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.”

Ending the churn

A splintered system and lack of teachers have created instability for Detroit schools. Now, leaders are craving solutions.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames learned that his former school took summer paychecks back from teachers who quit in August when money disappeared from his bank account.

Like many school leaders in Detroit, Danielle Robinson spent the month of August doggedly searching for teachers.

Robinson is the top Detroit official for Phalen Leadership Academies, a nonprofit charter school network that took over three Detroit schools from another manager in July.

By late August, with the start of school just days away, Phalen still needed 34 teachers to staff Murphy, Stewart and Trix elementary schools.

And there wasn’t much time.

“We did $5,000 retention bonuses,” Robinson said. “We did  $5,000 signing bonuses. We did $1,000 referral bonuses … We needed to make sure we had enough teachers because that’s a huge thing for students when they come back — a permanent teacher in the classroom. ”

Phalen’s challenge was extreme — a problem exacerbated by management changes and by the dissolution of the state-run recovery district that had been overseeing the three schools. They’re now overseen by a Detroit district unsure of its plans for charters.

But the schools’ scramble for teachers is hardly unusual in a city where liberal school choice laws, a decentralized school system and a shrinking pool of available teachers have so destabilized the teacher labor force that many school leaders say they’re constantly looking for new educators to hire.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this in my career,” said Mark Ornstein who heads the seven-campus University Prep charter school network in Detroit. “There’s just not enough people to fill the number of vacancies …. We’re all seeing more and more teachers leaving in the middle of the year.”

So many schools are looking for teachers — in August, September and throughout the year — that educators can wait for bonuses and enticements to grow before accepting an offer. And every time a teacher takes an offer and leaves, that creates a vacancy likely to be filled by a teacher from another school. That other school then has a vacancy to fill.

As teachers leave, students suffer. Research shows that teachers hired during or just before the school year are less effective than those who’ve had more time to prepare and to properly learn their school’s curriculum.

Experts say the teacher churn is driven in part by the fierce competition between schools in Detroit that has intensified as charter schools have expanded — they now comprise nearly half of the city’s schools — and as more suburban schools actively recruit city kids. Parents often enroll in multiple schools while weighing their options and schools are left to guess how many students they’ll have and how many teachers they’ll need.

“It’s another consequence of this hyper-competition that has been created by our charter school programs and laws here in Michigan and it’s really working to the detriment of everybody involved,” said Mike Addonizio, a professor of education policy at Wayne State University.

“The schools are competing for students,” he said. “The students will dictate the revenues and that dictates their budget and therefore their ability to hire staff … And if a school is plagued with high teacher turnover, that makes it difficult for students. Outcomes won’t be good and as that information becomes public, those schools don’t do well in school choice decisions and enrollment will drop.”

Some Detroit schools are now pushing back on teachers who quit mid-year by putting financial penalties into teachers’ contracts that discourage them from leaving, but advocates say real solutions will require major changes.

Among them: improving conditions in schools so that teachers want to stay and creating partnerships between district and charter schools to minimize instability.

“In other states, schools set their budgets and know their enrollment so much further ahead that they can come to a [spring] job fair and know exactly who they need to hire,” said Karey Henderson, the director of the Metro Detroit Charter Center who was the assistant superintendent of a 10-school Michigan charter network called Global Educational Excellence.

In Michigan, enrollment “doesn’t really get fleshed out often until Count Day [in October],” Henderson said. “Teachers are nervous and they’re applying around …. We would be trying to train new teachers but then a public school would get more kids and need more teachers and our teachers would get a call … We would have to start out the year with long-term subs in the classroom.”

Then, if parents see a substitute in the classroom, they might move their child to another school — and the churn continues.

Much of the attention this year has focused on the difficulties facing Detroit’s main school district as it works to fill scores of vacancies  in its 106 schools, but the problem is playing out somewhat differently in charter schools where teachers tend to be younger and are more likely to change jobs — or to the leave the profession entirely — from one year to the next.

A recent report from the state education department found that charter school teachers are twice as likely to leave their jobs compared to teachers in traditional public schools. The same report found a higher teacher turnover in Michigan as compared to the national average and put the price tag of replacing a teacher at nearly $10,000.

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent Michigan Department of Education report shows that Michigan teachers — especially those who work for charter schools — are more likely to leave their jobs than their peers across the country.

Another state report shows the problem for all schools could get even worse in coming years as the number of people applying for teacher certifications drops precipitously — much faster than the number of students who need a teacher.

School leaders say they’re taking steps to attract more teachers. Detroit school  superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he’s working to build a “teacher pipeline” that would encourage district graduates to go into education, do their training in Detroit and work here when they graduate.

Charter school leaders say they’re making similar efforts.

Grand Valley State University now provides scholarships to education students who do their training in Detroit charter schools overseen by Grand Valley, said Rob Kimball, who heads the university’s charter school office.  

Leaders from Grand Valley charter schools have also been meeting with their counterparts from schools overseen by Central Michigan University to discuss a “coordinated talent strategy,” Kimball said.

“There’s definitely an interest in coming up with a shared solution,” Kimball said. “We need to design a solution to really stabilize the marketplace for teacher talent and to develop a pipeline [for future teachers].”

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent report from the Michigan Department of Education warns that number of new teacher certifications is dropping much faster than the number of students in the state.

In the absence of a citywide solution, individual schools are doing whatever they can to fill classrooms.

In the case of the Phalen Leadership Academies, Robinson, the top official, said her schools  applied for emergency certifications to put some people without teaching credentials into classrooms. The new teachers will get extra coaching to help them succeed, Robinson said, but it was a tough choice for an Indiana-based network that prides itself on hiring only highly qualified staff.

“None of our other schools in our network use emergency permits,” Robinson said.

