Testimony of UFT Vice President for Elementary Schools Director Karen Alford before the New York City Council Committee on Education
Good morning. My name is Karen Alford, and I am the Vice President of Elementary Education for the United Federation of Teachers. On behalf of the UFT and President Michael Mulgrew, I thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today.
Our teachers are the foundation of our public schools. Every child deserves an excellent teacher in a first-rate neighborhood public school.
In a system as vast as New York’s, teacher recruitment is done on a massive scale as thousands of people leave our schools every year. This past school year was no exception. The Department of Education hired more than 6,200 educators, almost the same number as the year before.
As in years past, this group of new pedagogues is incredibly diverse. As we welcome these new educators to our school system, we can do more to make sure they have a successful experience and stay in our schools thus providing a consistent educational experience for students. This is important because where some schools need to fill only one vacancy, other schools may hire 20 or more at a time.
Many who leave are retiring or changing careers after years in the school system. A good number leave for higher-paying jobs in the suburbs. But 10 percent of newly-hired pedagogues leave after one year. During the 2015-16 school year, 5,545 teachers left — 2,916, or 52 percent through resignation and 36 percent through retirement. This pattern is consistent with a longer term trend.
During the past five years, more than 25,000 teachers were hired. In that same period, 25,000 teachers left the system — 12,488, or 49 percent, left through resignation and 10,403, or 40 percent, retired.
In exit interviews, these educators cited a variety of reasons but first and foremost — they found the difficult working conditions and lack of support too overwhelming. Some of this is completely predictable. New hires start calling us on the second day of school, frustrated and upset, and we do see some people quit after a few weeks.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can do better. Today, we want to offer some ideas on what we can do to better recruit and retain educators.
Class Size Reduction
Research has shown the positive effect on student achievement when classes are smaller. For newer teachers who are just learning their craft having large or oversized classes makes it harder to provide individualized attention.
Recruiting New Educators
New York City typically has not had an issue with recruitment. With the exception in certain titles including math and foreign languages, the DOE is usually inundated with applications. We can do much better, however, in helping new teachers during those grueling first years. The recruitment and hiring process must do more than put a teacher in a classroom. It must include building relationships before applications are submitted, creating residency programs for potential hires and offering summer bridge programs once teachers are hired but before they enter a classroom.
Build Relationships with Teachers Before They Step into a Class
We should begin with a process that brings future teachers together with in-service teachers and other education professionals. These opportunities should be part of teacher-training programs across the metro area. Think about the potential: Experienced teachers could speak to college students about our profession and give them a feel for the challenges they will face. Master teachers could help them build their skills beyond textbook knowledge by training them on real-world issues including managing a classroom and implementing differentiated instruction.
What’s more, DOE’s new teachers, those with three years or less, could share the strategies they use as they navigate their first years on the job.
Currently, we are working with Today’s Students Tomorrow Teachers (TSTT), an organization created to increase the number of male students of color who are interested in teaching. The program guides them through high school and college into teaching.
We've also been engaged with the Mayor's NYC Young Men's Initiative (YMI) in which schools find ways to increase the number of Black, Latino, and Asian men on school staffs.
Create a Residency Program
We should begin a residency program for education majors and graduate students. Teacher training programs can’t provide all the skills and knowledge new educators need; much of that can only be learned on the job.
Think about how doctors are trained. With that as a model, education students in college, while taking classes, could also spend two semesters in a classroom another observing an experienced teacher at work.
That intensive on-site learning would provide a wealth of knowledge and hands-on experience that would prove invaluable to their growth and career. It could benefit the teacher in the class as well — another person in the classroom provides even more individual attention for students.
Create a Summer Bridge Program
Schools or districts could create a summer “bridge” program for incoming new teachers. Such a program could last a week or two before classes start and serve as a chance for new educators to work with veterans to prepare for the upcoming school year.
These three supports during the recruitment process can help us keep teachers once they have been hired. But alone, they are not enough.
The first weeks and months of teaching can be completely overwhelming for new educators who often find themselves for the first time managing a large number of students with diverse learning needs. What’s more, they do this mostly alone, isolated in their classrooms, away from other adults with more experience, and they must simultaneously learn the culture of the building.
While many principals work hard to create a smooth transition for their new teachers, other factors get in the way. Class size can quickly become unmanageable. Mentors can be hard to come by or hard to schedule. The curriculum is not always available. Paperwork and compliance issues are complicated, and so it goes, right down to the lack of pencils and paper or finding a legal parking spot near school.
The UFT has always been committed to supporting new teachers. Our work begins with the union’s New Teacher Initiative Committee, which puts together a comprehensive series of events in each borough for new teachers. Thousands attend workshops as well as informational fairs on everything from lesson planning and classroom management to understanding their salaries and benefits.
We have also included workshops on financial wellness and student loan debt payback. If we can help our new teachers manage these aspects of their lives so they have fewer worries external to the classroom, we believe our teachers will have more time to focus on their work.
