground running once they’re hired over the summer, but they aren’t expected to do it without help.

Principal Heather Pierce said new teachers won’t know, in some cases, what grade they’ll teach until after they’ve gotten the job, so every second of planning time before school starts is precious. The school helps teachers get started writing grants for classroom materials and working with community partners to build class libraries and other stockpiles of supplies.

“Teaching is hard, I can remember my first year,” Pierce said. “It’s just a hard thing to go from theory straight into practice. There’s no in-between. You’ve got to be ready day one. Whatever program a teacher comes from, the expectation is so high, and we don’t have the flexibility of figuring it out.”

Veteran teachers are available to meet with new teachers and share tips and strategies for planning lessons and keeping their classes in order. The school tries to be open to whatever the teachers say they need help with and address as many needs as possible before kids come into the picture.

After the first few weeks, teachers have two years to participate in a program where they spend a total of 32 hours taking classes about acclimating to the job, said Shenia Suggs, an assistant superintendent in the district.

These are all intentional steps, Suggs said, to make sure new teachers don’t feel like they’re being cast out on their own while still motivating them to actively learn and grow as teachers. Leadership academies and other “cadres” split up by grade level and subject area with built-in mentors are other ways teachers can collaborate with their colleagues and find new ways to contribute in their school.

“It’s really, again, having the mentorship in place,” Suggs said. “And meeting the very specific needs as teachers tell us they need those and helping them through those processes.”

And interwoven in the discussions, plans, goal-setting, observations for evaluation and mentor sessions are chances for feedback, Pierce said. Beutel said she was surprised by the time her assistant principal took to help her understand what she could do better.

“He provided the kind of feedback that I want to give my students,” Beutel said. “He told me positive things and things I need to work on. I left his office feeling like I’m going to be a better teacher because of his support and his feedback.”

Finding someone to turn to for advice and help

Beutel’s classroom is a lesson in organized chaos.

Kids were chattering at their desks after a lively song-and-dance session to review vowel sounds one morning earlier this month. But when she called out their tables (all named after colleges and universities), they quietly went to sit at the front of the room.

The tables with the squirmiest kids were the last to go.

“Waiting on one person,” Beutel called out. “Waiting on two people.”

About 30 minutes later, at precisely 10:44 a.m., Beutel had wrapped up her lesson, lined up the students and sent them off to a 10:45 a.m. music class. Her classroom management was more about method than attitude. As he lined up, one little boy ran up to Beutel and grabbed her around the waist in a quick hug.

But it took her work, and help, to get proficient at leading a classroom of children.

“I had a mentor in my student teaching,” Beutel said. “She was the best teacher I have ever been around in my entire life. I text her every day just asking her to help me. She’s on maternity leave right now, and she’s still helping me.”

Mentorship has already been highlighted, both nationally and in Indiana, as a critical way teachers say they can best help new teachers.

Indiana state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s 49-member panel that is examining teacher retention and recruitment listed it as a top priority. Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, also mentioned the merits of expanding such programs at an almost eight-hour legislative study committee meeting last week looking at whether the state is experiencing a teacher shortage and, if so, how to fix it.

Beutel looked to her building mentor, Nicole Caulfield, to help her tailor her math lessons for a kid who’s way ahead. He could add double- and triple-digit numbers in his head while she was teaching the rest of the class to add up numbers to get to 10. She said in college, she learned what to do for kids who were struggling, but there was less focus on those who needed more challenging work.

“I didn’t know how to differentiate for him to help him succeed,” Beutel said. “So Nicole and another coach came and met with me and showed me tools I could use to help him. He now gets his own customized packet for homework.”

That support, along with weekly team meetings, casual discussions and help developing new lessons, made Beutel’s first 10 weeks go more smoothly.

“(Caulfield) has been a blessing, that’s the only word I can use to describe her,” she said. “I know I can approach her and she’s not going to judge me.”

Keeping teachers happy so they stay put

Giving new teachers a good start is important, but sometimes a harder question for school districts to answer is how to keep their best talent from looking elsewhere.

Pierce said she knows much of the answer rests with her and other principals and the environments they create in their buildings.

