Americans have debated the qualities that separate good teachers from the bad for more than 100 years. These days, this conversation gets stuck on evaluations and firing.

And while San Diego Unified recognizes that lack of experience can contribute to teacher turnover and staffing instability, it hasn’t talked much about what makes new teachers – especially those in challenging schools – more likely to succeed.

There’s a growing conversation in education that challenges the assumption that great teachers are born instead of created.

Elizabeth Green, editor of Chalkbeat, an education news site, recently published a book about how we might improve teaching by focusing less on the inherent qualities good teachers possess, and more on what teachers know and do in the classroom.

Green talked about whether some teachers are just naturally great in an interview with Bloomberg EDU:

“I think that’s our assumption, is that we can sort teachers into those who are predestined to be good, and predestined to be bad. But the reality is that there’s good and bad teaching, and not very much can predict who’s going to be good or bad. What’s much more important is how to support people to do good teaching.”

New teachers in San Diego Unified can get support from principals or other teachers at their sites, the district says. And in collaboration with the union, young or struggling teachers can get matched up with a mentor.

But there’s no formal training to help new teachers understand the context of a particular school and how to best teach the students who attend.

Of course, until recently, such training hasn’t been high on the district’s priority list for any teacher – veteran or rookie.

The district recognizes it needs to go further to help teachers build bridges between classrooms and the neighborhoods their students live in, district spokesperson Ursula Kroemer said.

To that end, Kroemer said the district plans to provide more cultural proficiency training for all teachers this year, which was a suggestion made by a team of Harvard researchers who visited the district and passed along recommendations.  

San Diego Unified recognized the importance of veterans in a less flattering way this past summer, when it raised teacher inexperience as one factor why black and Latino students are disproportionately suspended from school.

That validated some of the findings in a recent landmark legal ruling, Vergara v. California, which could, among other things, increase the amount of time it takes teachers to earn tenure.

But whatever protections that lawsuit could eventually remove, it isn’t particularly instructive on what school districts can do to better prepare teachers for the classroom.

When I asked Kiki Ochoa, a veteran teacher at Lincoln High, why an urban school like his can be a more challenging place to teach, he said a lot of it came down to lack of preparation. And without ongoing support, schools are more likely to see teacher turnover, he said.

“The first couple of years no matter who you are, it’s hard. It’s hard. You’re like throwing all these balls, but you don’t know where the hoops are. You need to know where the hoops are to have the best chance to make it,” he said.

Ochoa said that while the district has prioritized teacher training in some areas, like Common Core, it’s lagged in others, like helping teachers learn how to build relationships with students.

Paula Cordeiro, dean of USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences, said even great schools can’t give burgeoning teachers all the tools they’ll need to be effective in the classroom.

For example, there’s no way for new teachers at Lincoln High to understand the school’s dynamics, or the kinds of socio-economic pressures placed on its kids until they land at the school.

At that point, a teacher’s professional development is a job for the school district, Cordeiro said.

“And I’m talking about personalized professional development. Not the kind where 150 people file into a lecture hall. The closer to the site, the better. And it has to be ongoing,” she said. “You can’t become an expert in three years. Sorry.”

“We have to invest in our teachers once we hire them,” Cordeiro said.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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