“Are you sure you want to do this job? You’ll be perpetually stuck in puberty.”
Those were the first words I heard from a colleague on my first day as a middle school special education teacher. She was only half joking and, five years later, I realize the truism of her question all too well: Pubescent pre-teens are moody, petulant beings. This job definitely isn’t for the faint of heart.
Despite the challenges of the job, I’ve come to love my work and especially enjoy working with new teachers in the profession. Over the last five years, I’ve supervised two teaching credential candidates and mentored two first-year teachers at my school site. I’ve experienced, observed and advised others on the trials and tribulations of early career teachers. As I approach my sixth year in the classroom, I finally feel like I have a basic grasp on the fundamentals of classroom management and effective pedagogy.
Under the current California system, teachers must prove professional competency within two consecutive school years to earn permanent status, known as tenure. On March 15 each year, school site administrators face a binary decision regarding their new teachers: Either grant the educator tenure or dismiss them.
New special education teachers, after just 18 months on the job, are required to prove aptitude in classroom management; standards-based, data-driven pedagogy and Individualized Education Program (IEP) compliance. Given the often contentious nature of IEPs (and most 7th-grade classrooms for that matter), early career educators struggle to manage, let alone master, the diverse skill set of the job within this incredibly short period of time. And if the supervising administrator, school site or class load changes between a preliminary teacher’s first and second year, the task of proving competency becomes that much more difficult. This not only places the administrator in a tough position, it also creates tremendous pressure on the new teacher to prove competency in a short period of time.
But there are now efforts in the state Legislature to change the time for tenure from two years to three years. This would provide teachers the time and space they need to master these complex skills. For example, at my Title I middle school in Los Angeles, our special education department has experienced significant teacher turnover during my first five years on the job. This isn’t surprising: low-income schools and hard-to-staff subject areas like math, science and special education have disproportionately high turnover rates. This results in a much higher number of new teachers. Given the difficult nature of teaching at-risk students, rookie teachers in Title 1 schools require additional skills that cannot be mastered within 18 months. By extending the time to achieve tenure, we allow teachers serving our most needy students ample time to grow and develop professionally.
Those on the front lines have long known the solution to this problem — an independent statewide survey of 506 teachers in traditional California schools found that 85 percent of teachers think that tenure decisions should be made after at least three years of classroom instruction. In 42 states, permanent status is earned between three and five years. In California, permanent status is earned after just 18 months.
When we teach our students, we understand that skills mastery comes after years of methodical practice. We pre-teach the topic, provide ample opportunities for guided practice and assess as needed. Yet ironically we expect teachers, especially those in the most challenging situations, to demonstrate skills mastery in less than two years. A longer tenure timeline would respect this learning curve by providing educators the time and support they need to earn the professional distinction of tenure.
Josh Brown teaches 6th, 7th and 8th grade special education at Holmes Middle School in Northridge, where he also serves as the department chair and advisor to student teachers in local credentialing programs. He is a Teach Plus California Teaching Policy Fellowship alumnus.
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