By Aja Currey│Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018
I clearly remember feeling nervous and excited my first day as a student teacher. It was the end of my teacher prep program and I knew I had just one semester to figure out how to do the job of teaching.
Still, I didn’t know if I was prepared enough to be the teacher I knew I wanted to be.
Eight years later, I know the reality is that I’ve spent this entire time preparing. Each year, I seek to become better for the next. I now know I was not truly prepared for the classroom at the end of my preparation program - and that I’m not alone in that feeling.
My first year, similarly to that of the many other teachers I know, was a sink-or-swim experience.
As a special education teacher, I realized quickly that the extra time I spent learning about different disabilities in my program didn’t touch on the reality I would face in my classroom. I wasn’t prepared to work with my nonverbal students with autism, or to manage the more severe behavioral problems such as when my students would kick and punch.
I’m lucky I had an excellent mentor who taught me to manage students in a variety of different ways. I also had support from a good school director and seasoned teachers. Other new teachers are not so lucky.
If we want our students to continue to grow and make progress every year - academically, socially, and emotionally - we need teachers who are ready for the challenge. We lose many teachers before they ever get the opportunity to feel comfortable in the classroom because they are unprepared.
This is a national problem: Forty to 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years, including includes the 9.5 percent that leave before their first year is over. It took me until my sixth year to feel truly ready, but almost half of new teachers don’t wait that long.
I see a number of things we can do to prepare new teachers to be ready on day one.
One priority should be to update our teacher training programs with expanded classroom time. Programs must provide new teachers with hands-on experience to best meet the needs of today’s students. This first-hand experience must include expanded student teaching time, more guided time with classroom management in a real classroom, and supervised lesson planning/delivery early in the program.
We must also understand which teacher preparation programs are doing well - and which aren’t.
Soon, the Public Education Department will release the first ever Educator Preparation Program report cards for New Mexico. The goal is to maintain and monitor standards for our universities.
The report cards aim to provide New Mexico’s teacher preparation programs the opportunity to grow and improve in order to best meet the needs of up-and-coming teachers. This would have helped me and my students tremendously when I entered the profession nearly a decade ago.
We need far more collaboration between all the moving parts that train and create our teachers.
Our universities, local school districts, and state education department should continue to work together. Universities and local school districts need to create model learning schools or classrooms together, with the support of great teachers. And our state education department should partner with professors at universities to create learning experiences for college students that are relevant to what today's students need.
I hope to see more excited student teachers ready to make a difference in our classrooms as soon as they graduate. New Mexico’s students and teachers deserve it.
Aja Currey - Special Education Teacher in West Las Vegas, NM
Aja Currey is the head special education teacher for 1st thru 8th grades at Rio Gallinas Charter School for Ecology and the Arts in West Las Vegas Schools. She is a Teach Plus New Mexico Teaching Policy Fellow.