From her closet-sized principal’s office, Mary Lang doesn’t need to talk about more rigorous teacher training. She’s living it.
Lang puts student teachers at Godwin Heights North Elementary School through the educational equivalent of boot camp, teaching classes with low-income, immigrant children and working recess and lunch duty. The hiring process is a grueling, three-month ordeal that can start with as many as 2,000 applicants.
And once teachers make it into a classroom, there’s no guarantee they’ll stay.
“I let two (teachers) go two years ago,” Lang said. “They worked their butts off from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. But I couldn’t keep putting them in front of 25-30 kids and have them affect their lives.”
Both now are successful teachers in other schools, Lang said. But in a high-poverty school with the odds already stacked against success, North Godwin children can’t afford for teachers to be just OK.
“Two or three ineffective teachers, and these kids are done,” Lang said. “It’s crucial.”
Tough standards get results
Godwin Heights Public Schools draws students from working-class neighborhoods of Wyoming, adjacent to Grand Rapids. Of the 400 students, 175 are from families where English is not spoken at home. It’s a recipe for poor academic performance.
“You have to get these kids out of the cycle,” Lang said. “It’s not an option for these kids not to do well.”
Its students learn far more than students at most Michigan schools with similar levels of poverty. For example, the North Godwin and West Godwin elementaries have similar levels of poverty (more than 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch), but more than twice as many North Godwin fourth-graders met state standards on math. On reading, North Godwin outpaced West Godwin 85 percent to 59 percent; on writing, 72 percent to 42 percent.
North Godwin’s new teachers take part in a three-day new teacher orientation before school begins, mentor meetings four times a year plus teacher induction programs four times a year.
“So many of the things you have to have aren’t available in a class,” Lang said.
New teachers are given support, but they’re told they have to show results fast.
“If only 50 percent of kids are making sufficient progress, that’s not acceptable. We can’t keep people who aren’t cutting it.”
“They’re not going to keep someone here who isn’t doing what is best for kids,” said Kelly Compher, in her first year as a full-time teacher at North Godwin.
Last year as a rookie, Compher taught at a middle-class school. “They had all the bells and whistles,” Compher said. “Any teacher could do a good job. But here, with the students’ background, they have so much against them already. I have to be special to succeed. And if I’m not special, I’ll be cut loose.”
Lang doesn’t mince words about the state’s teacher training system. “I’m not sure what they’re teaching them, but I’m not sure it’s right,” she said. Training needs to be “more realistic and hands-on. They need to be worked harder so they know what to expect.”
Why that doesn’t happen now, when teachers are vital to the state’s future, is a mystery to the principal. “It would look like Michigan doesn’t value teachers,” Lang said.