Rebecca Smith teaches first grade at Whittier Elementary School in Duquesne Heights. She’s taught there for three years, and says there are challenges to being a new teacher, such as knowing what to prioritize.
“It can be pretty difficult knowing what aspects of the curriculum I probably shouldn’t use, as opposed to the ones that are really beneficial,” she said.
She likes that her school has plenty of experienced teachers, allowing the more senior educators to support their newer colleagues. The median teacher at Whittier has nearly 20 years of experience. Because there are so many seasoned teachers, it’s easy for them to find the time to mentor the handful of newer teachers.
Teacher experience can be an indicator of classroom success. In the district as a whole, teachers have a median of 13 years of experience in education. In some PPS schools, educators have a mix of experienced and new teachers, while others primarily have just one or the other. The district says this is largely due to differences in turnover rates.
But not everyone who begins their teaching career in Pittsburgh has the level of support Smith receives. At schools that take on many new teachers in a short period of time, it can be a challenge for the few veteran teachers to find time to help all of their new colleagues.
That was the case for Stephanie Lapine who teaches at Pittsburgh Montessori in Friendship, where most of her peers have five years of experience or fewer. She said mentorship is important, but doesn’t happen as much as it should, because “though the desire is there, the actual ability to spend your time doing it, and energy, is difficult to muster.” She said that mentorship is particularly crucial at Pittsburgh Montessori so teachers can learn best practices for implementing the Montessori method of education successfully.
Pittsburgh Public Schools has a formal new teacher induction program that meets monthly. However, Brian Glickman, Director of Talent Management at the district’s Department of Human Resources, said a lot of mentorship after the initial program is left up to the schools.
Stacy Seezox said back when she was a new teacher at Colfax Elementary in Squirrel Hill, she didn’t have many opportunities to be mentored by more experienced colleagues. She's taught at Pittsburgh Public Schools for more than two decades. Now that she is teaching at Whittier, though, she enjoys collaborating with younger colleagues like Rebecca Smith. Smith said she benefits from her colleague’s years of teaching experience, while Seezox gets to learn fresh ideas, such as ways to incorporate technology into the classroom.
Fulton Elementary School in Highland Park is another school with a high number of experienced group of teachers in the district. The median full-time teacher at Fulton has taught for 19 years, with many of those years spent at Fulton itself. Principal Karen Arnold is proud that teachers have so much loyalty to what she calls the Fulton Family.
“There’s a lot of teachers who are now teaching the children of the children that they taught 15, 20 years ago,” she said.
Arnold said that Fulton is able to attract and retain teachers so well in part because teachers take the initiative to collaborate. “I think that the teachers look out for each other, they support each other, they guide and mentor each other, and this is a very great place to work at,” she said.
The district does not ensure that all schools have a balance of new and experienced teachers despite the benefits of having a mix. Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said it’s best to let teachers stay where they are doing well.
While the district doesn’t force teachers to move around, Pittsburgh Public Schools no longer gives an advantage to more experienced teachers when there is an open position. Despite this, there remains large differences between schools in teacher years of experience.
The union said it has been working with the American Federation of Teachers and Pittsburgh Public Schools to figure out why some schools are hard-to-staff. Esposito-Visgitis believes a strong principal is the number one way to attract teachers. Teachers also want a good team of counselors, adequate supplies, and lunch and bus monitors to make sure the students are safe, she said. The union hopes to use these findings to improve the schools that struggle to attract and retain teachers.
“All of our schools should be places where people want to teach,” she said.