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A New Kind of Teacher


New kind of teacher prep aimed at 'burnout' in Cobb Schools

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
By Ty Tagami

Osborne High led Cobb County Schools last year in an undesirable index: Nearly a third of the teachers quit.

Cobb officials say they hope a three-year-old partnership with Kennesaw State University will better equip a new generation of teachers for the challenging environment of an "urban, high-needs" school like Osborne, reducing teacher turnover and improving test scores.

"Burnout" is not uncommon with new teachers, and a particular problem at schools like Osborne, where the students come from low-income families and tend to be transient.

After a year of planning, Kennesaw State last year sent the first crop of handpicked education students into Osborne High and its feeders. All 30 have been learning what it takes to survive and, hopefully, thrive in such a school.

Osborne Principal Joshua Morreale said he'll hire as many as he can. "They have all impressed me," he said.

Hopefully, he said, they'll be equipped to get through the first three years, when many new teachers become demoralized. "That’s when burnout happens, or a career change, because they just don’t like the job," he said.

Teaching at schools like the Osborne cluster can be tough. Four out of five students are on the free and reduced lunch program. Some students switch schools three times a year. Two years ago, the student transfer rate at Osborne High reached 65 percent, meaning that only a third started and finished the school year there, said Dale Gaddis, the area assistant superintendent.

The school had a 29.7 percent teacher turnover rate last year, Gaddis said. The combined teacher turnover rate with its feeder schools -- Smitha Middle and Hollydale, Milford, Birney, LaBelle and Fair Oaks elementaries -- averaged 16.1 percent over the past two years, compared with an 11.1 percent average countywide.

"You can see why we want to do this," Gaddis said.

Daniel Keiger, 21, a senior at KSU, is among the first group graduating in May and has been teaching with a mentor at Osborne High since last year. On Wednesday morning, he was leading Andy Marzka's algebra class of 15 students.

Keiger did most of the talking, but Marzka would chime in occasionally. While the students were at work on a problem, Raegean Smith, a 15-year-old freshman in purple sweats, raised her hand. Keiger went to her and she whispered something inaudible. "Fractions are OK," he told her.

Later, Marzka said he envied the kind of preparation Keiger was getting. Marzka had just one semester of student teaching by the time he graduated from the University of Georgia. For him, it was sink or swim the first day he stood before the kids, and he sank. "My mentor teacher had to come in and reteach the entire lesson," he said.

Keiger, by contrast, has been eased into it. Last year, he mostly watched at Osborne and Smitha.

He glided through his first lesson in part because Marzka had talked him through it step by step. Soon he was confident enough to experiment. He'd gotten to know the students, been to their ball games and knew they liked sports. So, he thought, if I want to teach about parabolas, why not describe it with the arc of a ball flying through the air?

That got their attention and interest, Keiger said. A similar experiment with a music analogy flew over the kids' heads, he said, but at least he had the opportunity to try it out.

Raegean, the girl in the purple sweats, said she likes the way Keiger teaches. "He always tries to make things more fun," she said, adding that the student teacher also had become less shy.

Joey Richard, 30, is among the nontraditional students in the KSU program. She studied business, then worked as a nanny before deciding she wanted to be a teacher.

Her mentor, English teacher Sherrye Tillman, has taught her how to connect the subject matter to the students’ lives. Recently, for a unit on "Macbeth," they pulled clips from a contemporary teen flick, “Mean Girls," to demonstrate themes such as trust and deception present in the play.

Tillman said her own first teaching experiences were rough by comparison. “My cooperating teacher left the room. I was there to fend for myself.” The result: She wasn’t sure she’d stick with teaching. “Those first couple years, there was a question in the back of my mind: Do you really want to do this?”

The KSU effort got off the ground with an $8.9 million Teacher Quality Partnership grant. It expires in two years, but Cobb officials want to continue the program in perpetuity.

Connie Jackson, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators, said the program has promise.

"Those are going to be seriously prepared teachers," she said. They'll come out of KSU "excited and idealistic, but tinged with reality."

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