By Laura Laywell
To have successful students, we need teachers prepared to help them succeed. No story better illustrates this connection than that of Htoo Eh. I met Htoo Eh four years ago through volunteering with an afterschool program in his neighborhood. A political refugee from Burma, Htoo Eh began his U.S. education as a fifth grader and quickly experienced the consequences of having underprepared teachers. Since fifth grade—and Htoo Eh is now in high school―he has had at least one teacher leave mid-year, every year. His story is not unique. In 2013 alone, 20 percent of teachers in Dallas Independent School District left the classroom. Overwhelmingly, teachers cited stress as a key factor in their decision. Consider the impact of this 20 percent on students like Htoo Eh, who feel abandoned without a consistent teacher.
Key Texas leaders are paying attention. Educate Texas convened a Teacher Preparation Collaborative led by former Commissioner of Education Jim Nelson, and the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium published a report in order to advocate for critical changes to the Texas system of preparing new teachers. Policy makers have indicated a willingness to take action.
In middle school, I read with Htoo Eh after school to try and help him maintain a passion for learning. Htoo Eh had liked his reading class in school, but his reading teacher left in the middle of the year. Our time together was always soured by the homework he brought home from substitutes, which was frequently confusing to him since he had not been taught the content. He was angry and frustrated, and began to despise school and the teachers who left him. He had huge gaps in his learning.
Today, many teacher preparation programs require teachers to complete a semester of student teaching before entering the classroom. For others, teaching candidates’ first day in front of a classroom is often their first day as a full-time teacher of record. This minimal classroom experience is a good start, but prospective teachers need more time in classrooms if they are to have a realistic picture of teaching, and understand if teaching is truly what they want to do. The only way for this to happen is for new teachers to spend the majority of their training inside of a classroom for extended amounts of time.
New teachers often walk into a classroom without any experience of the community they will teach in. This has huge ramifications for both the teacher and the students. Htoo Eh’s neighborhood has high poverty and crime rates but also a high population of refugee and immigrant students with its striking mix of different languages and cultures. For Htoo Eh, who dreamed of returning to Burma to fight for his people, the Karen, a gang offered a connection to his pride in his culture. His behavior escalated after he became involved with a gang in high school, and resulted in suspensions, multiple truancy court cases, and failing grades. In one meeting, I sat with Htoo Eh as his assistant principal explained that he needed to come to school. Htoo Eh said that he skipped the class because his teacher had quit. A first year teacher, she started the year off with high expectations. By November, she was telling her students how frustrated she was because of the gaps in their learning. She left the classroom in December. “They quit on me,” he said. “I don’t care anymore.”
If we can prepare new teachers to understand the communities they will be in, we can equip them to respond to students who appear as “bad kids” or “classroom disruptions” with effective and appropriate relationship building strategies, rather than textbook management techniques which may completely clash with a student’s background. Preparing new teachers to be culturally responsive in their classrooms, to anticipate what students face outside of it, will help prevent a teacher from feeling disconnected and frustrated with students. Relationships allow learning to happen. When a relationship is lacking, so is learning.
Htoo Eh dropped out of high school shortly after that particular meeting with the assistant principal. My husband and I continued to meet with him, and encouraged him to go back to class, or to come over and read with us. But he appeared to have lost hope, and his mom cried when she told us she wished she had never brought her family to the United States if she had known school would be this way. After some time, we were able to persuade Htoo Eh to enroll in a career preparation program for students who had similar experiences to him. There is now a particular teacher that he respects and is engaged in his class. Htoo Eh said to me that this teacher, “gets me, Miss. He knows my life. He gets me.”
The relationship between a student and teacher can make or break a student’s education and future. But we must act soon or more students like Htoo Eh will become the victims of a system that doesn’t prepare teachers to succeed.
Laura Laywell is a 3rd grade ESL teacher in Dallas Independent School District and a member of the Teach Plus Texas Teacher Advisory Board.