It’s Austin’s first day of below-freezing temps. But inside the School of Education in Fleck Hall 305, scarves and jackets lay heaped on a conference table with a few empty coffee cups. Filling the room — in chairs, sitting crisscross-applesauce, standing near the windows — are about 50 Central Texas teachers, a mix of rookies, veterans, administrators and home-schoolers. And at the head of the class is Steven Fletcher, associate professor of Secondary Education.
This is Fletcher’s Texas STEM Teacher Circle, a networking group he created three years ago to help science and math teachers get support and resources vital for success in their classrooms. On this cold day, the group bats around ideas about the Maker Movement, a national trend that encourages students to tinker, create and experiment using everything from robotics to cotton balls. Fletcher’s circle spent the afternoon in small sessions hearing from peers who have used maker-based concepts in their classrooms. Now, Fletcher moderates a conversation about how they all might implement similar projects.
Finding the time (not to mention the supplies) to get creative with the curriculum is tricky, he says. And that unyielding workload — coupled with, too often, a weak or nonexistent support system — is the undoing of many young teachers. “The climate of schooling today is tough. There are federal and state mandates for what you must teach, standardized tests for what your students must know, and language and inclusion challenges,” he says. “In that diverse landscape, a new teacher often feels isolated and alienated. You are teaching up to 160 kids a day, navigating interactions with parents, trying to connect with your colleagues and managing your classroom with very few resources. Inspiring students while trying to find your own place and feel fulfilled is extremely hard.”
The job is so difficult that 40 to 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within five years. Fletcher wants to stop, or at least slow, the flight. “The data shows us that new teachers need a lot of socialization, time and support to acclimate,” he says. “You can’t be expected to jump in and excel from day one without training, guidance, peer support, decently equipped classrooms, and opportunities to do something cool or fun or different even if it’s not explicitly outlined in the mandated curriculum.”
Fletcher and other education experts believe that a focus on induction — professional development and training for teachers in their first through third years — as well as better training are the keys to improving retention. That’s one reason why, in 2008, he was awarded $885,000 from the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, a National Science Foundation (NSF) initiative that helps talented math and science majors pursue teaching careers in elementary, middle and high schools. “Our strategy in the Department of Teacher Preparation at St. Edward’s is ‘early and often,’” he says. “The earlier we can place future teachers in real settings with real students, the more comfortable they are walking into their own classrooms. They aren’t naive about what to expect, and they know how to be successful or where and who to turn to when something is not working.”
The scholars, now all alumni of St. Edward’s, participate in the monthly STEM circles. They have access to peer teachers just starting out, veteran teachers (and potential mentors), and a wealth of ideas, knowledge and tools. They are also ambassadors of change in their own schools and districts, where they excel as leaders and inspire their own peers, says Fletcher.
With two new grants in the coffer — an additional $294,000 from the NSF and $47,000 from the Powell Foundation — Fletcher and his colleagues have created teacher circles for literacy, bilingual education and elementary education. He is developing partnerships with like-minded organizations, such as the Thinkery children’s museum in Austin and is trying out new technologies to connect young-alumni teachers from other Texas districts to the teacher circles. He hopes to offer even more professional development and leadership training for new teachers. The end result? “I hope to build each teacher and future teacher’s capacity as powerful agents of change,” he says. “I want them to ask, ‘How can I do this at my school for my students?’”
Stacia Hernstrom MLA ’05 is a writer for St. Edward’s University.
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