At Chapelwood, Pierce said she hasn’t had a problem hiring, and she hasn’t noticed a decline in the quality of teacher applicants. Typically, she’ll see about 25 to 30 teachers applying for a position. Suggs said it helps that Wayne is located in a populated city where pay is fairly high — $41,112 for first-year teachers.

“I will say I think it’s because where we’re situated in the city, in an urban area, we’re near the airport,” Suggs said. “The level of candidates I think have been as good as they’ve always been. But I can see why in outlying areas that would be probably harder for them.”

Across the district, Suggs said she is still looking to find a teacher with a math, science, technology or engineering background who can take on special project-based courses.

“Those positions are going to be really hard to fill, and there’s not many candidates,” Suggs said. “Those numbers are real … we might not have 25 to 30 candidates in the future, and that’s a little concerning for me because here in the urban area we are competing with lots of school districts who are doing a lot of unique things.”

Districtwide, Wayne Township saw about 10 percent turnover among its teachers from last year, and just three left Chapelwood, Pierce said.

To combat poaching by other schools and districts, Pierce said Chapelwood has made great efforts to build a positive school culture — one where teachers feel like they have freedom in their classrooms, time to work with colleagues and opportunities to grow and move up the career ladder without having to leave the classroom and working directly with students.

“I think that’s what keeps people happy in their jobs and keeps them coming back, knowing they’re making a difference,” Pierce said. “They know they’re growing, and they know what they’re doing is appreciated, and I think if we can keep up with those things, I know we’ll keep them in the long run, I really do.”

getting in

Detroit district moves beyond test scores for admittance to elite high schools like Cass Tech and Renaissance

The Detroit school district is changing its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Detroit’s main school district is changing the way it decides which students gain entry to the city’s elite high schools.

Students applying to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective high schools will no longer be judged primarily on the results of a single exam.

Instead, an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office, will use a score card that gives students points in various categories.

Students can get up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school placement exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district will also get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

That is a change over past years when  students with the highest test scores largely got automatic admissions to their top-choice schools. Other factors like grades, essays, student interviews, and letters of recommendations were typically only considered during an appeals process for students who didn’t make the first-round cut.

“You can imagine that there was a great deal of subjectivity to that, and if you’re a student who might not be a good test taker, you were at a disadvantage,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who, as a dyslexic, said he was not a strong test-taker in school.

“I can empathize with that gifted student whose intelligence is not always identified by a standardized test,” he said.

Vitti said he hopes the new process “will have more of a quality control … It’s a consistent process to ensure that we’re being equitable and fair when students are being enrolled in these schools.”

The district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admission decisions mirrors a trend across the country where college admissions offices are increasingly moving beyond SAT and ACT scores to give more weight to grades and other factors in admissions decisions.

Cities like New York and Boston are reviewing their use of test-based admissions for their elite high schools in the face of an onslaught of criticism that the tests discriminate against students of color and students who come from poor families and reinforce already prevalent segregation in the districts.

“Tests tend to favor kids who come from backgrounds and whose families have the wherewithal to focus on test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of schools’ reliance on test scores to make crucial decisions.

In addition to changing the admission criteria for Detroit’s selective high schools, the district is also for the first time requiring all district 8th-graders to take the exam. In the past, only students who applied to the top schools took those tests.

“Not every school emphasized the exam application process, so it would be dependent on an individual parent’s ability to navigate the system,” Vitti said.

Only about half of the district’s 8th graders took the exam last year. Data provided by the district show that several schools had just a handful of students take the test while others had dozens of test-takers. (See the full list of test-takers from district schools here.)

Vitti hopes that requiring 8th graders to take the test and encouraging more of them to write essays and gather letters of recommendation to apply will help prepare them to apply to college four years later.

“We’re creating a culture of college readiness,” he said.

The district is also using the exam to survey students about their career ambitions and plans to make high school programming decisions based on their answers, Vitti said, adding that high schools will also use the exam results to determine which students could benefit from advanced classes and which ones need more help.

Some parents and educators say they welcome efforts to make the application process more equitable.

Hope Gibson, the dean of students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, said students were excited when the school encouraged them to apply to the selective schools.

“They feel like we believe in them,” she said.

