This is the first story in a three-part series about teacher preparation and whether programs are doing enough to prepare new teachers to take over their own classrooms.
MIDDLE RIVER, MD—On a chilly November morning, Michael Duklewski stood outside his seventh-grade classroom as students filed in, some shoving each other playfully, others still half asleep. One by one they took a piece of paper from a bin by the front door and made their way to their seats.
“Good morning!” Duklewski, 33, said in a loud and confident voice over the classroom chatter. He closed the door and paused. A wad of paper flew through the air.
“I’m warning you man, the next time I see someone throw something, it’s lunch detention,” Duklewski said sternly, looking at the student who had thrown the paper.
As students in this second-period English class began to work on their warmup drill—to define the terms “setting” and “mood” in literature—the chatter continued. Duklewski walked over to the chalkboard in the front of the room where he was tracking the points for good behavior that each class had earned. Next to “second period,” he erased the number 14 and changed it to 13.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I already took off a point,” he warned. He waited as the conversations slowly died down, before launching into his lesson for the day on the play A Raisin in the Sun.
Duklewski, one of a growing number of career-changers that enter the teaching profession each year, switched from political lobbying to education after volunteering at an after-school program in Baltimore. This school year is his first, and it has been even tougher than he imagined. In the second week of September, reality hit. “I was like, ‘Oh God, I don’t know what I’m doing here,’” Duklewski recalled.
Duklewski is one of three teachers The Hechinger Report, which partnered with The Atlantic to produce this story, has followed over the course of their first year to look at how training programs prepare new teachers for the classroom—or don’t. As the American education system faces a drumbeat of criticism for its stubborn achievement gaps and lackluster performance compared to other countries, education schools are under attack.
Traditional education schools are trying to reinvent themselves, and alternative fast-track routes are popping up to offer shortcuts to the classroom. Both models seek to help prospective teachers deal with rising standards, increasing student diversity, new technology and, inevitably, the gauntlet of spitballs, note passing, and, these days, illicit texting.
While aspiring educators now have more choices than ever before when it comes to launching their careers, new teachers continue to leave the profession at an alarming rate, suggesting a breakdown in training and support. At the same time, there is little evidence to show which education programs are graduating the most successful teachers or what kind of support is most helpful for rookies.
Duklewski chose the traditional route to becoming a teacher. In 2015, he graduated from Towson University, a state institution outside of Baltimore that has been training teachers for more than 150 years and graduates nearly 700 new teachers each year. He selected the school because of its strong reputation, and it helped that his mother earned her own teaching degree there in 1972. His course of study took two years, including more than 20 classes and 16 weeks of full-time student teaching—typical for traditional programs, which provide more in-depth pre-teaching training than most alternative programs.
Duklewski was hired to teach seventh-grade English language arts at the same school where he completed his student teaching experience. He was familiar with Middle River Middle School’s administration and policies and already knew many of the nearly 900 students in the sprawling, single-story brick building, located in a suburb of Baltimore.
“We’ve gotten into a habit of accepting that we treat the first year of teaching like a fraternity hazing,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). “People say, ‘I just don’t think you can learn this ahead of time.’ Well, you need to set up those conditions ahead of time,” she argued.
Is it possible for teacher programs to prepare educators with everything they need to know on Day 1? Maybe not everything, according to the three teachers we followed.
For Duklewski, although he’s struggled at times with unruly students, he’s not sure what else his teacher education program could have done. There’s no better way to learn how to teach, he argued, than just jumping in and doing it.
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Back in second period, Duklewski, wearing black dress pants and a blue polo shirt, continued to give directions for the next part of the lesson: using evidence from the A Raisin in the Sun script to draw a diagram of the set.
As he ran the discussion he moved constantly around the room, stopping the lesson abruptly—and frequently—as students talked to their neighbors. He kept an even tone as he threatened to call parents and reminded students that one of the class rules is “don’t talk while others are talking.”
Four minutes in, second period was down to 10 good behavior points. “Don’t draw on your arm,” Duklewski told one student. He ignored a student hitting himself in the face with a red folder. Duklewski stared down a chattering group of students until they started working again.
It was now 10 minutes into the period. Duklewski stepped up to the overhead projector in the front of the room and counted down from three. The class fell silent. “Our purpose is to find details about the staging of the Youngers’s home,” Duklewski said, referring to the family in the play. “What rooms are there? What things are there?” Some students raised their hands, but a few boys continued to talk to each other, or, in a couple of cases, to themselves.
“Ladies and gentleman, I’m literally asking you to do nothing when other people are talking,” Duklewski said in a calm and assertive voice. “We’re going to practice being silent for fifteen seconds. If we can do that, I’ll put a point on the board. If not, I’ll take two off.”
Duklewski set a timer for 15 seconds. Four seconds later, a student started talking.
Less than three months into his first year of teaching, Duklewski exuded the confidence of a more experienced teacher. But his second-period class was difficult compared to the other four classes he’d been teaching, a difference he attributed to several strong personalities and too many students—33, far bigger than his other classes.
For the worst behavior problems, his chosen strategy is keeping students after class for a one-on-one talk instead of addressing them in front of other students. “Some teachers come straight at a student when they have an issue with them in class,” Duklewski said. “I found that doesn’t work with them, especially not in a classroom full of their peers. They get yelled at enough.”
