Teaching New Teachers

SFPS program chips away at the teacher shortage with accelerated training for hard-to-fill spots

Seated at one of the child-sized desks in her bilingual second grade classroom, Araceli Enriquez-Trinidad talks about how she always wanted to be a teacher. She even returned to college after earning her bachelor’s degree in Spanish and psychology to get a teaching license but sputtered out of the program. She quit—not quit wanting to be a teacher, but quit taking classes. She was working two jobs on top of them, discouraged and struggling financially. It was all just too much.

But when she read about the newly formed Santa Fe Public Schools Classroom Fellows Program, she decided to apply and found herself participating in its pilot year.

The grant-funded program takes aim at a chronic shortage of teachers with a fast-track approach to filling vacant positions.

Eight weeks of training over the summer sets new teachers on course to start in public schools in August. They're provided a $4,000 stipend; their tuition, books and fees are paid for; and they continue coursework through Santa Fe Community College and workshops at the Academy for the Love of Learning on evenings and weekends throughout the year to complete an alternative teaching license.

Enriquez-Trinidad's words to describe that first year include "tough," "challenging" and "intense." But the program—which also provided her with a mentor, a coordinator to track her progress, and a cohort of nine other aspiring teachers going through the same struggles—worked.

"If it wasn't for the fellows [program], I wouldn't be here," says Enriquez-Trinidad. "I don't think so. Because I tried on my own, but…I didn't have the support that I had this time with the fellows program, not only financially but also the moral support. Just knowing that I wasn't alone and I was with others, it just made a really huge impact."

She's gone from standing at the front of a borrowed classroom as a substitute teacher, nervous about her knowledge of everything from the curriculum to classroom management and relationship building, to a comfortable seat in her own thoroughly decorated classroom at Nina Otero Community School, crafting lesson plans with her fellow second grade teacher and excited to implement a new method for teaching writing. She's heard from her principal that her students last year scored well on their tests.

As a bilingual elementary school teacher working at a school where more than 60 percent of students are enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program because of low family incomes, Enriquez-Trinidad occupies a particularly tough-to-staff position.

"I feel like everyone, all the teachers, they should have the support that I was getting. They should have the moral support, the financial support, because it's a very demanding job, and with school and trying to teach, it's not easy. It's not an easy task to do," she says. "Everyone deserves this opportunity."

Gabriella Torres, who was also in the first class of fellows, echoes much of what Enriquez-Trinidad has to say: She'd always wanted to be a teacher, and without the fellowship, she wouldn't be here—spending a Thursday morning making birdfeeders in a summer school special education life-skills class. She came to Santa Fe from Los Angeles to take a job in a school front office, and then she moved from there to work as an educational assistant before enrolling as a fellow.

"The district needs a program like this, because there are a lot of great teachers who are assistants and don't have a means to pay for licensure," Torres says. She works now as special education teacher at Nina Otero, and she talks about loving her job and loving the kids.

If there's been a tough component, it's been in the administrative tasks required in the job and learning how to manage the social and emotional responsibilities of being the heart of a classroom.

The nature of the pilot program required prospective teachers to set out on their course without knowing exactly what the destination would be.

"There was not a clear ending," Torres says. "We had to roll with the punches." Yet, these fellows are committed to Santa Fe, which is just what Santa Fe Public Schools is hoping to hear.

SFPS historically begins the school year with vacancies for teachers.

"There's a chronic teacher shortage in New Mexico, to the point where when I got here, on average 45 classrooms, prior to 2012, were missing a teacher on the first day of school, which means students were encountering substitute teachers on their first day of school," Superintendent Joel Boyd tells SFR. "It's just not an optimal experience."

Forty-five is a number he might have seen when he worked in Miami, a district with 35,000 kids. With Santa Fe's roughly 14,000, it's huge. For the 2009-2010 school year, the district was short 72 teachers on the first day. For 2013-2014, it was 17, 10 of which were in special education, though the district also has difficulties filling positions for bilingual and secondary math and science teachers.

Work on accountability and principal support brought that number down to the lowest in the history of the school district, he says. With the classroom fellows in place last fall, they had just six vacancies on the first day of school.

"What we see here is a phenomenon in New Mexico that's much like musical chairs. The teachers we recruit come from some other school district, and the teachers they recruit come from us," Boyd says.

Teachers often stay to work near where they went to college, and without a four-year teacher education program, Santa Fe has a disadvantage in hiring what few teachers do graduate from universities. In May 2014, the University of New Mexico graduated just six math teachers to meet the needs of all the school districts in the state. In June, the university launched its own accelerated alternative licensure program, focused on STEM education fields, in an effort to increase that supply of teachers.

