The exhausting life of a first-year teacher
April 14, 2016
by: Jacky Mader
This is the second 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.
WASHINGTON — By October of his first year teaching, the reality of Amit Reddy’s new job was clear: He would not be getting much sleep, and any he did get would be interrupted by bad dreams and anxiety about his classroom.
“The whole night you’re thinking about the game,” Reddy said. “I’ve not had a good sleep since I started this job.”
Reddy is an eighth-grade science teacher at Alice Deal Middle School, which serves more than 1,300 students in grades six through eight in a stately building in the northwestern D.C. neighborhood of Tenleytown. Thirty-one percent of the students are black and 45 percent are white. Almost 20 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
At 37, Reddy has an undergraduate degree in engineering and master’s degrees in literary nonfiction and public policy. He’s worked in advertising and studied in Australia and America. In 2014, he published a book about his 2006 journey around his home country of India on a motorcycle.
But none of those experiences truly prepared Reddy for the “exhaustion” of teaching, a job that keeps him busy for 16 to 17 hours “on a good day.”
Last summer, Reddy joined the nonprofit The New Teacher Project’s (TNTP) Teaching Fellows program, an alternative, faster route to the classroom after an eight-week summer program. All fellows then receive year-long coaching during their first year and complete online classes to earn their teaching license. They have the option to earn a master’s degree in education.
TNTP, which launched in D.C. in 2001, has trained nearly 1,400 teachers in the district so far. Ann Wenzel, site director for TNTP’s D.C. program, said merely completing the program does not guarantee a teaching license. TNTP evaluates each teacher several times a year, collects district evaluations and looks over each fellow’s coursework to see how they are doing. The program only recommends a teacher for licensure if they have satisfactory results on those measures. For some teachers, Wenzel said, it may take two years of the program to reach that point.
Unlike some other alternative programs, TNTP does not have a required number of years a fellow must teach. “Our hope is that we’re bringing in teachers who are really career educators,” Wenzel said.
Reddy is one of three teachers The Hechinger Report followed over the course of their first year to look at how training programs prepare teachers for the classroom — or not. The number of alternative routes like the Teaching Fellows is increasing rapidly, spurred by concerns about the quality of America’s teachers and schools of education. As of 2010, the last year federal, nationwide data is available, alternative routes represented a third of all teacher training programs nationwide.
Alternative programs are often faster than traditional teacher prep programs and are driven by the idea that new teachers are more effective if they learn mostly by doing.
“It was basically ‘jump in the deep end,’ ” Reddy said. “Every day is like, ‘figure it out.’ ”
That’s also a criticism of fast-track programs. Some experts worry that teachers who don’t have enough training won’t have the expertise needed to succeed, and may burn out quickly from the high demands of the job. Teacher retention rates vary by program. (Out of TNTP’s 2013 D.C. cohort, 90 percent of the teachers are still working, either in a charter or district school, according to program officials; nationwide, research is mixed and shows that anywhere from 76 percent to 88 percent of new teachers are still teaching after two years.)
Others see benefits to alternative programs. They tend to draw more career changers and noneducation majors like Reddy, and experts hope that such programs, especially those that aim to fill shortages in areas like math and science, can draw more content experts to teaching and improve academic outcomes for students.
Reddy is an anomaly among K-12 science teachers in that he has a degree in science. A 2014 report found that only 26 percent of middle school science teachers hold a degree in science or engineering.
The science background helps him in the classroom, Reddy said, not only with content but in building relationships with students. “Kids will throw out the most random questions at you. ‘What if the earth started spinning in reverse?’ ” Reddy said. “It’s fun that I can answer.”
Wenzel said the TNTP program tends to attract people who do have backgrounds in specific content, although the organization doesn’t necessarily seek out aspiring teachers with specific degrees. “That’s a hugely important part of being a good teacher,” Wenzel said.
Reddy’s comfort with science has given him confidence during the year. On a cold September morning, the eighth-graders in his first-period class were silently writing answers to a warmup question written on the board: “Describe how particles move in a solid and how will this movement change if the substance is heated.”
