Photo by on Flickr.

Yesterday we heard from a college senior trying to decide how best to prepare herself for a teaching career. Today we begin the first of a three-part series drawing on interviews with first-year teachers who came to the profession in a variety of ways.

Nationwide, between 40 and 50% of teachers leave the classroom within their first 5 years. For DCPS, that figure rises to 70%, and one DC education analyst has estimated that 55% leave within their first two years.

That’s a problem, because teachers generally get better with experience. And research has shown that high teacher turnover has a detrimental effect on students’ test scores, especially in schools with high numbers of low-performing and African-American students.

Many new DC teachers end up in schools that fit that description, largely because teachers with more experience don’t want those assignments. A recent study found that when highly effective experienced teachers were lured to high-poverty schools with $20,000 bonuses, they generally increased student achievement. But fewer than a quarter of the teachers who were offered the opportunity chose to apply.

One first-year DCPS teacher I spoke to threw in the towel after 7 weeks and was the third teacher at his school to quit. Others said they felt as well prepared as they could have been. No one said the first year of teaching was easy, but it’s clear there are ways to ensure a less difficult experience.

These days, there are basically 3 routes to becoming a teacher. There’s the old-fashioned way: you major in education as an undergraduate, or you get a master’s degree in teaching from a school of education. Recently there has been a spate of criticism of such programs, which often have low admission standards and, it’s said, focus too much on educational theory and not enough on the mechanics of teaching.

Alternative programs, which have grown in recent years, tend to attract applicants with better academic credentials. Teach for America is the oldest and most selective of these programs, and a number of cities, including DC, also have “teaching fellow” programs that work on a similar model. Teachers who come through this route don’t have degrees in education. They get “boot camp” training the summer before they start teaching, and then take education courses during their first year.

While there’s evidence that TFA teachers can outperform traditionally certified, more experienced teachers, some have complained that the program’s 5-week training is inadequate. And teachers coming through this route only agree to a two-year commitment.

The third route, which is the newest, is similar to TFA-like programs in that it’s highly selective and draws people without education credentials. But instead of putting them in charge of a classroom after less than two months of training, these “residency” programs have them apprentice for a full year.

Residents teach alongside a mentor or host teacher, observing and getting feedback, and gradually gaining more responsibility. All the while they’re also taking education courses. In some programs, they continue to get coaching and monitoring during their first and sometimes second year of solo teaching. And the three main residency training programs active in DC—Capital Teaching Residency, Urban Teacher Center, and the Center for Inspired Teaching—ask for a commitment to teach in the District for more than two years.  (Disclosure: I have made financial contributions to Capital Teaching Residency and Urban Teacher Center.)

Both alternative and residency programs focus on funneling teachers to high-poverty schools, like many of those in DC. And teaching in those schools requires a firm grasp on classroom management. Merely reading a book about the subject, or even practicing techniques with a small group of kids in summer school for a few weeks, is unlikely to be sufficient preparation.

The DCPS teacher who quit after 7 weeks, who I’ll call Mark, came through an alternative program with a summer boot camp. In the fall, he found himself at a high-poverty elementary school in charge of a class that included a couple of boys who were constantly fighting. (He asked to remain anonymous partly in order to preserve the privacy of his students.) Not only did they disrupt the class, but other students started copying their behavior.

Mark had been exposed to some well-regarded behavior management techniques during the summer. He tried them, but none of them worked. “There’s some sort of magic you have to have,” he says.

Maybe, and maybe not.

Read more tomorrow in the second part of this series.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.