We take an “all-hands-on-deck” approach. Many at the union are devoted to supporting new teachers. For example, our Teacher Centers and our Member Assistance Program collaborate on a special 10-session institute for new teachers. We teach them how to engage students, team teaching strategies, class management techniques, how to handle paperwork, and how to manage their time.
Teacher Centers also help them when it comes to their CTLE, or Continuing Teacher and Leader Education, requirements. Our school-based Teacher Centers provides a comprehensive extended learning package.
To supplement that, our Certification Department offers a series of stand-alone workshops on navigating professional responsibilities and regulations.
We also work with new teachers on developing their own style and voice as well as how to be flexible, which every teacher will tell you is the key to survival. Which teacher among us has followed a lesson plan exactly? Students throw curve balls at us all the time and we have to know how to hit it out of the park!
For all we do as a union, we cannot do this work alone. We have several recommendations which, properly implemented, could make the difference for the enthusiastic, hard-working teachers who are overwhelmed and want to call it quits.
Create a Centralized Induction Program
As I mentioned, most teachers work alone in classrooms for much of the day and alone again at night as they plan lessons and grade student work.
Implemented correctly, a centralized induction program would build on the residency and bridge programs that would be part of recruitment. It could help combat that isolation by surrounding new teachers with supports including orientations, comprehensive training and regular meetings with other new teachers as well as veteran teachers. This comprehensive approach should continue through a teacher’s first few years.
A centralized induction program could also provide school administrators with a framework to use with new educators in their buildings. While many schools have put together supports and training for new teachers, others don’t do much more than hand teachers the keys to their classroom. It’s time we support administrators and schools by providing them with a comprehensive core program. We believe the result could be a smoother on-boarding process for new teachers, which translates to a smoother school year for students.
Reduced Teaching Load
Another idea is to allow new teachers to begin their first year with a reduced teaching schedule. Additional time outside the classroom would allow new teachers time to observe experienced teachers in their classroom and meet with mentors and colleagues.
Other industries already follow a similar model. New lawyers, new doctors and rookie ball players are all given a transition period to help them adjust to a new environment and new responsibilities.
Studies have shown that mentoring has a significant positive effect on new teachers, and we believe this is a critical component in retention of new teachers.
We used to have a central mentoring office, complete with teams of master teachers in each district whose sole job was to work with new teachers in their schools. Unfortunately, that office was a victim of the many cutbacks made by the Bloomberg administration.
Obviously, we think that was a big mistake and said so at the time. We think it’s time to bring back a comprehensive mentoring program including weekly meetings between new teachers and mentors. Mentors should have at least five years of classroom experience. We believe we have a ready-made pool because of our master and model teacher initiatives, professionals who have successfully demonstrated a mastery of instructional strategies, conflict resolution, behavior management and parental engagement.
Schools that have site-based Teacher Centers have a built-in support for new teachers. The Teacher Center staff provides in-class support through demonstration lessons and team teaching. Additionally, one-on-one coaching helps teachers develop their instructional practice and pedagogical skills.
Emotional support is also critical. One of the best ways to combat job stress is to create support groups among colleagues where they can talk about their struggles as well as their successes and collaborate with others in seeking solutions. It’s always best when you know you’re not alone. Sharing your woes is one way to share the burden and perhaps solve the problem.
Language Allocation Policy (LAP)
Before I close, I want to touch on a specific problem: recruiting and retaining those who teach English Language Learners.
By law, every school must develop its own Comprehensive Education Plan (CEP), which details a school’s plan in implementing instructional strategies.
Part of every school’s CEP is its Language Allocation Policy (LAP). The LAP describes the specifics around intake, language development program options, and academic achievement for ELL students including both data and narrative accounts.
When we talk about recruiting and retaining teachers for English Language Learners — a huge need in our schools today as you all know — a school’s LAP should provide critical information as the blueprint for the day-to-day work.
Unfortunately, many schools gloss over the need for a LAP, sometimes just cutting and pasting a few sentences from the DOE’s website rather than thoughtfully designing an ELL program specifically for their building.
Another problem with our approach in providing resources to teachers of English Language Learners is even more basic. It’s not clear to us how and where the DOE spends its ELL dollars. When ELL teachers are left without a roadmap, resources and support, they are much more likely to leave.
Nationally, reports of teacher shortages around the nation are cropping up. In New York City, we’ve been lucky to avoid this so far, but we can’t keep churning new teachers at the rate we do. It’s a waste of money in bringing them on board — hiring and training isn’t free — and it’s tumultuous for a school to have constant turnover.
Schools operate well when they have a stable workforce within a calm, supportive, nurturing building. And that means schools — the staff — can spend more time focusing on their children. We all believe that is the goal of all of our work and efforts: to help our students learn, grow and become engaged citizens in our communities.