Young teachers drawn to kids, career starts tricky

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Jordan McNeil offered skills in high demand by public schools when she graduated from college with a dual major in special education and elementary education in 2011. She needed just one interview to find the right spot for her, a classroom where she and two assistants spend all day teaching eight autistic children.

A year into her career, she says the greatest satisfaction comes from the skin-tingling "light bulb moments" when someone's knowledge really opens. Moments "when something really clicks with one of my students and I can see it, that they've figured it out and they understand," she said. "It's the little moments that make it worth it."

But the hard truth is that by some estimates as many as a half of new teachers like McNeil will quit the classroom in their first five years. That turnover is costly, since states spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year to recruit, hire and prepare replacements.

The struggle to retain good teachers isn't getting easier. An annual survey of teachers last year by MetLife and Harris Interactive found the lowest level of overall job satisfaction in two decades. A survey this year of more than 4,000 New York City middle school teachers found 39 percent considered changing school or leaving teaching.

A 2007 study by California State University's Center for Teacher Quality found that teachers driven from the state's classroom most often cited bureaucratic frustrations like excessive paperwork, too many meetings, and frequent classroom interruptions. Satisfied teachers most often pointed to having a meaningful role in school decision-making, collaborative relationships with colleagues, adequate planning time, sufficient classroom materials, and supportive principals.

"When these conditions were in place, teachers often viewed their compensation as adequate and a reason for staying in the profession," the California study said.

The Associated Press talked with promising new teachers a year into their careers. All graduated from Elon University in May 2011. All were North Carolina Teaching Fellows, a program which annually selected 500 promising high school seniors to receive four-year scholarships allowing them to graduate with little or no college debt as well as extra professional coaching and networking. The fellows promised to work in North Carolina public schools for four of their first seven years after graduation. State lawmakers quit funding the program two years ago.

Three teachers, all 23 years old, agreed they loved their profession for those light bulb moments, but all found surprises in their first year.

Eric Hale's leaving the country for a while.

He landed his first job in North Carolina's second-largest school district that includes Charlotte. But he says in retrospect he didn't ask enough questions about whether he and the school would be a good match. The school hadn't hired a new teacher in years, and it was undergoing an extensive curriculum revamp that forced changed on veteran colleagues, he said.

"I spent at least 60 hours a week in the school and a large chunk of that time was spent filling out paperwork or going to meetings. I rarely got time in my classroom to prepare things for my students. With the amount of time I put in I should have seen greater results in my students' growth, but I didn't have time to focus on that because I was always catching up on pointless things I had to do for my school," Hale said. "The new teacher support was minimal and I received very little planning time. I was exhausted by the end of it."

He quit and spent much of the summer in Italy, trying to land a job teaching English. He's now aiming to teach in Thailand or South Korea, and he's back home to assemble to certifications and other documents required. He didn't burn bridges. When the successor who moved into his 4th-grade classroom at Blythe Elementary in Huntersville fell ill, Hale stepped back in to work as the substitute for several months. The school was closed for the Thanksgiving holiday this week and its principal unavailable for comment.

"When I left college, I thought I would be able to just close my door and teach how I thought was best. But over time your colleagues and the overall mentality of the school can change you," Hale said. "The year I had definitely stimulated that thinking of what are my options, where else can I go."

Hale says he always wanted to teach abroad and plans to try for a year, maybe two, while he has no family responsibilities, then get back to a North Carolina public school to make good on his scholarship before he's obliged to pay the money back.

"I do plan on coming back to the United States and teaching in schools. I still love it," Hale said.

Sam Jennings said his first year teaching math at one of the state's highest-rated high schools was "absolutely wonderful."

"I know friends that had an absolutely crazy experience, from discipline problems to teaching issues with content materials," Jennings said. "I fell into a department that supported me 100 percent, sat down every week with me and helped me plan lessons. They gave me the support I needed in the classroom to survive without having major issues."

But this being real life, nothing's perfect. The eager Jennings said his surprises at South Brunswick High School came from students, and fellow teachers, who seemed less motivated than he expected.

"I think in general, the society we live in today, things are just given to students. They don't have to work for it anymore," Jennings said. "They expect us, when we go into the classroom, just to give them a grade rather than them trying to earn it and work for it."

Jennings has seen peers who've become jaded, for example hearing colleagues confess that they planned to teach little or nothing on a half-day with shortened course meeting time.

"That disheartens you because, here I am, I've got a lesson planned. I'm teaching. I'm rocking and rolling and going to get every bit of that 30 minutes out of my students. Then you hear a teacher that doesn't necessarily care," he said.

McNeil teaches a year-round program at South Graham Elementary School, about 25 miles east of Greensboro. She arrived to a bare classroom and a lot of on-the-job training.

"You come in as a first-year and you're expected to do what a 20-year teacher is doing. That's a really hard thing just to step into and there's no such thing as an entry-level teaching position. We don't climb the corporate ladder," she said. "It's all at once. All right away."

Learning how to run a classroom was the biggest task, from how to handle behavior and enforce discipline in her special-needs students to working with adult assistants. She said she landed grants for four iPads, which helps her students focus and work more independently. Overall, she feels she found a good fit in a mid-sized school district, which she knew from student teaching days.

But the end of her first year on the job came with some drama with a large group of unhappy teachers leaving.

"We had huge turnover for this year, which has turned out I think to really help the school turn around. But I think it was disappointing for me to see so many people kind of disillusioned with their jobs and the school, the school system, whatever it was," McNeil said. "I think a lot of what I learned from it is not taking things personally and separating your professional from your personal and just really problem-solving instead of just getting down in the dumps and letting things burn you out."


Emery Dalesio can be reached at