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New Teachers Find Support in NEA

By Cindy Long, NEA Today

Leigh Anne Meeks has wanted to be a teacher for as long as she can remember. She’s an education major at the University of Houston and can’t wait to enter the classroom. But after hearing horror stories about low pay, endless testing of students, and rigid working conditions, she almost reconsidered. Joining the Texas State Teachers Association, the Texas affiliate of NEA, changed her mind.

"I see the organization making positive changes for teachers, I see them making a difference, and I wanted to be a part of that," Meeks says. "I still feel very passionate about teaching – it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do, and being a part of TSTA makes me feel supported and connected."

From left to right: Jocelyn Baker, Building Rep. and Incoming President of Region 3C, Leigh Anne Meeks, TSTA Student Program, and Rita Haecker, Vice President/NEA Director, Education Austin, TSTA.

Feeling supported and connected is key to keeping new teachers from leaving the profession, according to Rita Haeker, vice president and NEA director of Education Austin. One of the main issues she’ll be tackling during the 2006-07 school year is teacher retention. Too many Texas teachers, Haeker says, quit after one to three years because of low pay and worsening working conditions, in classrooms they feel are ruled by testing and predetermined curriculums.

“Teachers are burnt out on all the testing requirements,” Haeker says. “They want to be able to teach, not just teach to a test. They feel they’ve lost control of their curriculum, and their creativity.”

It’s not a problem unique to Texas. Nationally, nearly 50 percent of new educators leave the profession during the first five years of teaching, according to an NEA study, “Status of the American Public School Teacher.” Respondents cited working conditions and low salaries as the primary reasons.

New teachers can also feel overwhelmed when first starting out. To help ease the transition, Haeker and Education Austin are creating mentor programs as a way to help new teachers with the hurdles of the profession. Some schools in her area have started the year with new teachers making up 50 percent of the faculty. She wants to encourage those teachers to not only connect with a mentor, but to reach out to their peers. “When starting out, it’s easy to feel isolated,” she says. “Coming together, finding time to bond with one another, helps a tremendous amount.”

Jocelyn Baker, the incoming president of Region 3C of the Pasadena Educators Association and a 16-year classroom veteran, is a mentor educator, not only in her school, but to new teachers throughout her community. “New teachers with mentors who can support them feel they have someone in their corner, and they feel better about going to work every day. It’s not always about salary,” she says.

She adds that mentors can also help frustrated young teachers remember why they entered the profession in the first place – to work with children. The NEA study found that 73 percent of educators enter teaching because of their desire to work with young people; and 68 percent cite it as the reason for staying.

Baker was inspired to enter the profession by her teacher grandmother, and says she’s wanted to teach children ever since she was in second grade. She feels passionate about her work as an educator, and the camaraderie and collegiality of the TSTA has helped fuel that passion. “Everyone needs to belong to something,” she says.

Posted August 3, 2006