Preparing teachers for their toughest assignment

Jacqui Fisher ’00 crouches beside a tow-headed first grader and points to his hands. “If we have eight boys and eight girls, how many hands and feet do they have?”

The student looks at Fisher, looks at his hands, and then gets up and prances around the long, narrow table where his fellow students sit. He points to each student and announces “Two there, and um, two there, and um . . . “

It’s five hours into a non-stop day in Miss Fisher’s first-grade class at Edison Elementary School in Tacoma, Washington. Fisher has been here since early morning and, with the exception of a brief lunch break, shepherds students through reading, writing, and a host of other academic tasks without pause. She is always on, always engaged, always moving. Her students never stop needing her attention. Fisher must be commanding yet gentle, energetic yet well-paced, creative yet simple.

No wonder teaching has one of the highest turnover rates among traditional professions. In fact, half of all newcomers leave the ranks within five years. The attrition rate is even greater in public schools such as Edison, where a majority of the students have fractured and impoverished home lives.

“There’s kind of this revolving door of a lot of teachers coming in, spending a year or two, and leaving the profession altogether,” says Dawn Shinew, a Washington State University education professor.

This is not a natural, desirable winnowing of mediocre talent. The best and the brightest often are the first to leave teaching, warns teacher turnover expert Richard Ingersoll, associate professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies teacher turnover nationally.

That enormous attrition rate, more than any other factor, depletes the teaching ranks of their most qualified recruits and deprives high-risk children of the stability and positive role models they desperately need.

“If we want to deal with this teacher shortage problem,” Ingersoll says, “we are going to have to deal with turnover.”

Which is exactly why WSU selected inner-city schools like Edison to hone student teachers in a pioneering effort called CO-TEACH (Collaboration for Teacher Education Accountable to Children with High Needs). “I was told if I could teach here,” says Fisher, a veteran of the program, “I could teach anywhere.”

Stress City

“Here” is a weary neighborhood in southeast Tacoma, where the homes are uniformly small, generally neat, and often unfamiliar with fresh paint. Here there are no Hummers, BMWs, or sweeping driveways leading to three-car garages. Just tiny yards with the occasional car that hasn’t run since the Reagan administration. And a nearby retail district interspersed not with Starbucks and Pottery Barns, but pawnshops and bars.

Here is the sort of neighborhood that summons singer Neko Case’s description of Tacoma as a place where “there was no hollow promise that life would reward you.” Indeed, Case’s hometown is known for gloomy skies, white-knuckle commuting, high divorce rates, and stark economic disparity. Sperling’s Best Places rated Tacoma as the most stressed-out city among the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the nation for 2004.

Imagine how the teachers feel.

Tacoma also is almost exclusively one of two distinct classes: rich and poor. This side of the city is decidedly poor. More than 70 percent of Edison’s students are eligible to receive free or low-cost breakfast and lunch. That figure is repeated next door at Gray Middle School, another CO-TEACH site.

Students rarely live with both of their original parents. Those who do, “stick out like a sore thumb,” says Bob Hitchcock, a second-grade teacher and CO-TEACH mentor. Plenty of other elementary school students get their younger brothers and sisters up in the morning, fix them breakfast, and accompany them to school, because the parent they live with works the night shift.

“Look outside-the atmosphere,” adds Zach Womack, a CO-TEACH student teacher at Gray Middle School who graduated in May 2004. “You have kids walking by who aren’t in school. You are on a bumpy street. Them making it here is enough.”

Making it as a teacher in these sorts of schools is equally tough. The pact with parents used to be “kids came to school clothed, fed, mannered, with their homework done, and motivated,” Ingersoll says. Now teachers and schools are called upon to handle many of these tasks.

No surprises

Shinew knows about teaching’s grittier side. She attended college and did her student teaching in Ohio, with the familiar white, middle class children she grew up around. Her first teaching job was in Los Angeles County, California.

“Mine was the only white face in the room,” Shinew says. That experience proved invaluable. “I know what it’s like when a kid shows up at school and his brother was shot the night before.

“I have 20 years of experience, and I’m still surprised and appalled about some of the things kids live through,” Shinew adds. “But now it doesn’t immobilize me.”

Most of the people going into teaching also are young, middle-class white women. Shinew doesn’t want them to be immobilized either. Or driven out of the profession in enormous numbers. Which is where CO-TEACH comes in.

Shinew and WSU education faculty Tariq Akmal, Gerald Maring, Michael Pavel, and Merrill Oaks started CO-TEACH at WSU in 1999 with a five-year, $9.67 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. This one-of-a-kind program is based on the premise that most new teachers aren’t prepared for what they confront in high-needs schools. (Consider, for example, that some of the first CO-TEACH students to arrive in Tacoma were shocked to find two homeless students and their families living out of their cars.) It reaches out across the state, from tribal schools to professional development workshops. But the heart of the teacher-training program is in poor neighborhoods of Yakima and Tacoma.

Like most hallmarks of successful change, it is slow and painstaking and requires enormous effort, infinite patience, endless energy, and optimism. It begins with Shinew and other committed College of Education faculty, who rely on instinct and observation to choose which students to recruit.

“There doesn’t seem to be any correlation between grade-point average and teaching ability,” Shinew says.

