Photo by Janelle Graham on Flickr.

In the first two parts of this series, we surveyed various routes to teacher certification and discussed the challenges of learning to manage a classroom. New teachers also need targeted coaching, opportunities to collaborate with and observe experienced teachers, and help with lesson planning.

Keeping order in the classroom may be the toughest skill for new teachers to master, but lesson-planning is probably a close second.

"Mark,” who quit 7 weeks into his first year of teaching at a high-poverty DCPS elementary school, said that he had only a week to plan lessons before school started, with the result that it was a struggle to stay one step ahead of the students. He would routinely put in 10- or 12-hour days, sometimes waking at 3:30 am and arriving at school at 6, two hours before students.

One problem was that he had planned to teach middle- or high-school science, not elementary school. So his summer training through an alternative certification program was geared to that subject and age group. He was unfamiliar with the elementary grade-level standards and curriculum, and it seemed that no one was available to explain them to him. With no other teachers at his school teaching the same grade he was, he couldn’t benefit from their experience.

Matching up training with what teachers will actually be doing is a problem for almost all teacher-training programs, since teachers usually don’t have a job lined up when they’re training.

Kylie Hiemstra, a DCPS teacher who came to teaching after getting an undergraduate degree in education, also encountered that problem. She did her student teaching in a 3rd-grade classroom but got a job teaching 1st grade, which she found to be very different. And she did her training in Virginia, which uses a different set of standards than DC.

But at Hiemstra’s school, John Eaton in Cleveland Park, there are two other 1st-grade teachers, both veterans. She meets with them regularly, asks them “a lot of questions,” and has had a chance to observe their classes.

And Meghan Quigley, in her first year of teaching at a DC charter school, is constantly bouncing ideas off the two other 4th-grade math teachers there. The school, Achievement Prep, encourages that back-and-forth by putting teachers’ desks in a common workroom rather than in their own classrooms.

"Greg,” a third-year teacher at a DC charter school who is a Teach for America veteran, says that all first-year teachers need help planning lessons. Even if their training corresponds to what they’re teaching, they’re unlikely to know the material well enough to create good lesson plans. Experienced teachers at the school should share their plans, he says. Or, failing that, new teachers should look to online sources such as and LearnZillion for good templates for their grade level and subject.

Is there a perfect way to train teachers?

So, is there a method of teacher training that will reliably produce terrific first-year teachers? It may be too soon to know. Residency programs, which train new teachers by having them apprentice alongside an experienced teacher for a year, hold promise.

But they’re still too new and too small to yield enough data to draw definitive conclusions. And, says Michael Goldstein, a founder of the Match Teacher Residency program in Boston, it all depends on whether they’re done well.

Some residents may not click with the host or mentor teachers they’re placed with, or the teachers may not be good at doling out responsibility to them. And even a good residency year will never fully duplicate the experience of being in charge of a classroom.

As one veteran teacher who coaches first-year teachers for a local residency program told me, “The first year is the first year.”

All new teachers, no matter how they’ve entered the profession, need concrete, specific coaching and opportunities to observe and collaborate with other teachers, especially those teaching the same subject and grade level. And one researcher has found that two relatively easy-to-implement initiatives—working with a mentor and having regular supportive communication with an administrator—can reduce teacher turnover.

These factors, along with sufficient time spent practicing in a classroom, can make the difference between Mark’s experience and Anna’s. Both started as first-year DCPS teachers at high-poverty elementary schools at the beginning of this school year.

Mark, with only 5 or 6 weeks of training and little support on the job, says his chaotic classroom was his “little world,” which he had to figure out “how to police and teach at the same time.” For the 7 weeks he lasted, he had trouble sleeping, and as the beginning of a new week approached he would feel a tightness in his chest. By the time he quit he was “too burnt out to think.”

Anna (also a pseudonym), who came through a residency program that she says prepared her well, has also felt stressed and overwhelmed this year. But clearly, not in the same way Mark did.

"You have butterflies in your stomach every morning,” she says. “It’s like being a doctor in an ER—you never know what you’re going to get.” But, she says, that’s what makes the job interesting. Basically, she can’t believe her good fortune: “I’m doing something I love, and I’m getting paid to do it.”

If we’re going to continue putting first-year teachers into tough DC classrooms, which seems inevitable, we need to make sure they have experiences less like Mark’s and more like Anna’s—not just for their sake, but for the sake of the children they’ve been entrusted with teaching.

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.