Kenyatta Davenport is considered one of Thomasboro Academy’s top teachers, but she almost didn’t make it past her second year.
She became a teacher at 37, after working as an assistant for years. She figured she was way ahead of most rookies.
But her first year as a teacher, she couldn’t stop students from fighting in her fifth-grade classroom. The next year she was assigned to specialize in science, with a new curriculum that she wasn’t prepared to teach. Her principal put her on an action plan, a move that some teachers see as a sign their career is doomed.
“I cried,” Davenport says. “I almost quit.”
She didn’t, and after sticking with efforts to help her improve, she’s now getting extra pay and extra duties based on strong performance.
But many do give up. Last year, North Carolina lost almost 4,000 of its 19,000 beginning teachers, more than 1 in 5. Even the most talented teachers are likely to struggle at the outset, yet those early years are when skills grow most rapidly for those who persevere.
It has its roots in a conversation among a group of brand-new Wake County teachers who graduated from the N.C. Teaching Fellows program in 2014. At the start of the last school year, they lamented that they’d be giving up the program’s monthly meetings on education policy and classroom strategies.
Trey Ferguson, a 23-year-old math teacher at Wake’s Leesville Road High, got in touch with the forum, a research and advocacy group that had handled the support program for the fellows. A pilot version of the Beginning Teacher Network started in Wake County last spring. About three dozen members met monthly, sitting down with policymakers to talk about how the decisions those officials make shape their classroom experience.
“It was a huge success,” Ferguson said this week.
Wake is doing a yearlong series of meetings this year, while Mecklenburg and Union counties are taking applications for groups that will start in January. The goal is to recruit 100 participants in Mecklenburg and 40 in Union.
Participants will shape the content of monthly meetings and online networking, led by a well-known figure in Charlotte education: James Ford, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher and 2014 North Carolina teacher of the year, who now works for the forum.
New teachers feeling overwhelmed by classroom demands might hesitate to take on an additional commitment. But one of the most discouraging factors can be the tangle of rules and demands coming down from on high. Ferguson said understanding where they come from, what the intentions are and how teachers can advocate for themselves can help a young teacher break through feelings of helplessness.
There’s also a chance to hear from veteran teachers and swap suggestions with other new teachers.
“If we need to blow off steam, we blow off steam in a constructive way,” Ferguson said.
The Public School Forum isn’t alone in recognizing the challenge of keeping talented new teachers in the profession.
For the past two years, the N.C. General Assembly has provided its biggest pay bumps to teachers in their early years, hoping to catch up after years of pay freezes during the recession.
Teach for America, which recruits teachers for CMS and other districts across the country, also offers its recruits a support network and encourages them to get active in education advocacy.
Most schools offer some type of support and mentoring for new teachers, though the quality varies widely.
Davenport says her progress came from accepting that that action plan was truly a plan to help her get better, not just the prelude to a pink slip. She visited other schools to observe science classes and planned with a colleague who had more experience in the subject.
Now in her fifth year as a teacher, Davenport says she has gotten better. Based on the growth her students showed on science exams, she was paired with an assistant and given twice as many science students to work with this year. It’s part of a CMS “Opportunity Culture” project to create rewarding career paths for successful classroom teachers.
But that doesn’t mean teaching is easy for Davenport. Virtually all of Thomasboro’s students come from impoverished homes, and their needs – including the anger that led to classroom scuffles her first year – can be overwhelming.
“It’s frustrating every day,” Davenport said. Some days she jokes with her students that she’s going to give it all up and work at McDonald’s.
But the next morning she’s back.
“Somebody didn’t give up on me,” she says, “so I can’t give up on them.”
Want to join?
Public school teachers (district and charter) in Mecklenburg and Union counties with up to three years’ experience can apply to take part in the Beginning Teacher Network, with sessions starting in January. Apply at www.ncforum.org/beginning-teacher-network or contact James Ford, firstname.lastname@example.org, for more information.