The ability to manage classroom behavior is one of the top concerns for every new teacher and can often lead to the undoing of a rookie. A 2014 report by the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education found that trouble managing student discipline is one of the many reasons teachers leave the classroom. Poor classroom management can also get in the way of learning, said Arthur Levine, the president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and former president of Teachers College, Columbia University. “If a teacher can’t manage a classroom, nothing they’re going to do will be successful.” (The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College.)
Although classroom management is one of the most important topics for new teachers, it is one of the least taught in preparation programs, said NCTQ’s Walsh. “Programs swear up and down that they teach this stuff … [but] there’s little evidence that they’re being taught it,” she said.
In fact, a 2013 report by NCTQ found that many teacher-preparation programs fail to teach certain aspects of classroom management. Of 122 programs examined by NCTQ, the majority focused on the setting up of routines and rules in classrooms, an important skill. But 74 percent did not teach teachers how to use praise in their classrooms to reinforce positive behavior or other day-to-day tricks to keep classes focused and get unruly kids under control.
By December, his second-period class was getting better; during the fall, he had started giving students the chance to earn the right to come to his classroom during lunch and watch cartoons on Fridays. (He nixed the cartoons before winter break.) He moved one particularly energetic student to the back of the classroom where he could sit on a window ledge, stand up or move around without distracting other students.
His class-points system, however, had fallen apart. Right before winter break, Duklewski switched to an individual-point system to reward students for independent behavior. Students could earn points by being on-task, finishing the class warmup first, or answering questions correctly. They could then earn small prizes, like pencil sharpeners, or larger prizes, like “renting out” his classroom for lunch with friends.
He also switched from pointing out negative behavior to pointing out positive behavior. Sometimes he found that just announcing what students were doing—“Jimmy is working on his warmup”—made a huge difference. And only a few weeks into the new system, Duklewski said that the changes were both improving student behavior and his own sanity. “I’m just happier, because I’m saying good things all the time instead of harping on bad things,” Duklewski said.
Happiness is relative for a new teacher. Since Duklewski took over his own classroom last September, it’s been nearly impossible to balance his workload with his personal life, a problem many new teachers experience.
Every morning Duklewski wakes up by 5:30 and he tries to be in bed by 9 p.m., although he often stays up late preparing lessons. He saves time by not eating breakfast in the morning and has 35 minutes to eat lunch—15 minutes of which is taken up by hall duty or checking on students in the cafeteria. After 13 to 15 hours at school each day, he drives home, eats dinner, watches a little television, and packs his lunch for the next day. His weekends are mostly filled with grading.
Moving from a role as a student teacher to a full-time classroom teacher was a bigger jump than he had expected. He realized after his first week that there were many things he didn’t know, like the exact procedure for a fire drill. Or how to balance teaching with noninstructional duties like communicating with parents, filling out attendance, and responding to each day’s barrage of emails.
“When it’s all resting on you, it’s just that much more exhausting,” Duklewski said. “Some of it you just figure out as you hit the ground running.”
On a rainy January day, Duklewski stood in front of his fourth-period class having already downed several cups of coffee to keep up his energy. At 10 p.m. the night before, he had thrown out his lesson plan on monologues, and then stayed up until 1 a.m. reworking it to include video examples.
Students were transfixed. After watching monologues from The Lion King, Harry Potter, and The Incredibles, the class discussed the purpose of a monologue. Duklewski then instructed them to write their own, using point of view and voice. On a worksheet, students answered questions about who they would be, why they were talking, and who they were talking to. Kids erupted into excited chatter as they began to plan and write their monologues.
“I’m myself, talking about sacking Tom Brady, to myself,” one student explained. He read his first line aloud. “Ohh I’m gonna sack Tom Brady!”
When the class ended, students filed out still chatting about their monologues. Oner bonus of an engaging lesson, Duklewski added, is that students stay on task and he doesn’t deal with as much misbehavior.
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Duklewski was assigned a consulting teacher who observes him every two weeks. After those observations, he has a chance to discuss the lesson and receive feedback, such as on his classroom management approach or his use of tests.
The mentoring and a high level of support from his school have helped him keep a positive attitude, he said. “I feel the freedom to take risks, mess up and experiment because I don’t feel pressure. If I screw up, I screw up. They’ll help me fix it.” On his mid-year evaluation, Duklewski was rated “effective” on a scale that included the ratings “developing,” “effective” and “highly effective.”
Next year, he wants to do a better job using student data to plan lessons that touch on the skills students are lacking—something he rarely had the chance to do this year because of all the other demands of his classroom and the hours spent preparing lessons. He also wants to get better at long-term planning. And he’s learned from his challenging second-period class that it pays to set up better rules and classroom procedures from the beginning of the year.
As spring break approached, a series of snow days and holidays threw Duklewski’s students off track. He increased the number of phone calls home to parents and doubled down on his positive praise. “I think we’ve come to some sort of understanding about how we’re all going to get along in class,” Duklewski said. He was also getting the hang of balancing his schedule, and had cut his work hours down—to less than 12 hours a day. It helped that he was seeing academic growth. On standardized writing assessments, the class average had gone up by about 50 percent in most of his classes. On reading tests, scores were also rising steadily.
“Next year, I expect it to be much, much easier,” Duklewski said. “I’ve already done everything once. I’ll have stuff to fall back on.”
Although he’s starting to plan his summer vacation, including work as a counselor at a summer camp, he still has one final goal for his students as the year winds down. “By the end of the year, they will not talk over other people while they are talking,” Duklewski said with a laugh. “If I teach them nothing else, they will learn that skill.”
This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.