From the Field
Musings About a Heartwarming Story
By Aleka Calsoyas published on Aug 24, 2022
min read
Illustration of a brain with lines coming from it.

A headline in today’s SF Chronicle caught my eye: “27 years ago, she adored her kindergarten teacher. Now that teacher is her boss at the same S.F. school.” The story is heartwarming. This week Ms. Tan will start as a third-grade teacher in the same school where she went to kindergarten and where Ms. Choy is now the principal. Here are just a few of the many elements of this story that I love:

  • A student who returns to her district (and school!) as a teacher

  • A kindergarten teacher who inspires her students

  • A teacher who spends 22 years in the classroom

  • A district that gives that teacher who desires it more responsibility and an opportunity to lead

  • The shared feeling of staff being a good fit with a school: “It felt like home.”

This all feels very personal to me on many levels: I still remember my kindergarten teacher—Mrs. Carter. The year before I joined her class, my mom was a teacher’s aide in her classroom before doing her student teaching and going on to spend more than 30 years teaching. My dad was a student at San Francisco Unified, the son of immigrants with 6th-grade educations and limited English. He took the suggestion of a teacher of his at Galileo High School in 1938 and applied to college and attended Berkeley, as did his sister, many cousins who followed in his footsteps, and many of their children, many of whom have become educators.

As much as this makes me happy, and fills my heart with the power and joy of education, there is also an element of sadness. The article states what most of us with deep connections to the field know all too well:

Amid a national teacher shortage, districts across the Bay Area fantasize about hiring born-and-raised educators like Tan who know the community and are invested in the lives of students with similar backgrounds.

Hiring educators who are invested in education and know their communities should not be a fantasy, but many of us know the concrete challenges to making this a reality. Most administrators are not in a position to be able to address all of the factors driving the teacher shortage and the labor market dynamics that make it difficult to recruit and retain teachers, but there are actions that can be taken both by district administrators and credentialing programs that can play an important role in the solution.

Let’s look at the trajectory into and through teaching and then I’ll share some recommendations.

It is important to note that an individual’s trajectory is not always linear, that people can step into and away from a teaching path at different moments in their lives and careers and take alternative routes. Moreover, from an individual’s perspective, a teaching path can take them through a large number of different institutions and geographies and can be stretched out over a long period of time. The goal is not necessarily to move out of teaching and into leadership, but this is a path that some desire and that desire creates a pipeline into school leadership.

Basic education: All teachers begin as students! This article reminds us that teachers begin as elementary school students and then move on to secondary school, and undergraduate studies.

Teacher Education: Teacher certification comes in the form of traditional prep programs or alternative pathway programs. Traditional teacher prep programs include a stint as a student teacher in a mentor’s classroom (usually two placements of 10-12 weeks each).

Teaching: Following the first two years on the job with varying levels of “novice supports,” which usually include mentoring, teachers get some opportunities for professional learning and new positions or additional responsibilities, but these are often limited.

Beyond Teaching: If a teacher wants to enter leadership, there are some roles available that don’t require an administrative license like being an instructional coach, interventionist, etc., but a principalship or assistant principalship does require licensure, which then requires more education.

This individual trajectory is not the same thing as a school district’s “pipeline” though they have many elements in common. From a school district’s perspective, we can think of the pipeline as being a collection of the individuals who are in the system or available to enter the system from various sources.

Let’s take an extreme example. Today there are at least 300,000 kindergarten students who in 18 or so years will be student teachers in a mentor teacher’s classroom and by the following year will have become full-fledged, first-year teachers. They are unlikely to know today that they will become teachers, but there will be many moments throughout their education and their life experiences that will increase and/or decrease their interest in teaching over the course of these next 18 years. They are not in any district’s pipeline yet. When might they enter?

A district could start cultivating future teachers at the Basic Education stage, within the ranks of its owns students. SFUSD has such a program as do other institutions. This cultivation can take the form of sharing information about the pathway into teaching, providing opportunities to gain experience like tutoring or serving as a classroom aide, giving support with college applications, counseling support to finish college, and financial aid, hiring bonuses or other incentives to work back in the home district. All of these interventions, even the most light-touch ones, can make a student part of the pipeline. An individual is part of an institution’s pipeline when they are visible to the institution as an individual, with potential interest in a position, and are connected enough to start a bidirectional sharing of information—this sharing of information is “cultivating” the pipeline. Chances are that many who enter the pipeline at the basic education level will leave—to another profession, to another geographic region, another institution—but these actions may also make the difference for some students. In fact, they may increase the total number of people interested in teaching and strengthen the pool nationally even if individuals don’t return to their home institution.

