New teachers face frustrating firsts
COVID-19 complicates an already tough job
In Harbor Springs, Mich., Craig Currier prepared for the first day of school by pulling tables out of his second grade classroom and replacing them with rows of desks, arranged to keep students apart. During phonics lessons, he tells students to feel their tongues touch the roofs of their mouths as they say the letter T. He talks slowly and repeats himself to make up for the mask covering half his face.
The first year of teaching can be incredibly difficult: About 30 percent of teachers quit the field within their first five years. This year, those teaching in-person have to navigate COVID-19 safety rules on top of the usual difficulties of classroom management and measuring student progress. Most new teachers have also had to learn how to teach online or hybrid. Flip-flopping between remote and in-person learning complicates instruction and lesson planning even for experienced teachers and isolates newer instructors from necessary support.
By October, only 16 percent of U.S. school districts were providing full-time, in-person classes, though that number had grown from 13 percent in August, according to an Education Week survey. Online learners suffer compared to in-person attendees when it comes to attendance and homework completion, according to an October RAND corporation survey.
New York City waffled throughout the summer over whether to bring students back in person in the fall. The city delayed the start of school twice, returned in person on Sept. 29, then switched to online classes on Nov. 18 as the number of COVID-19 cases rose. Administrators brought back pre-K and elementary pupils on Dec. 7 but left most older students online.
In Virginia, first-year public school teacher Sarah Hickman led her fourth grade students through remote, hybrid, and now in-person classes. Hickman’s students fell behind in math last spring, but since academic standards for this year haven’t changed, she said she’s racing to catch up. During hybrid learning, Hickman had just two days to teach long division before moving on to fractions. Now in person, Hickman can only keep students in groups for up to 15 minutes before rotating to avoid COVID-19 exposure. One student attended class via Zoom while quarantining, and Hickman said she didn’t receive instructions on how to incorporate him into the class.
Hickman frequently visits a mentor’s office for advice, she said. Once, when fellow teachers heard she was crying after a particularly hard day, one stopped by Hickman’s classroom to pray with her.
But remote teaching deprives many new teachers of such support from co-workers. One posted anonymously online about teaching more than 50 students remotely and struggling to keep up with curriculum requirements. “I am trying to stay positive,” the teacher wrote. “But this isn’t the job I went to college for.” Others wrote that administrators’ attempts to show support—such as a 7 a.m. faculty appreciation Zoom meeting—fell flat.
Terry Heick, a former teacher and founder of the teaching website TeachThought, said he worries pandemic teaching will burn out new teachers.
“It’s going to give them a warped sense of what teaching is,” he said. “This is not teaching. This is survival.”
In Michigan, Currier’s class has met in-person except when a COVID-19 exposure briefly forced his students online after Thanksgiving. His students began the year behind on benchmark tests, but he feels confident they’ve caught up with consistent time in the classroom. He’s more worried that online school last spring delayed their social development. But as a new teacher, he’s not sure: “I don’t know how much is normal, and how much isn’t.”
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