Reddy was walking around the classroom quickly, dressed in a blue and red plaid blazer and navy blue dress pants. Although he had yet to complete his first month of teaching, Reddy had clearly already established rules for the class. If students dared to talk to their neighbors, they spoke in a whisper.
“If you’re done, please take down the [lesson] objective. You have 30 seconds,” Reddy said in a no-nonsense tone.
He stopped to answer a question for one student, checked his watch and told students to put their pencils down. Students dropped their pencils and raised their hands to share answers.
“How do particles move in a solid?” Reddy asked.
“They’re moving very slowly. Kind of touching,” one student answered.
“They vibrate, they’re closer together. They’re very compact,” offered another.
“Yes, they’re moving slowly. Think of them as lazy atoms,” Reddy said. “They don’t have as much energy to move away from each other.”
He pointed to the second part of the question, displayed on the electronic whiteboard in the front of his classroom.
“What happens when they heat?”
“The particles move faster,” a student answered.
“Great. They’re taking energy and therefore they move faster.”
Reddy offered another example. “Think of you guys before lunch. You’re drained. You only have a little energy left. Then you eat lunch and get energy and you run around on the field and you come [back] and you drive all your teachers nuts.”
A few students laughed.
But the truth is, one of his energetic post-lunch classes isn’t really that funny to Reddy. The students are chattier than in his other classes, and although he says he could make changes, becoming “a little more regimented” or more “like a drill sergeant,” that’s not his style.
His engineering background has helped him transition into a science classroom: “I know of teachers who have never done a day of science, who have just been put into that position,” Reddy said. “It’s twice as hard. They not only have to learn [science], but they have to do lesson planning. They’re doing double the work.”
Teaching content to all students and dealing with unruly students, however — especially in that after-lunch class — has been tough. And balancing it all with a personal life has been nearly impossible.
On an overcast November afternoon in Reddy’s rambunctious afternoon class, 15 students were gearing up for an experiment to learn about mass, volume and density.
One student complained that his hands were dirty.
“There’s soap. And a sink,” Reddy said, pointing to the back of the room.
In the front of the room, several students chatted with each other. Reddy clapped three times, trying to get the students’ attention. About half the students clapped back. Reddy shushed them, and the room finally got quiet.
Reddy passed back graded homework assignments as students completed a warmup on the board. About 12 minutes into the class, Reddy stepped up to the front of the room.
“Most of us at this point know what mass and weight is. We know volume, but rarely in our day-to-day lives do we talk about volume,” Reddy said. “We never talk in terms of density. What we’re going to do today is learn how to find the density of an object based on mass and volume.”
Students copied down a few notes from the board about density as Reddy prepared an experiment on one side of the room. “I have two very simple demonstrations,” Reddy said, motioning for the students to come over to his lab station. The kids eagerly crowded around.
“What happens when I put an egg in water?” Reddy asked.
“It sinks!” several students responded.
Reddy then added salt to a beaker of water. He dropped the egg in the beaker. It stayed afloat near the top of the water.
“Why did adding salt to this water make it denser?” Reddy asked. The students pondered this for a minute.
“In the Dead Sea in the Middle East, it’s difficult to drown,” Reddy explained. “Because it has the highest amount of salt. The density is so high, you naturally float. It’s a great place to go swim in, even if you don’t swim.”
The students nodded. Reddy held out a long, skinny, graduated cylinder and explained that students would be pouring several liquids into it to see which ones are higher density liquids.
“If a liquid is dense, will it go to the bottom or stay at the top?” Reddy asked.
“The bottom,” a kid said.
Reddy carefully handed the student the cylinder and a paper cup with red-dyed corn syrup inside. As the student carefully poured it into the cylinder, the students were fascinated.
“You can do it!” one of them said.
“The force is with you!” called another
Reddy handed another student a cup with blue dish soap in it. The student carefully poured the liquid on top of the syrup. It started to sink into the syrup before floating back up to rest on top.
Another student stepped up and picked up a bottle of rubbing alcohol.
“The last person who did this messed up the whole experiment and the whole class hated them,” Reddy said with a sly smile. “No pressure.”
