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February 15, 2019

New teachers: ‘A little help here?’


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Raphael Bonhomme thought he was well prepared when he started teaching. He had a masters in education from Howard University as well as classroom training, plus he’d clocked plenty of time with students, coordinating an after-school arts program and working as a paraprofessional.

But teaching his own class? It all felt brand new.

There he stood, in front of 24 third-graders in a Washington, D.C. elementary school. Alone. Wondering if the bulletin boards he’d decorated before class were bright enough. If his welcome speech was warm enough. If he’d established class rules early enough, if his seating arrangement would work, if the kids would like the first lesson, if they’d understand it, if it met grade-level requirements.

There was no one to ask for help.

Every other educator on the third-grade team was a first-year teacher. His principal wasn’t much help, appearing at the classroom doorway as the year went on, but only to observe and never to offer advice or a helping hand.

“If I had had somebody in my own school to guide me my first two years, I know for a fact I’d be a better teacher today.”

“I went through a lot of struggle as a first-year teacher,” says Bonhomme. Unlike more than half of new teachers, he stuck it out and now is in his fourth year teaching, coaching chess and leading arts-integration programming at another Washington, D.C. school. Things worked out well in the end — but they could have been better.

“I think I’m a decent teacher,” he says. “But if I had had somebody in my own school to guide me my first two years, I know for a fact I’d be a better teacher today.”

Bonhomme wants to be sure the new teachers who come after him have better resources on hand to help. His own union has been a big support, and through the union he attended a recent convening to collaborate with other new-teacher AFT members, researchers and AFT leaders. They brainstormed best practices for schools as well as unions to support people who are new to the profession.

Mentors are a big ask.

“You come out of college thinking, ‘I can do this,’ but it would be better to come out under someone else’s umbrella.” Many times, Bonhomme says, “I felt isolated on my island within my school, let alone the district. Over time, I met and reached out to other teachers at other schools to gain the knowledge and guidance I was missing. It was always an extra step to get information that was applicable for my classroom and circumstances.”

“If you have bad scores two years in a row, you’re out. You’re still a baby trying to crawl and they want you to do a 40-yard dash.”

Bonhomme recounts some of the obstacles he faced: student behavior, including violent class disruptions; lack of connection with parents and families; and the bureaucracy of enrolling students in the special education classes they desperately need. These don’t even touch on curricular challenges and the everyday work every teacher has do to engage individual students in meaningful learning.

After his first year, Bonhomme missed an “effective” rating by three points — thereby losing a pay raise — and realized just how steep the learning curve was, and how little wiggle room he had for mistakes. “It doesn’t matter if you are a new teacher,” he says. “If you have bad scores two years in a row, you’re out. You’re still a baby trying to crawl, and they want you to do a 40-yard dash.”

Even as Bonhomme told his students that it’s OK to make mistakes as long as you learn from them, his own supervisors held him to an impossible standard.

“A lot of times, administrators and higher ups within the school district like you when you do something well, but when you’re struggling and you need some type of assistance, there’s no empathy,” he says.

Bonhomme turned to every professional development opportunity he could find. The district offered content courses, but Bonhomme reached beyond that to the professional development organized by his union — the Washington Teachers’ Union. There, he found the courses relatable and relevant to the city’s demographics. He says the union puts a lot of thought into what works and what doesn’t, especially in underserved schools like his. He found the Algebra Project especially useful: Designed by Bob Moses, a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member, it combines cultural relevancy with mandated curricula, fusing the two into a useful approach that really works. There are also courses that cover everything from reading instruction to classroom management and instructional strategies — all taught by union members who are teachers.

Bonhomme also has met veteran teachers who can advise him moving forward. And he’s committed to learning the Algebra Project so that he can become an instructor himself. He wants to become the mentor he needed when he started out.

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This blog post is re-published with permission from AFT Voices. Read the original post. To learn more about AFT's Schoolhouse Voices from PreK-12 public educators, visit: Follow on Twitter @rweingarten or on Facebook

American Federation of Teachers

The American Federation of Teachers was formed by teachers more than 100 years ago and is now a 1.7 million-member union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and o

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