Responses from Sallie Mae award winners

Reflections from first-year teachers: Responses from Sallie Mae award winners

Daugherty, Richard F

For several years, the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) and the Student Loan Marketing Association (“Sallie Mae”) collaborated in honoring award winning first-year teachers. Candidates were nominated by their district superintendents for demonstrating superior instructional skills and exhibiting excellent interaction with students, faculty, and parents. One winner from each state was selected annually by a blue ribbon panel and honored at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., hosted by the United States Department of Education.

As a ten-year member of this panel, I collected anecdotal and survey responses from winning candidates. The data are strikingly similar, and while not scientific, reveal characteristics and attitudes predictive of excellence as a teaching professional. The comments centered on the importance of their university preparation and major challenges in their first-year experience.

Characteristics of Excellent First-Year Teachers

The award winners represented a diversity of backgrounds, preparation programs, and personalities, yielding a wide variety of experiences. However, a majority of the teachers stressed the importance of high expectation for themselves and their students. Many cited examples of children rising to the challenge when confidence was expressed in their potential.

Honorees indicated a desire to reach each individual student-to challenge the “high achiever” while encouraging and nurturing the student who may be struggling. In coping with the dilemma of setting high but realistic expectations, one said she had to deal with the fact that “a teacher can’t change every child’s life completely,” but must continue to strive “to make a difference, one student at a time.”

Several teachers shared how experiences in teaching had made important changes in their own lives. One received a note from a mother who said her husband had been going through difficult times indicating how thankful she was that school had been so enjoyable for her son. For the first time he actually looked forward to going to school.

Another similarity among these teachers was their willingness to commit the time necessary to make a real difference in the lives of students. Several teachers noted that before entering the profession they had no idea of the time required to conduct exemplary teaching. Illustrating this, one teacher commented, “I’m paying rent on my apartment, but I don’t know why!”

In addition to long hours spent preparing for regular classes, teachers extended the scope of their duties to include such activities as tutoring trips to juvenile centers (when their students were detained), attending court sessions to offer support, and providing individualized after-school instruction for gifted students. Many concurred with the following observation, “If you show you care for the kids and go the extra mile, they will do everything for you. If you put the effort in teaching, it’s guaranteed that something good will come out of it.”

In summary, defining characteristics were:

* Genuine concern regarding the welfare of their students

* Commitment to the success of all children

* Enduring enthusiasm

* Consistently encouraging attitude

* Resolve to not be intimidated by challenges

Pre-service Training

Many teachers were fully satisfied with their college preparation programs. They reported a high level of readiness for teaching, crediting teacher education programs that emphasized hands-on experiences in actual school environments. They noted how much more effective it was to experience class situations “live” than “read case studies” or “be lectured on the subject of interactive teaching!” “You can get straight “A’s” in your education courses,” concluded one teacher, “but the true test comes when you enter a real classroom.” Many teachers requested more practical (“nuts and bolts”) instruction regarding the daily operation of the school. They suggested the need for training in areas such as class advising, how to get children on school buses, behavior towards secretaries and custodians, and handling controversial teaching units such as health.

Teachers recommended that university courses provide specific strategies to involve parents in the educational process. Some requested added instruction in dealing with disruptive students, child abuse, sexual harassment, and liability issues. Improved training in management issues such as properly using grade books and other school forms and documents were also recommended.

Several suggested that colleges of teacher education provide placements that offer a greater variety of experiences. Recommendations included assigning student teachers to more than one grade level, subject area, socioeconomic level, and/or school site. As one teacher stated, “I think it would be helpful to go to different levels (elementary, middle, junior high, and high school) so you could see where students are coining from and where they will be going afterward. This might also change your outlook on what grade levels you want to teach.”

Key observations regarding pre-service training:

* Overall, teacher education programs are effective

* “Hands-on” experiences are most valuable

* Increase “practical” course offerings

* Include coursework regarding law-related issues

* Multiple placements in diverse environments are recommended

The First-Year Teaching Experience

The role of the school administrator was cited as crucial for first-year success. Many expressed their appreciation for the sincere support of administrators and veteran teachers, noting that success in the first year is essential lo remain in the profession.

A majority of award winners emphasized the value of mentorship programs aimed at easing the transition from student or intern teacher to professional. As one teacher said, “The greatest challenge was the transition from being a student myself to being a teacher of others.”

Honorees indicated that programs allowing teacher autonomy and creativity were preferable to overly structured, excessively intrusive, or state-mandated “pass-fail” programs. One teacher related her experience, “In our state we have checklists of items we need to do or include in our teaching, and if we don’t do them, we don’t get certified. I found that it really confines a person in how they teach.”

Many teachers had positive comments regarding school-based evaluation processes, especially models that include teacher input and collaboration. As one teacher noted, “I love the flexibility that we have in our evaluations. As teachers, we can choose among five goals we want to accomplish in the coming school year (e.g., increase communication skills, incorporate art, etc). We get evaluated on work we produce during the year, and-the best thing-we discuss the evaluation. I get really good ideas and feedback from these discussions.”

However, honorees reported the tendency of some elementary administrators to assign inequitably high numbers of behaviorally-challenging children to first-year teachers. Others expressed concern with the occasional practice of high school principals assigning new teachers several different subjects to teach, resulting in an unreasonable number of class preparations.

Teacher induction programs were praised, especially those that included in-servicing on educating at-risk youth. Teachers also cited the importance of building administrators taking a personal interest in their success.

Major concerns and suggestions regarding the first-year teaching experience:

* Attention and support from administrators is important and appreciated

* Mentorship programs are extremely successful and should be continued beyond the first year

* Induction programs should offer specific strategies for educating at-risk children

* First-year teaching assignments should be reasonable

* Some state certification programs need improvement

Students with Special Needs

Teachers were asked to identify areas of insufficient educational preparation. Their overwhelming response was that a “greater connection” or “integration” was needed between regular and special education in teacher preparation programs. More coursework and experiences in dealing with students with special needs-specifically mainstreamed special education students-was”desperately needed.”

They suggested integrating regular and special education coursework and field experiences to better reflect today’s post-inclusion classrooms. As one teacher commented, “College prepared me for average and typical students-not for gifted students or students with special needs. We learned all the initials for the learning disabilities, but nothing about how to teach these students and work with them successfully.” Another teacher, who, in a class of 35 students, had 13 identified as learning disabled, expressed the need for training in how to work with special educators in developing specific instructional strategies.

Teachers suggested:

* More integrated coursework and field experiences involving children with physical or behavioral disabilities

* Practical instruction in dealing with special needs children, (e.g., understanding the IEP process and learning discipline strategies for working with children protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)


Questionnaires and interviews required respondents to reflect on their university programs and to assess the level of cooperation by the educational leaders who served as their supervisors during their first year of salaried teaching. Respondents were also asked to comment regarding their major challenges and successes in their first year. Their overwhelmingly positive comments and anecdotes demonstrated an optimistic attitude toward their role as teachers.

Richard F. Daugherty, Ed.D., a former public school principal and superintendent, is currently Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Nevada, Reno.


Department of Educational Leadership University of Nevada, Reno

Copyright Project Innovation Spring 2003

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