The student carefully poured the alcohol on top of the dish soap. After he finished, a few kids clapped.
Although Reddy’s tough afternoon class can be engaged and interested in certain lessons, their “chattiness” has had an impact. Halfway through the year, their class average was six percent below his other classes’ averages.
When Reddy received his first teaching evaluation from his school in the fall, he was rated highly on everything except “pushing higher-order thinking.” Reddy realized he had been planning his lessons at a lower level to make sure most students could understand the concepts. “The median was the aim,” Reddy said. “But I was losing a lot of the kids who did want to get pushed.”
Experts say that although it’s beneficial to have teachers with strong content knowledge, it can be challenging for those teachers to relay that content to children. Mistilina Sato, an associate professor of teacher development and science education at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said this is especially true for science teachers, who have to manage a classroom, maintain materials for experiments and explain challenging content.
“We have to do a lot of un-teaching about science with science [teacher] candidates,” Sato said. “If you haven’t had an experience doing real science research, you view science as something that’s driven by a recipe. You do your lab experiment, and you do it step by step, and you write it up and you get a grade.”
In science classrooms, Sato added, teachers need to think about science as an open process in which kids can explore different ideas and ask a lot of questions. That means science teachers can’t just have content knowledge, they also need to know a lot about how to teach a lesson without telling kids all the information — allowing them to learn through inquiry and experimentation.
After receiving his first evaluation, Reddy began to work with his TNTP coach to make sure he wasn’t doing all the thinking for students during a lesson. They started to plan different tasks for different students to meet individual needs, and Reddy tried different strategies, like pulling a few kids aside at a time to work closely with them. His coach looked over his lesson plans and suggested changes to his questions and observed him teaching those lessons so she could jump in at any point to give him advice.
Reddy also drew on the help of his fellow science teachers. Unlike teachers in smaller schools where there may be only one teacher per subject, making collaboration difficult, Reddy was working closely with four other science teachers at his school. They shared their lessons, experiments, PowerPoints and exams with Reddy each week so he could simply make a few changes for his class and didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.
“They’ve already planned these lessons, so I can concentrate on how I’m going to roll it out,” Reddy said. “If I had to do all this and I had to do lesson planning …” he trailed off. “There’s no way. I’d be drowning.”
He wasn’t drowning, but it still wasn’t easy. November is when many first-year teachers start feeling burned out from the unrelenting schedule. Reddy was no different. He hadn’t realized that all the grades in his grade book would be permanent in early November, and he had to double down to check them and catch up while juggling all the other parts of the teaching workload.
“I was overworking myself,” he said. “I was angry and stressed out and getting angry with [students]. …They feed off my emotions so they were being moody. It was painful.”
When the new grading period began, he stayed on top of his grading, but discovered a more devastating weakness: His special education students were struggling. “I’ve neglected them,” he said. “I felt like I hadn’t done enough work with them.”
During his fast-paced preparation program the summer before, Reddy hadn’t learned much about special education.
Ann Wenzel at TNTP said that everyone gets a basic introduction to special education during the eight-week summer training and some aspects of special education are woven into coursework during the year. But “it’s something that we probably could do a better job on,” she said. “When we’re training our new teachers, we want them to be great at everything,” she added. “But with only a limited amount of time, we’re not able to teach them everything.”
Nationwide, teacher training programs have long been under fire for having weak special education training — it’s often an afterthought in teacher preparation, whether traditional or alternative, according to Sato.
Yet alternative programs face a particular irony. Although, they actually produce more teachers for high-needs areas like special education than traditional programs do, and tend to attract more diverse teachers, their often-truncated training schedules mean they don’t always have the time to cover critical topics in depth.
Reddy said more training in special education would have been helpful. “It would have helped me think of ways to teach them,” Reddy said. Even having an experienced special education teacher who could drop by occasionally to show him ways to work with students with disabilities or modify questions on assignments and tests “would be a world of difference,” Reddy said.
About four years ago, TNTP changed its approach to training after realizing that its teachers were not getting better results than the average new teacher, according to Wenzel. The program scaled down the information it was frontloading. “We [had] this hypothesis that new teachers need to master just a few really foundational skills … and once they had mastered those foundational skills they [would be] able to grow from there.”