"The universities are not building enough, and we aren't, for whatever reason, recruiting as many as we need from outside the state, and those two things together, that's kind of what led us to really work to try to think differently about how do we develop our own," Boyd says.

The district partnered with Santa Fe Community College, St. John's College and the Academy for the Love of Learning to develop an alternative model, with a heavy emphasis on recruiting people to teach who have bachelor's degrees and local roots, who would be more likely to stay in the district after completing the three years stipulated by their contracts to avoid paying back a prorated sum of the $7,000 spent on their training. The program is funded by grants from the Daniels Fund and the New Mexico Public Education Department that expire at the end of this academic year; the district doesn't spend any money until it starts paying their teaching salaries.

Last year saw a cohort of 10 new teachers, nine of whom are still teaching in Santa Fe schools. This year, there are six fellows enrolled, four for special education and two for secondary science.

Their crash course in teaching consists of foundational classes through SFCC that cover educational theory, lesson planning, reflective critical thinking, classroom management, and an introduction to cultural sensitivity, as well as basic guidelines from the district, including administrative responsibilities. They observe summer school teachers, learn about the Socratic method at St. John's and then come back to the Academy for the Love of Learning in part to digest and synthesize it all.

Throughout the school year, fellows continue taking community college courses, as well as returning on several Saturdays to the Academy for the Love of Learning. They're mentored by more experienced teachers, as are all first-year teachers in the school district.

"There are some things that they're doing here to make sure that, while the learning curve is steep, they can climb it," Boyd says.

This year's cohort joins classes alongside others who are working through the community college's alternative licensure program, which also places students into the classroom on an intern teaching license while they continue classes at night or online. The SFCC program, says Dawn Wink, the college's interim director for the Department of Teacher Education, is designed to allow nontraditional students to make the change to a career in teaching, even if they already have families to support or cannot take two years off to work on a standard certificate.

"For our students to go the traditional route, it's not just an option," Wink says. Of 498 enrolled students, Wink estimates half of them are already working as teachers.

"It's exhausting, no doubt about that," she says. "The benefit is that everything is immediately applicable. It's not abstract."

Plus, something may come up in the classroom where they teach, and they get to bring it up in the classroom where they're students.

Bill Beacham, who was principal of De Vargas Middle School as part of a 38-year career in education, coordinates the Classroom Fellows Program. He concedes the fellows enter the classroom without some of the background that traditional program graduates receive. Yet, in last year's cohort, only one student was rated minimally effective in year-end evaluations and not asked back to teach again this fall, Beacham says, adding that a 90 percent success rate is pretty good for a group of first-year teachers. Typically, teachers improve their effectiveness in the first three years in the job.

"I think [the fellows] went through the same kinds of growing pains that all first-year teachers do," he says. "To me, most of the really good teaching practice is developed with experience on the job."

Where the Classroom Fellows Program excels is in putting people who really know they want to be teachers in a position to immediately begin that experiential learning, tough as it may be. For those people, Beacham puts out a call: "If you have a bachelor's degree and you have always wanted to teach, all you have to do is call the HR department at Santa Fe Public Schools."

The program saw fewer applicants in its second year than its first; they're looking for more candidates for the third year and hope the program funding is renewed to make that happen.

The Classroom Fellows Program may be a way in, but what about the other end of the equation—keeping teachers from leaving the profession? National statistics show as much as 50 percent of teachers leave within the first five years, and that high turnover takes its toll on students' test scores and school budgets.

Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, who has written extensively about teacher retention and the problem of under-qualified teachers, says low teacher salaries play a part, but that's not even the main issue.

"A lot of it is the lack of support, that teaching was traditionally kind of a sink-or-swim model. You got your job, the principal gave you the keys to the classroom and you were on your own," Ingersoll says. "Another big driver is the whole issue of having some voice, some input, some say into the key decisions in the building that affect your job."

Having a background in teaching methods and knowing how to use them seem to be keys to teacher retention.

"What we find is that the very quick programs, particularly those that do not have any or very little student or practice teaching, those are the ones that their graduates quit very quickly," Ingersoll says. "Turns out that short-cuts don't really work."

Recruiting new teachers only gains ground if it's paired with strategies to retain those teachers. Otherwise, he says, you might as well be pouring water into a bucket with holes in the bottom.

