A recent New York Times story described how some charter schools are now exclusively hiring teachers and principals in their early 20s who work for just two to three years before leaving education. Instead of deploring this trend, charter programs have embraced a pool of eager, young and idealistic college graduates who are willing to work long, grueling hours for low pay and with no promise of a sustained career path.
The Times focused on the resulting turnover and inexperience among these educators. Studies show that schools with high rates of teacher attrition perform poorly and that many educators don't hone their skills until their third year in the classroom or beyond. The article, however, neglects another downside to charters' emphasis on youthful hiring: Many schools launch with few or no adults on staff who know what it's like to be a parent.
If you aren't a parent, maybe this won't strike you as odd. It wouldn't have struck me that way more than 20 years ago when I joined Teach for America and taught for three years in New York City's public schools. I was single, childless and clueless about even the most basic aspects of child-rearing.
Nearly two decades later, I returned to the classroom, this time as a mother, and have become acutely aware of how being a parent has made me a better teacher. While I still have a reformer's high expectations for my students, I am more flexible about discipline, in part because I'd never want my daughter to be so docile she wouldn't rock the boat. Now when parents approach me with worries or high hopes for the future, I have greater respect for their commingled love and fears. I also have a stronger sense that children's lives are not static but instead endlessly fluid.
I'm not saying no nonparent can be a great teacher - several of my favorite high school teachers were child-free - but I cannot imagine sending my daughter to a school where not a single grown-up has any comprehension of adult family life. Schools need both youthful energy and seasoned wisdom to succeed.
Ryan Hill was also once a young, hard-charging educator. In 2002, he was the founding principal of TEAM Academy, the first charter school in the Newark, N.J., region operated by KIPP, the national charter chain. Hill worked north of 100 hours a week in a profession he regarded as less of a vocation than a crusade.
At the time, he thought of his school like a Silicon Valley startup. "We were a bunch of 25-year-olds," he said. "We'd be there every day, including on Saturdays and Sundays. We'd have students at the school until 10 o'clock each night - kids who needed a place to do homework or whatever."
As TEAM expanded, the inevitable followed: Hill's original teachers got a little older, began to marry, and started families, just as they were blossoming as educators. Hundred-hour workweeks were no longer feasible. The charter was suddenly confronting issues such as maternity leave that, incredibly, it had never faced before.
Unlike some charter proponents, Hill now recognizes the value of his veteran teachers. "Our people who are proven, who are good, are so irreplaceable," he told me. "It was just not an option for us to lose them." This attitude isn't always shared or understood by some corporate backers who come from "fast-growth, nonpeople-dependent industries." But in teaching, Hill argues, your people are everything.
Now a father of two, Hill says parenthood has altered his views. In years past, when students' parents used to get upset, Hill recounts, "They'd say, 'You don't understand because you don't have kids.' " At the time, Hill dismissed such criticism. "I thought it was a way of disagreeing with me for no reason," he said. "My comeback was, 'Yes, I do have kids; I have 300 of them.' [But] that was stupid. I mean, I loved every single one of my 300 students, but it is different, and I knew that but didn't realize how much."
It's a lesson more reformers should learn.
Sara Mosle teaches writing at Philip's Academy Charter School in Newark. She wrote this for Slate.