When Judith Harper was graduating from Arizona State University in May 1981, she felt fully prepared to take on five classrooms on her own that fall. After all, Harper had majored in English education, and the program was highly regarded. Plus, during her senior year, she had gotten to work in a real classroom, as an apprentice to a veteran educator.
But a few months later, as Harper finished her first week of work at Westwood High School in Mesa, Arizona—a diverse, sprawling suburb near Phoenix—she realized how much she struggled even with the basics, such as keeping 22 teens paying attention to her lesson for 15 minutes, much less an entire hour. “On the first day, I had a student who refused to work, a student who was interrupting the work of his friends, several students using inappropriate language with each other and me,” Harper recalled. “As a novice teacher, you have no idea what you should be responding to and what you can ignore. Every day I felt like a failure.”
By the time she finished her first year of teaching, Harper, who has a thin, small frame to begin with, had lost 20 pounds. She routinely worked 12-hour days and spent her weekends preparing for the classes ahead.
Like many graduates of teaching programs, Harper had strong content knowledge of the subject she was going to teach, but she lacked the skills and practical experience that would enable her to effectively impart this information to her students. When she worked with a veteran teacher in college, her mentor gave her high-quality curricula and tests and quizzes she could use, but Harper struggled to translate these materials into learning activities that would sustain her students’ engagement. In every class, some students were fine, but some were always struggling. Harper didn’t know how to break down the material in a way that made sense to everyone.