The caveat to this approach, Wenzel added, is that teachers who never master those basics, like classroom management and building relationships with students, will “never be able to grow as teachers.”
In February, Reddy received another evaluation. His rating on “higher-order thinking” had jumped up to a 4 out of 4. But he was still struggling with students who couldn’t grasp the content.
One afternoon in Reddy’s fourth-period class, students were grappling with the structure of atoms and matter. Reddy pointed to an equation on the board, which required students to add three different elements together to determine what product they would create.
A handful of students completed the equation effortlessly. But most looked around at their peers for help or raised their hands to ask questions. Reddy decided to go over the problem as a group.
“What is the symbol for carbon?” Reddy asked.
“C” a student answered.
“How many are you seeing?”
“Four? No, it’s one. The H is four,” Reddy responded.
“Where’s carbon?” one student called out.
“Carbon is a C,” responded another.
Reddy instructed the students to continue with the problem as he walked around to check answers. Several students turned to each other for help while others gave up. A few tried their best to complete the problem on their own.
“Where did the C come from?” asked one exasperated student to no one in particular.
“Why did the diagram have four hydrogen?” asked another.
Reddy made his way back to the front of the classroom. “OK that’s enough time for this, I have way more to do.”
Reddy walked the kids through the problem and then moved on to the next part, which involved handing out Styrofoam balls, or “atoms,” connected by toothpicks, so students could work in small groups to visualize combining different elements. As they worked, Reddy stopped to listen to the conversations, answer questions and check groups’ answers.
“I think I went into this thinking ‘oh, it’s so simple.’ But they struggled with it,” Reddy acknowledged after class. “When I say something once or twice, my general expectation is that you’ve got it … but it’s not like that. You have to learn how to simplify these things,” Reddy said. “I might have to go back to some periods with this particular lesson.”
Being able to explain content, assess student understanding and determine how to reteach lessons are the skills Reddy knows he’ll continue to work on if he stays with teaching. Right now, he said he enjoys it, even though it has its “ups and downs.” But he’d also like to go back to his native India and visit his parents for a year or so.
And he’s not completely sold on America’s education system and the lifestyle of American teachers. The job consumes his life. He’s barely been able to cook or read since he started teaching.
Reddy wakes up at 5:30 every morning and is at school by 7 a.m. He begins teaching at 8:45. He eats lunch in his classroom, where usually a half-dozen students will attempt to join him, either to eat lunch with their friends and talk to Reddy, or to finish an assignment or test. He usually stays late to tutor students after school and doesn’t leave until around 5 p.m. After dinner and some more work, he tries to get in bed by 8:30 or 9:00 to get enough sleep for the next day.
“I don’t understand this job, where it’s so exhausting. It seems like the entire onus, the whole responsibility, seems to be on the teacher,” Reddy said. “There’s obviously something that’s not right in terms of how much mental pressure there is.”
As spring approached, Reddy was tired and had identified some “serious flaws” in America’s K-12 education system. His tough afternoon class was doing worse. He was constantly dealing with behavior issues, which meant he didn’t get through as much content with them as with his other classes. As a result, the afternoon class’s grades were still slipping. “They’re still a very difficult class to deal with,” Reddy said.
But he had made a little progress with his work-life balance. He had managed to cut down his afternoon and weekend work hours and had forged strong relationships with his students, evident in the quips he often dropped into lessons and his light-hearted conversations with them between classes and during lunch. His bad dreams and anxiety at night had gotten better, and he felt like he was “in a better place now.”
When asked how he thinks he’s changed as a teacher, Reddy looked at one of his students, 13-year-old Ella, who was spending lunchtime eating with her friends in his classroom.
“How have I changed as a teacher?” he asked Ella.
“He’s a really good teacher.” Ella immediately responded. But, she added, “He’s learned over time he shouldn’t answer questions that are off topic anymore,” she said. “I think the change isn’t an extreme. I think he has definitely improved, but he was really good to start with.”