By now, at least half of them should be gone. Out of teaching within five years.
The first graduating class of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Institute for Urban Education was up against that national trend.
They should be overwhelmed, starved of support, wrung by bureaucracy or sacrificed in blind budget cuts.
For sure, those seven new teachers who stepped into their first classrooms in August 2009 would encounter plenty of the hazards that researchers say turn too many U.S. schools into teacher-churning drains, especially in high-poverty communities that need strong teachers the most.
Joanna Rieg remembers wilting in the noise of her first-grade room in Dobbs Elementary in Hickman Mills, doubting herself the first semester when classroom management was all on her.
Emily Hohendorf gaped at a packed room of 36 fourth-graders in a trailer classroom in her first days at McKinley Elementary in Kansas City, Kan.
Teonna Veal and Janita Webb didn’t have to wait even 15 minutes to see their naivete blown up.
They walked into their first classrooms at Kansas City’s Garfield Elementary School and were met by a human resources administrator who said there had been a mistake.
They had no jobs. Their positions had been given to teachers from Teach for America.
Webb remembers stumbling out in tears, calling her dad to come get her — clutching the bulletin board posters she had brought with her.
“I’m sure I left things behind,” she said.
More administrative changes cut them from their second Kansas City school after a year, and then in Hickman Mills they were pink-slipped at their third school along with all first-year teachers district-wide because of another budget crisis.
“Not because of anything I’d done,” Veal said.
Yet they’ve made it. All of them.
All seven are still teachers as they approach the end of their fifth year. An eighth class member did not go into teaching.
It’s a small sample. The four graduating classes that have followed them put 55 more teachers into urban schools, and 49 are still in the classroom, said Jennifer Waddell, the associate director of the UMKC institute.
It keeps her hope alive, Waddell said, that “resiliency can be fostered.”
Programs like UMKC’s are attacking what may be education’s “largest unrecognized problem,” said Susan Headden, the senior associate for public policy engagement at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Rapid turnover is taking a terrible toll on urban areas, she said. “Some kids have a brand-spanking-new teacher three years in a row.”
In the 1980s, the most common number of years of experience among teachers was 15. By 2008, more teachers had just one year of experience than any other number.
“That’s stunning,” Headden said. The number has shifted some since then, but only because of recession-driven hiring freezes. More than half of teachers don’t survive five years.
The turnover in high-needs schools feeds an overall gap in the teaching quality afforded advantaged over disadvantaged children, the federal Institute of Education Sciences reported earlier this year.
On average, less-effective teaching costs disadvantaged children the equivalent of up to a month of instruction every year.
Time will tell whether UMKC’s institute succeeds in helping area urban districts build and sustain strong teaching teams.
As the number of graduates grows, the program is committed to researching its results, said Waddell and the institute’s executive director, Ed Underwood.
They want to know not just whether its graduates stay in urban classrooms, but whether their work is boosting student success.
Currently, 25 of its graduates are teaching in the Kansas City, Kan., school district; 22 in UMKC-sponsored Kansas City public charter schools; five in Hickman Mills; and three in the Kansas City Public Schools.
Dobbs Elementary Principal Rick Wadlow in the Hickman Mills School District likes what he has seen from the institute.
This is where Veal and Webb landed after their early career adventures. Veal is teaching the fifth grade, as is another of the institute’s inaugural class, Asha Moore.
“I’m a big supporter,” Wadlow said. The students in their classes are flourishing, and their discipline referrals to his office are almost nonexistent compared with those of most of the teachers in the building.
“They know how to get buy-in,” the principal said. “They know the community. They know how to make family connections.”
UMKC made a heavy investment getting the teachers to this point.
Its institute enrollees were carefully chosen and had to commit to teaching in high-poverty schools to earn the program’s scholarships.
The curriculum was tailored to the higher pressures of urban schools, and the students began spending hours in district classrooms their freshman year, working with mentor teachers — not just one year of student teaching as seniors.
They spent their summers in the institute’s Summer Community Immersion Program, working as interns for community services that help the neighborhoods around the districts’ schools.
“We wanted them to see the city from a strengths-based approach,” Waddell said. “They learn about themselves, and they see themselves as a member of the community, not as a teacher coming in to fix a community that doesn’t work.”
At Dobbs, 85 percent of the school’s 450 children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Some of their families are homeless, Veal said, or the children are being raised by a grandparent. Some of them get their only meals at school.
“A teacher has to also be a coach, doctor, nurse and counselor,” she said, “and some are not able to handle it.”
UMKC also provided its graduates with mentors to help them those first years, and their work played a key role in keeping all seven standing.
“She helped me pull back,” Rieg said, recounting how her mentor helped her through her self-doubt.
Rieg is in North Carolina now, substitute-teaching while she finishes a master’s degree in special education — still committed to serving urban classrooms.
Others in the inaugural class are pursuing master’s degrees while continuing to teach in their schools. Veal, Moore and Webb are all nearing master’s degrees in education administration.
Hohendorf, who continues to teach at McKinley Elementary, is working on a master’s in curriculum and instruction. She wants to deepen her skills because, to her, education is a matter of “civil rights.”
Moore talks the same way about her children at Dobbs. It’s why she bears up against the demands of managing data, the stress of testing and the frustration that her desire to get every one of her children performing at grade level means she has to keep trying and trying.
“The reality is hard to face,” she said.
They remember their students and their families. Some really stick, like a first-grader Rieg called Jameer. He was a boy with autism who burst out of his shell, showed Rieg what was possible in special education and changed her life.
Webb has gone through as much as any of them, passing through two Kansas City district schools; Dobbs; and a charter school. She’s now settled at Whittier Elementary in Kansas City, Kan.
Her enthusiasm never left her, she said.
“I love growing,” she said. “This is where I want to be. This is where I want to stay.”
They’re carrying on, Rieg in North Carolina, Moore and Veal at Dobbs, Hohendorf at McKinley, Webb at Whittier — plus Alexandra Clayton at Quindaro Elementary and Destiny Flournoy at William Allen White Elementary, both in Kansas City, Kan.
Those first graduates had to do well, Underwood said. All eyes were on them.
“If the first class was not successful,” he said, “there might not be an (Institute for Urban Education) today.”
A new education research center at UMKC will help the institute deepen its analysis of its products as more teachers go into the field and student test data grow.
So far, Waddell said, she can say the graduates are performing at or above the level of other teachers in their buildings.
She also knows what she sees when she visits their classrooms.
“You see third-graders having a really good day — really liking to be in class,” she said. “The classroom just feels like a good place to be. It makes the other hard days worth it.”