By Taiesha Fowler
It’s that time of year again. March 15th is the deadline for principals to notify first-year probationary teachers if they will be employed the following school year. For second year probationary teachers, March 15th either marks the end of a very short teaching career or the beginning of eligibility for permanent status. Some teachers hit their stride after a year and a half of teaching, but many teachers do not. Should administrators rely on a new teacher’s potential to become a strong educator, or should they focus on the weaknesses that may never improve if the teacher becomes permanent? With just 18 months in which to decide, administrators are often making this choice way too soon.
A few years ago, I mentored a first year special education teacher called Lara. Because of a severe shortage of special ed teachers, Lara was hired before she completed her certification. That first year, Lara was a resource specialist. She spent her days in other teachers’ classrooms supporting students with special needs enrolled in general education courses. That year, she earned a positive evaluation.
In her second year, Lara’s circumstances changed. She was still working on her credential, but was assigned her own math and science special education class. Each student had an Individualized Education Plan. While trying to meet the instructional needs of her learners, it took a couple months for Lara to find a mentor in her subject area. She had to plan for multiple grade levels and for collaboration with teaching assistants and behavior specialists who supported her students. Sometimes, she stayed at school until after nine to take care of her workload. It was a rough first semester. By the end of January, the principal notified her that she would not be returning the following year.
After years of budget cuts, school districts across California are finding it difficult to fill vacancies in general education. The situation in special education is worse. The current law exacerbates the problem. When teachers are dismissed too early in their careers, students miss out on teachers who want to teach learners with the most acute needs.
Education is haunted by the unrealized promise of new teachers like Lara, who did not have a chance to mature. What Lara lacked in skill, she made up for with a wealth of passion and empathy for her students. She may have needed a lot of support to become an effective teacher in her assignment, but she was the right type of quirky to draw dozens of students to her classroom at lunch for sci-fi club on Mondays and dozens of different students to her fashion club on Wednesdays.
Now, there is new legislation to help fix the problem. The AB 1220, introduced this week by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, extends the minimum probationary period for teachers from two to three years and links permanent status (tenure) to locally-defined benchmarks. Teachers who need more support will no longer face termination after an unsatisfactory first or second year. They will qualify for targeted support and professional development. Teachers like Lara, who have had a shaky year or two, will have a total of five years to implement best practices. These teachers will now have more time to realize their potential.
Education reform will be bolstered by a new generation of teachers who have fully earned tenure. It is time to stop hoping that new teachers will improve and provide the time and guidance they need to become effective educators.
Taiesha Fowler teaches 6th grade English and history at Paul Revere Charter Middle School in Los Angeles. She is a Teach Plus California Teaching Policy Fellow.