Shinew makes it clear to CO-TEACH candidates that they will deal with the most needy students. Meanwhile, the host schools evaluate the WSU students’ portfolios and decide which journeyman teacher will supervise which student teacher. Student teachers spend five weeks observing their mentor teachers before they start their semester of student teaching. Beyond the classroom experience, CO-TEACH students receive intensive mentoring and meet weekly with a supervising teacher and their fellow CO-TEACH students to share experiences and troubleshoot problems.

Students also are observed and critiqued by a variety of experienced teachers. They are videotaped at work in the classroom, a device that is used to show them where they shine and where they must improve.

CO-TEACH’s success in 28 schools bears out the notion that if you prepare student teachers, you retain them. Approximately 100 student teachers have gone through the program in Tacoma alone. More than 70 now teach in high-needs schools.

“This grant has helped us redefine who we are as a teacher preparation program,” Shinew says.

Ingersoll, who studies teacher turnover nationally, is not surprised to hear those results. Mentoring is key to keeping people in teaching. So is a breadth of practical experience.

“It stands to reason that if you have exposure to the realities you will be facing, you are more likely to stay,” Ingersoll says.

Street smarts

Bob Hitchcock leans back against the counter in his second-grade classroom and discusses the day ahead with Jael Dalke. Dalke is a senior from Mo
unt Vernon who is preparing to student-teach in the CO-TEACH program this fall. Hitchcock already has her in the trenches. Today, she will handle both penmanship and a reading class. She should focus on exuding confidence and speaking less rapidly, Hitchcock coaches.

Teaching is nothing like Dalke envisioned, even after practicing in Pullman schools. Southeast Tacoma kids are street-smart, a survival skill they develop as a result of their troubled home lives. Without Hitchcock’s insights, Dalke would have mistaken street savvy for book smarts.

“You can have adult conversations with [these] second graders,” Dalke says. “But they can’t communicate well on paper. They don’t have good critical thinking skills.” Without the CO-TEACH experience, “I would have said, OK, we’re moving on to the third-grade curriculum. I would have been teaching above them. It would have been a disaster.”

Students here also automatically sense any lack of confidence, any opportunity to challenge, any opportunity to walk all over a teacher.

“They ask me, ‘is that how Mr. Hitchcock would do it?’ I’m still struggling with it,” Dalke says.

Hitchcock is confident of Dalke’s success. “She has the touch. She already knows which kids need more time and more help,” he says. “This is the end of her third week. Most student teachers take two months.”

Brittany Carlson ’01, now an Aurora, Colorado, fourth-grade teacher, always planned to teach in an inner-city school. She still was entirely unprepared for the world she encountered at one of Tacoma’s high-needs schools three years ago while in the CO-TEACH program.

“It was definitely an eye opener to me to see kids going through more in their seven years,” says Carlson, “than I had in my 21.”

Management experience

CO-TEACH students credit the program for giving them classroom management skills that a university classroom couldn’t provide, lessons in relationship building, and a network of support among fellow CO-TEACH students. The mentor teacher is equally important, because here they have someone who sees them in action and can, with calm reassurance and practical experience, answer that panicked question of “what do I do?”

 This is true even for student teachers like Zach Womack, who knew what he was facing, because he grew up near Tacoma and fell in love with teaching as a para-educator at Jason Lee Middle School-which he describes as the toughest in Tacoma.

“I think if I had gone anywhere else, I wouldn’t have done CO-TEACH, and I wouldn’t have done as well,” Womack says. “I couldn’t fail with the people around CO-TEACH.”

Dalke agrees. “You get reassurance, the basics, feedback, and classroom management to emulate,” she says. “You learn that teaching is based on relationships. Mr. Hitchcock builds relationships with parents, he builds relationships with students, and he has students build relationships with each other.”

The latter is the most vital skill a new teacher can bring to the classroom, says Ethel Wellington-Trawick, who, until late July, was principal of Edison.

“I don’t care if someone has a four-point-oh, if they can’t connect with the kids,” Trawick says. “I don’t care if you ace all of those tests and all of those papers if you don’t show a concern and a commitment to children of color. The most important issue with at-risk students is relationships. It is loving the students beyond the façade they present to you.”

That’s a rare skill for a new recruit.

“Very few student teachers come in here with much age on them or life experience,” Wellington-Trawick says, juggling telephone calls, e-mails, and people knocking on her door. “Children who are at risk are so intuitive. And in that way, they may be more mature than many student teachers.”

Which makes the CO-TEACH experience all the more important. As Shinew puts it, “there is no standardized answer for the kid who is homeless and smells bad.”

Song for the future

The clock crawls to 2:45 p.m. in Miss Fisher’s classroom. Students put away pencils and paper, homework folders, and books. They stand beside their desks, set their chairs on top, gather their backpacks and coats, and line up at the door.

Miss Fisher leads them in songs as they await the day’s ending bell. Voices rise. Enthusiasm is far more important than pitch.

“My mother is a baker, a baker, a baker . . . “

For a moment, all is youthful optimism. Odds are, most of their mothers are not the kind of professional bakers the song describes, but struggling servants to minimum wage service jobs. If they can find work at all.

But because of Bob Hitchcock, Jacqui Fisher, Dawn Shinew, and a long list of others on the CO-TEACH team, some of these first graders may become bakers, engineers, or writers. Or teachers in a tough inner-city school district where kids rely on schools for their square meals and positive adult influences, and struggle to be as book wise as they are street smart.

Veteran journalist Ken Olsen lives
in Portland, Oregon.