SFPS is working on retaining teachers by addressing pay (raising salaries an average of 6 percent in 2013 and 2014) and job satisfaction (granting schools more autonomy over their curriculum, thereby giving teachers more ownership of their classrooms). Several of last year's fellows say what kept them in the classroom and gave an added layer of satisfaction with the program was the opportunity to spend time at the Academy for the Love of Learning, with its mission of keeping teachers alive as learners and therefore an invigorated, inspiring presence in their classrooms.

Over lunch with the fellows on a warm July afternoon, Aaron Stern, the academy's founder and director, acknowledges that in the beginning, the new teachers may feel frightened, judged and confused. He encourages them to come back to the question at the core of the academy's work: How do we surround learning with love? Stern says he hopes they learn how to find creative responses in a profession surrounded by immovable objects, like schedules and standardized tests.

They'd spent the morning working on exercises such as listening to a piece of music and noticing an instrument that isn't the dominant voice in the piece, the way a teacher has to listen past the dominant voices in a classroom.

"Definitely last month was overwhelming," fellow Diana Aranda says. The past four weeks had been filled with information she knew would be useful, but she was scrambling to comprehend it all at once. The New Mexico native, who holds a bachelor's degree in biology from UNM and a master's in marine biology, worked as a researcher until the National Science Foundation cut funding. She sees a need for learning how to communicate about science. Her feeling heading toward the first day of classes, is hopeful.

Jesse Lepluart, who will be teaching science to seventh and eighth grade students at De Vargas, says as much as wanting students to get excited about science, he wants to see them get excited about life.

"To me, teaching is, deep down, a good profession. Whether I'll be a good teacher or not remains to be seen," Lepluart says. "I'm mulling over all these things, like how am I going to do this? But experience has shown me things have a way of working out."

Is he ready for August?

"Personally, I feel that I will experience a lot of growth from this particular setup, and that was one of the reasons I decided to pursue this path," Lepluart says. "One question I do have is how do students feel about getting fast-tracked, quickly trained teachers…Why do you treat the most severe symptom with the weakest antidote?…Why not give veteran teachers combat pay [to take these positions]?"

Stern challenges the idea that they're the weakest antidote, contending that their freshness to the field packs a potency not to be underestimated.

"In a weird way, I don't feel like we're really fast-tracking this," says Steve Ortiz, who also joined the fellows this year after previously working as a special educational assistant. "Yes, we are, because we're short on time. But each of us has strengths we bring to this. Call us superheroes if you want."

We won't really know how the fellows do, and what effect this program for getting new teachers into tough schools will have on the ongoing shortage of teachers, until 2017, when the three-year contracts for the first cohort of fellows end and they choose to renew or not.

Talia Winokur also went through an alternative program before she landed at Breakthrough Santa Fe as its director. For the first two years, she taught at an urban Catholic school with about 35 students in her class while she was also a full-time graduate student.

"The first year, especially, was incredibly challenging. I really had no idea what I was doing, at all, at the beginning," Winokur says.

She stayed at that school for five years, in part crediting a supportive principal who had worked with other teachers in a similar situation and understood their needs.

"I think it's OK to have a sacrificial class of kids if you're going to go on to have a 30-year teaching life," Winokur says. "If you have one class that didn't do that well, you were a first-year teacher, you were struggling, but you stick with it, great. But if you only stay two years, and one of the classes were a sacrifice, I really wish that those people, frankly, wouldn't go into education…It's just so important to not have so [many] resources expended on people that then leave after a couple years."

Breakthrough Santa Fe co-director Sam Ritter adds, "In Santa Fe, the teaching fellowship program might be a necessary tool that we have right now to simply put teachers in classrooms…We need teachers in classrooms, and that's a real need. And yes, some of those teachers are unprepared, but also some of them are teachers who are doing things that are sort of taking those necessary first steps toward becoming really effective teachers."

Using fast-tracked fellows has to be stacked up next to the real alternatives: a substitute teacher or empty classroom.

"We're not arguing here that these teachers are going to be better prepared than a veteran teacher who's been working in the profession for years and has an extraordinary amount of training," Ritter says.

Boyd is also quick to reject the idea that this program puts the newest teachers with the fewest skills in some of the district's neediest classrooms. "What I am suggesting is that these teachers are going to be better prepared than a substitute and are going to provide better results based on what we've seen than a substitute. What they showed is that they provided comparable results to a first-year teacher who was traditionally prepared," Boyd claims.

The classroom fellows are just one part of a larger strategy to overcome the recruitment shortage and retain high-quality teachers, he says, a component of redesigning the "human capital management office."

As of presstime, the district was still hiring. Officials reported 42 unfilled teacher positions with 14 pending offers. The first day of school is less than a month away.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at]sfreporter.com. Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.