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A Flood of New Teachers
Will it be sink or swim for these teachers and the district?

Last Saturday, a thousand prospective teachers registered at Vincent High School seeking the 700 possible teacher positions available in Milwaukee Public Schools next school year. This follows several years of layoffs prompted by budget cuts and a loss of students to charter and choice schools along with losses to suburbs through open enrollment. The new openings are the result of senior teachers retiring to lock in retirement benefits as the teacher contract ends.

Getting new elementary teachers will not be a problem. For every elementary opening in Illinois, its colleges and universities train 10 possible elementary teachers. A flood of “Flatlanders” are likely to come to Milwaukee if the district can’t find enough qualified educators within Wisconsin. In some cases, Illinois big city teacher candidates might be preferable than Wisconsin rural and small town candidates because of their urban experiences.

Getting teachers certified in bilingual, math, science or special education might be more difficult. Nevertheless, we will have a “warm body” in every classroom next fall. The real question is how well will they do.

Is the district capable of supporting and mentoring this many new teachers? School Board Director Larry Miller raised this question when he recommended that we explore ways of keeping more experienced teachers for a year or two so that the district could have a soft landing, perhaps needing only half the seven hundred for next year.

When I became a teacher in 1971, the district hired hundreds of new teachers each year for nearly a decade. New teachers often had only six weeks of student teaching. It was sink or swim. And if new teachers made it to the end of the school year, and they didn’t go running out of the classroom screaming,  if they had survived and were willing to return the following year, they had a job for life.

Since then, we have offered more mentoring of new teachers, and colleges and universities have done a better job of getting prospective teachers out in the field shadowing teachers with longer student teaching experiences.

Unfortunately much of the mentoring is done by teachers near the end of their careers who often have the attitude of passing on their tried and proven teaching techniques. These are mentors looking backward, not forward in education.

New teachers must use different styles of educating than their more seasoned colleagues used in their careers. Differentiated instruction has been around for some years, but how many of our best experienced teachers have extensively used this form of instruction? Computerized “flip” education is relatively new, but how many experienced teachers are still uncomfortable with extensive use of computerized instruction?

Certainly some experienced teachers are exceptions, and we should consider hiring those experienced, forward thinking teachers as mentors. But my first recommendation is that the district should not automatically rehire a bunch of recently retired teachers to act as mentors to first year teachers.

This district should create a career ladder which identifies our best newer teachers, who are just beyond their first years of getting the basic bugs out, who are just beginning to hit their stride. Such mentors could still spend much of their time teaching, and their mentoring could be part of a career ladder that keeps them in teaching rather than looking for advancement through administration.

We need teachers who are looking forward, not backward in education.

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