The moment a district has contact with an individual they can become part of the district’s pipeline. Let’s take the example of student teaching. A student teaching placement is a crucial part of a teacher’s learning experience, and it is also an important entry point into a district’s pipeline for new teachers. Yet, many placements are made in an ad hoc manner, done via the connections that a prep program coordinator may have with certain teachers or school leaders. Some districts have no centralized process and do not even know who their current student teachers are. Many others that do have a process use it only to facilitate background checks, and make basic matches based on credential area, but don’t actively cultivate and recruit those future teachers. Those individuals only enter the pipeline if they choose to apply for a job posted by the district—a missed opportunity for that district to connect with future hires.

In a competitive labor market with severe teacher shortages, cultivating student teachers can be seen as a good strategy for a district to “attract and retain” teachers, possibly at the expense of a neighboring district that takes a less pro-active stance. But let’s zoom out for a moment and look at a specific region and understand why it can be good for everyone involved if districts actively cultivate their pipeline. The Chronicle article focused on Ms. Tan coming from the community in which she is now teaching, her roots in Chinatown and her connections to the lives of her students. This idea of a “fit” and “feeling at home” can be crucial to a teacher’s success but a fit can include a wide variety of factors: school culture, pedagogical approach, and many other types of connections to the community.

It can be tempting in time of shortages to ignore a good fit because when there is a vacancy in the classroom, we naturally want to fill it, period. And we may also assume that as teachers are in short supply, they will be able to simply pick whatever positions that are the best fit for them. However, this is often not the case—real information about what a district is like, or a school culture is like for that matter, is hard to come by and often more informed by location, guesswork, assumptions and anecdotes, rather than anchored in real experiences. The process of cultivating a pipeline of potential teachers is not just driven by the goal of “selling” them on the district, a school or a position, but providing them with information and learning about them so that mutual decisions based on a good fit can be made in the most informed ways possible. This increases job satisfaction when the matches are made, improves performance, and drives retention. The fewer the movements, the fewer the openings, the more stability. The fit is essential even in a tight labor market and can improve outcomes for everyone, even in the cases when you determine that a position is not a good fit, it allows the teacher to find a better fit elsewhere and for you to fill the position with someone more likely to be successful.

This same principle of cultivation as a two-directional sharing of information to support good matches and good fits can be applied anywhere along the pipeline. A district can continue to learn about and share information about their desired career trajectories with its current teachers, both to support their growth as well as help to retain them at the district in well-matched positions, even when this requires a move to a new location or a new role.

Some school administrators, as the article points out, are currently covering classrooms with vacancies, but when they return to the office what can they do?

  1. If you do have a program for cultivating future teachers from your current student population, casting a wide net with light-touch interventions, and increasing the intensity of resources per individual as they are farther along in their trajectory, it can both benefit the future teacher and the district. Don’t forget that there are multiple entry points, and that cultivation can happen at any stage.

  2. If student teachers are placed in your district, take a look at your process and make sure it is meeting the needs of student teachers and your district. The following questions can help you and your team reflect:

    • Is the process transparent to all stakeholders and does it feel fair?

    • Is the pool of mentor teachers deep, diverse and is hosting seen as an opportunity and honor?

    • Is the right information collected and exchanged to make the best placements possible, and to inform the hiring process?

    • Are you cultivating your pool of future teachers at multiple points in their experience: at the entry point, at the point of matching, and as they exit from the program?

  3. Do you know if any of your paraprofessionals are interested in becoming teachers and over what timeframe? What information can you share with them and how can they be supported?

  4. Do you know what current teachers at every site are interested in additional responsibilities or leadership? Are you collecting and acting on this information to match them to opportunities like mentoring, hosting, etc., and to share with them information about what options they have and how to access them?

Note that each of these actions and strategies is one of cultivation. What this means is that you need to: identify the groups of people, learn about them, and then act!

  1. Identify: Find out who is interested. Often this involves “asking” them to raise their hands, give their email, sign up for something, or use Torace for registering interest.

  2. Learn: Ask those interested about their desires and needs and share information with them. This sharing can take the form of written information, offering opportunities for experiential learning, and offering ways to connect with others who may provide more nuanced conversation and answer questions. Again—Torace can help make the information sharing simple and connect people to experiences or to other people for learning.

  3. Act: Digest what you have learned and take action! For instance, you can easily filter participants’ lists in Torace, export emails with one click, and start your cultivation process to grow your students into future teachers and leaders. If education truly is giving back, what could be better? Torace—we can help!

Email Torace at [email protected] for more information.

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