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Becky Felts' Column for Sept. 24

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Why don’t our teachers stay: Providing the right learning conditions for new teachers
Today’s efforts to improve teaching and boost student achievement are almost exclusively focused on punitive measures or short-term cash incentives. While the classic motivators of fear and money may be effective for a little while, that is not the answer for long-term retention of our teachers. Many teachers feel called to do this job, so motivation is not what our new teachers need. They are motivated, but what is missing are working conditions that provide an opportunity for success.
Nationally, in the first five years of teaching more than 60 percent of teachers leave the profession. Research by the New Teacher Center suggests that the reason teachers leave the classroom is poor working conditions.
A teacher’s working conditions are a student’s learning conditions. If the environment is not conducive to effective teaching, it certainly is not conducive to effective learning.
If the quality of the teacher is the single most important determinant in a child’s success, we have to dedicate more time and resources to creating successful learning environments.
Poor working conditions that lead to attrition
• Large class sizes- Each student is an individual with different learning styles and talents. Teachers, especially our new teachers, need small class sizes that allow them to know and work with each student individually. Research conducted by the National Education Association has shown the positive benefits of being in small classes of 13-17 students in the early grades continued after students were placed in larger classes in secondary school. It is absolutely essential for our elementary students to receive the individual, specialized attention they need to create a foundation for success throughout their academic careers. With large classes, teachers cannot provide individual support. They also spend large amounts of time managing the classroom as opposed to engaging students in active learning. Large class sizes contribute to poor student achievement, thus lowering teacher satisfaction and contributing to increased turnover.
• Heavy workloads – In 2006, the average workload for a secondary teacher in the United States was five classes a day, teaching two different subjects. The more excessive the workload, the more problems new teachers will incur. On top of providing engaging and effective instruction to students during school hours, teachers go home and continue to work by grading papers and calling parents. In my small community of Tahlequah, I would end up holding a parent conference on the fly at the discount pharmacy or the local grocery store. People sometimes forget that you are a teacher 24-7. It is a very consuming job, especially paired with heavy workloads and no support.
• Insufficient resources and materials – The average teacher spends about $500 out-of-pocket a year on instructional materials, but the average first year teacher spends $700 out-of-pocket a year on classroom supplies. I recently heard a story of a parent who could not help her child with his homework because he was not allowed to bring his book home. The mother’s challenge was helping her child complete a math worksheet with no examples from the textbook. While she understood the information, the way she learned how to solve the problem and the way the teacher showed her son how to solve the problem was different. The mom was confusing the son and needed a textbook example to help. We have to have sufficient classroom supplies at a bare minimum, to help our teachers and parents educate our kids.
What can we do to provide working conditions conducive to teaching and learning?
• Provide extra support for new teachers- The sink or swim induction new teachers typically experience is causing our new teachers to drown. A high-quality, multi-year mentoring system helps provide the extra support new teachers need. The Oklahoma Education Association has partnered with the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University to create an intensive two-year mentor training program. A 2005 study by the New Teacher Center showed that retention can rise to nearly 90 percent, 30 percent above national retention rates, after implementing a rigorous instructional mentoring and induction program. Ensuring that there are dedicated resources to implement a quality, multi-year mentoring program should be the first step in a comprehensive and sustained effort to ensure Oklahoma’s most important educational resource, dedicated teachers, are available and able to help every child learn.
• Provide time to work collaboratively with colleagues- In strong professional learning communities, teachers help and support each other, develop innovative approaches to instruction and accept responsibility collectively for student achievement. However, the workplace culture and structure has to promote it. New teachers need time embedded in the workday to exchange ideas and solutions. New teachers cannot be isolated.
• Provide additional help to work with students and parents – Schools must provide extra support to students with additional needs and for teachers working with students with additional needs. School must try to create a culture of collective teacher responsibility for student achievement and provide comprehensive student support services. Nurturing school, family and community partnerships also creates multiple support systems for teachers and students.
- Becky Felts is president of the Oklahoma Education Association

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