Some charter schools have created bonus systems that require teachers to return for the next school year in order to collect last year’s bonus.

Others — including the University Prep schools — have contracts that don’t allow teachers to get their full summer pay unless they return for the new school year.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames said he learned that the hard way when he resigned his job at the University Prep Academy Middle School on Aug. 18 to take a position with a different school.

Suddenly, he said, his last paycheck disappeared from his bank account.

“I looked at my bank account one day and saw a negative $900,” Ames said.

University Prep had paid him on Aug. 15 but took the money back when he quit three days later.

Ornstein said his teachers’ contracts begin on Aug. 1. If they resign before teacher training begins on Aug. 21, it means they didn’t do any work and shouldn’t have been paid.

Ames was furious. “It kind of make me want to quit teaching,” he said. “They should find a way to keep teachers honestly instead of trying to punish us for leaving.”

Contract provisions that seem designed to penalize departures are becoming increasingly common in Detroit charter schools, teachers union leaders say.

“At one charter school, the teachers call it the ‘death tax,’” said Nate Walker, an organizer and policy analyst with the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in the main Detroit district and in a handful of city charter schools. “They’re loading up penalties on teachers to try to deter them from leaving so close to the beginning of the school year … but that’s not going to fix the problem because the labor market in Detroit is destabilized and decentralized.”

Walker called for schools to give teachers contracts earlier in the year and to coordinate with each other so that teachers can know they’ll have income and health insurance over the summer even if they plan to change jobs in September.

The current structure encourages teachers to hold on to last year’s job until the insurance for next year’s job kicks in in August or September, Walker said.

“This is a lot easier said than done because of the multi-operator system that we have right now, but if employers were to make the commitment that any time they’ve given someone an offer to work in the fall, they’re also willing to turn on insurance for that employee, that could solve at least part of the problem,” Walker said.

The only way to fix the rest of the problem, Addonizio said, is to address the reasons that teachers leave in the first place.  

“The best thing that a school or a school district can do to combat the teacher turnover problem is to improve working conditions in the school,” Addonizio said. “For new teachers, their compensation might mean something, but more than anything, they want some mentoring, assistance from veteran teachers. They want some help.”

Henderson said schools need to find a way to start working together — instead of just poaching teachers from each other.

“Get everyone in the room,” she said. “I know everyone is protective over how they manage their schools and run their H.R. but if you get enough H.R. people together in the same room, I think you can come up with a solution.”

disaster ready

Here’s how New York City schools are preparing to serve students impacted by Hurricane Maria

Just weeks after Hurricane Maria traced a deadly path across the Caribbean, The New American Academy Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn got a call.

It was a family member looking for a school for two young relatives after their home on Dominica was wrecked, along with most of the small island.

Before long, the students were enrolled in kindergarten and first grade. The school quickly gave the family a scholarship for after-school care and provided free uniforms — even including new shoes, socks and underwear.

“They lost everything,” said Lisa Parquette Silva, the school’s headmaster. “As soon as I heard these two students needed a place, it was not a question.”

New York City is preparing to potentially welcome an influx of students fleeing Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after the powerful hurricane struck in September, knocking out power grids and flattening homes. The leaders of the country’s largest school system insist they are ready for whomever comes.

“We are going to do whatever we can to support and accommodate them,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a recent press conference, “starting with our public schools.”

Hundreds of thousands could flee Puerto Rico. As home to some of the largest Caribbean communities on the mainland, New York City is a logical place for many of those people to land. They are likely to bring with them an untold number of children who need to enroll in schools — though officials say it’s hard to know how many until they actually arrive.

Already, the Orlando school system reported enrolling almost 300 students from Puerto Rico as of last week. In Miami-Dade, the number was around 200, according to The 74.

In New York City, schools have not yet seen a significant uptick in enrollment, officials said. The few students who have arrived have landed in Bronx and Brooklyn schools, they added.

Serving those students will likely require a host of extra resources. The Miami-Dade school system is expecting to spend $2,200 for every student the district takes in, according to the Wall Street Journal.

New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña said the city has sent representatives to Puerto Rico to understand how the situation there could impact schools. Meanwhile, the education department has begun to survey principals here to find out which schools have space to take in new students — and assured those schools that they would get extra funding. Guidance counselors are being trained to meet storm survivors’ unique needs.

“Money will be allotted to those schools to be able to service those children,” Fariña said at the press conference, “understanding in many cases there may be extra support needed for families and trauma.”

The state education department recently put out guidance for schools, saying children who have fled a disaster are likely protected by federal law for homeless students. Under the law, districts can waive documentation requirements for school enrollment — which the city is doing at its Family Welcome Centers — and students are eligible for free meals.

Nicholas Tishuk, executive director of Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings charter school in Brooklyn, said he is already fielding calls from people who are looking for schools as they consider whether to bring over family members from Puerto Rico.

The independent charter school recently packed a van with donated lanterns, batteries and water to be shipped to the island. School leaders have also put the word out that they are ready to enroll students impacted by the storm.

If the school runs out of space, Tishuk hopes it can still serve as a clearinghouse to put families in touch with other local options.

“A school can be a very powerful place to get extra resources,” he said, noting that New Beginnings has a bilingual staff that regularly collaborates with social-service agencies. “Even if it’s not our school, you should reach out to a school that can help you connect to those resources.”

Schools that take in displaced students will most likely have to offer bilingual classes and provide counselors who can support children who have been separated from their parents and are living in the city with relatives.

Eve Colavito, director of schools for DREAM charter school in East Harlem, said one of the most important things schools can provide is stability. The pre-K through ninth-grade school enrolled a middle school student from Puerto Rico this week.

“Our goal initially,” she said, “is to make school as normal and predictable as possible for them.”