Shawshank Redemption and the New Teacher

There is a lot of anxiety developing around the country about the lack of teachers in the pipeline and the rate of resignations amongst current teachers. Admittedly, some of the numbers are contextual-states may have an abundance of elementary school teachers, yet lack enough educators to teach high school science. However, there is a clear clarion call to recruit more teachers and ensure they are supported once they arrive. Elevating the profession must include clear methods of supporting nascent educators.

At times, when I hear some of the horror stories of new teachers, it reminds me of a scene in Shawshank Redemption when experienced prisoners place bets on which new prisoner would break first. There should be very little parallels between the movie’s protagonist, Andy Dufresne, trying to navigate his new terrain and a new teacher attempting to do the same in a school. But, unfortunately, our systems of support for new educators leave a lot to be desired.

A new teacher, aspiring to educate our nation’s youth, should never feel like they are on their own to figure out the complexities of navigating a school, and the art and science of teaching. By ignoring the needs of aspiring and new teachers, we are setting up our teachers and students for rapid failure.

I can trace the success and empowerment I felt as a classroom teacher to my first year. I was set up for success by my principal and our school district. I wish all brand teachers could have the support I enjoyed and much more. I was lucky, but there are strategies schools and districts can use so that nascent teachers don’t have to rely on luck to find success.

From Excitement to Disillusionment

I was a career changer. I had never envisioned myself as a teacher, despite the fact that my mom was a teacher. But, I left my job determined to make an impact on the lives of our community’s youth. And, despite my desire to partner with families to influence and lead our youth to liberate themselves from systemic oppression, I had a lot to learn about the technical aspects of teaching.

Thankfully, the veteran educators who surrounded and “professionally raised” me knew how to support me in developing my content expertise with the technical, the art and science. They knew from experience that teachers were intellectual giants doing the emotional work of teaching our youth.

To this day, I remain deeply grateful for my experience as a new teacher.

I was greeted with open arms at John P. Turner Middle School at 5900 Baltimore Avenue. My principal, Dr. Charles D’Alfonso, assigned me a mentor, Tanya Corbett, a veteran teacher who visited me after school on my first day, saw my hastily displayed student work board, and said, “Let’s put some construction paper on this bulletin board and give feedback to students about their work. Others will learn just by reading your comments.”

Mrs. Corbett spent the year mentoring me, giving me ideas, encouraging me, helping me to make this important work sustainable. When I wanted students to journal, she showed me how to elicit student responses and give strategic feedback. I originally thought my job was to grade every single thing a child wrote. I would have grading parties and make my friends sit and use my rubric and scoring guide to grade hundreds of papers each weekend. With Mrs. Corbett’s help, I was able to not run my friends away.

Although I had a formal mentor and coach (I’ll describe our work together in a future post), I was also in a veritable ecosystem of mentors. My informal mentors included the folks with whom I team taught.

Avoid the “chimney stack” culture

My principal strategically placed me between two veteran and effective teachers. I was able to connect with them at every single transition. They would visit my class during their preps, and I was a frequent observer of their classes as well.  They would review plans and give me pointers on how to engage a student with whom I was struggling to build a relationship.

Often, new teachers are surrounded by other new teachers, or they are placed in a school with the “chimney stack culture,” a culture where teachers close their doors and don’t engage others and can’t see when “smoke” is exiting the room.

There are concrete things we can do for our new teachers:

  • Ensure a high quality mentor is assigned to work with the new teacher.
  • Provide a content coach.
  • Check to see how isolated the new teacher is in physical space and socially.
  • Try to avoid having the newest/most inexperienced teacher with the most struggling students.
  • Consistently provide context to the new teacher. They often expect to be far more successful than they possibly can be during their first year.
  • Don’t assume that a new teacher knows how to make tough parent phone calls, lead report card conferences, or teach. Find ways to support them in all aspect of the work.

A role as vital as a teacher must be nurtured and supported. Too often new teachers are thrown in and administrators hope for the best. Yet, we know that hope alone is not a strategy. Without a clear and coherent pathway for aspiring and new teachers to receive crucial mentoring and coaching, we will continue to bemoan the lack of quality teachers.

If we fail to use logic and the resources (administrators, teacher leaders, mentors, coaches, etc.) within our locus of control to address the needs of new teachers, we will only have ourselves to blame for high turnover and overall candidate disinterest.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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