The changes, however, have put some families on edge as they worry about how the new approach will affect students’ chances at landing a spot in their first-choice school.

Aliya Moore, a parent leader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school that typically sends roughly half of its graduates to Cass and Renaissance, said parents had trouble getting information about the process and have been frustrated with Vitti and the school officials he brought to Detroit with him from his last job running schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I don’t like these new people coming here and criticizing our old ways,” said Moore, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1998 and has a daughter enrolled there now. “The district is now full of changes. Some are good, but some are like, if something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it? We support Dr. Vitti. We have nothing negative to say. But when you come in and you just totally dismantle what was, even if it was working, we don’t understand that.”

Among Moore’s concerns is the district’s use of  a new test this year, which makes it more difficult for the school to help students prepare. Also, this year’s test is being administered online while prior tests were on paper.

Vitti said the district is using a new test this year because last year’s exam wasn’t an option.

“The license expired years ago and the district was illegally using it,” he said.

The new test will be online, he said, though students with disabilities and other students whose parents request it will be allowed to take the test on paper.

The Detroit district now has four examination schools including Cass, Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The district this year converted Southeastern High School into an exam school after Southeastern returned to the district from five years in the Education Achievement Authority, a now-dissolved state-run recovery district.

How I Teach

From bikes to blue hair: how one Denver kindergarten teacher shares his passion with students

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher at Denver's Maxwell Elementary, with his class.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher in an ESL Spanish class at Denver’s Maxwell Elementary School, doesn’t do things halfway. Before Denver Broncos home games, he’ll come to school with his face and hair painted orange and navy. For holidays or school book fairs, he wears full themed costumes. A passionate cyclist, he dresses in professional cycling gear to teach bike safety to children.

Pazo, who colleagues say has a smile for everyone he meets, received one of Denver Public Schools’ four Leadership Lamp awards last summer.

He talked with Chalkbeat about the teachers who inspired him to enter the field, why he uses secret codes to get his students’ attention, and how he gets to know students before school starts.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I’m from Caracas, Venezuela, and decided to become a teacher during my last year in my country. For all the universities that I applied to, I put elementary education as my first choice, and I got accepted.

During high school, I had some teachers that impacted my life — I think because they taught with their hearts and reached mine. Hector Zamora was my geography teacher in college. He didn’t care about scores. He just wanted us to know, love, and feel geography. Also, I can add Evelia Mujica, my eighth grade biology teacher. She was super-strict and funny, but in the end, I think she just wanted us to love and really know about biology. These two still inspire me every single day to be a good teacher.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a room where my students feel safe and loved, and where they try hard all year long. It’s also messy, and you can see many masks and hats that I use to engage my students in lessons, and, of course, their projects throughout the year.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____. Why?
Motivation. It is what keeps me thinking of activities, projects, lessons, and ideas so my students enjoy anything that they need to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson to teach is a writing unit at the end of the year, called “All About.” I always bring in things that I love — like my bikes — and write about them. I let students write about any small moment: about something that they love, the food their parents make, a family trip, a family visiting them, a good or sad day … anything they would like to share. They usually bring in their favorite toys.

The students’ writing is amazing because they apply everything they’ve been learning. They try so hard to write everything about their toys. You can hear them sharing their stories with others, and their pictures are incredible. Writing is a good indicator of how much they have grown during the school year.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I sit with him or her after the lesson is taught and work on the skill that needs to be mastered.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I use a lot of “secret codes” with my students. For example, when I say “mustache code,” they put a finger across their upper lips. They can be working, reading, or playing, and when I say it, I have 100 percent of students’ attention right away.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
It starts before the first day of class. I usually write letters to them or do home visits. I take the first two weeks of school to get to know them and what they like to do. I take time to welcome them so they can feel safe and confident in the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
When I was working at Denver Center for International Studies at Ford, we started a home visiting program. We first thought parents didn’t have time for us or that they didn’t want to take the time. But, once we started making the calls and found that parents wanted us to come, we understood that parents didn’t know about the program. After that, some parents became more involved in their kids’ education and with the school.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
A lot of mountain bike reviews about bicycles, parts, or trails to ride.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never change my personality.