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September 1, 2013

CEPEDA: Short-timers may teach us something

When I started my teacher-training program a decade ago, I thought I’d be teaching for the rest of my life. Full of hope that I could make a difference in the lives of my community’s neediest students, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to walk away from such a lofty goal.

Yet, like so many others, I did — after a mere two years in the classroom.

There are many who disdain teachers who “drop out” — and have an even lower opinion of those who enter teaching knowing that it’s only for a short time.

It’s no surprise, then, that education circles are aflame because a recent front-page New York Times story trumpeted the main criticism of charter schools: The teachers don’t last long, sometimes by design.

The article described some graduates of teacher-immersion programs such as Teach for America, which gets ultra-bright college grads into high-poverty schools after a short summer training period, as career climbers. They calculate that a few years in the classroom will be both personally fulfilling and a steppingstone to more financially rewarding opportunities.

This is anathema to those who feel the only good teachers are the ones who see it as a calling worth devoting a professional lifetime to. But that’s shortsighted. Let’s consider that short-term teachers can be as effective as veterans, and maybe even better, in certain situations.

During the opening all-staff assembly at my first teaching job — where I was to instruct very low-income, non-English speaking first-graders — the principal made a point of asking the veteran teachers to be as supportive to the newbies as possible.

“Never forget that the energy and enthusiasm that our new teachers bring to their students more than make up for their relative lack of experience,” he said, giving a nod to the fact that his school had hired the best teachers available for more-challenging-than-usual jobs.

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