We were curious about who would enter teaching in this new context. Why did they choose to teach and how did they prepare? What would they experience as novices? Would they remain in schools and teaching long-term, as their predecessors had done? And what factors would influence their career decisions? With those questions in mind, we conducted an exploratory study of 50 first- and second-year teachers in a diverse sample of Massachusetts public schools. We wanted to learn about the full range of new teachers—individuals with different types of preparation, those working in urban and suburban schools, and those teaching various subjects and students at different levels. We interviewed these teachers in person, asking questions such as “How did you decide to teach?” “How did you come to teach at this school?” “What support have you received as a new teacher within your school or district?” “What formal or informal contact do you have on a regular basis with other teachers?” “Do you have a curriculum for the subjects you’re assigned to teach?”
Our study focused on individuals and was intended to illuminate characteristics of the new generation of teachers. It proved to be so informative that we followed those novices for four years. During that time Sarah Birkeland and Morgaen Donaldson joined our team. We found that most of these novices chose teaching for the same reasons their predecessors had—seeking meaningful work that would “make a difference,” enjoying young people, and loving the subjects they taught. However, their paths to the classroom differed, with many entering at mid-career and through alternative preparation programs. Also, many were making a tentative commitment to teaching as a career. They knew that if the work didn’t suit them they could pursue careers in an array of other fields that were now open to to women and to men of color--teaching's traditional recruits.
Initially we wanted to know about our participants as members of a new generation who might have different priorities and preferences than their predecessors. However, when we asked about their experiences, these novices told us again and again about their school and what it was like to teach there. Although we saw obvious similarities among individuals in this new generation of teachers, what seemed much more notable was what they experienced in their particular school. Their work environments differed widely, even within the same district. And those differences appeared to matter, influencing not only teachers’ day-to-day satisfaction, but also their career decisions. After 4 years, approximately 1/3 of these 50 teachers were still in the same school, 1/3 had changed schools, and 1/3 had left public school teaching. Some left for personal reasons, but most explained that they decided to stay or leave largely because of their school’s work environment. If they were not assigned to courses that matched their areas of expertise, if they did not get support from their colleagues and principal, if they did not have an adequate curriculum, or if the school lacked order and discipline, they might well leave.