The budget situation in the past few years has lead to a number of teacher layoffs and reassignments. In many cases, beginning teachers bear the brunt of these. But often overlooked are the effects of these changes on the teachers who remain (and their students), as teaching positions are shuffled around to cover the furloughed positions.
I recently talked with MH, a middle school general science teacher for 25 years. Two years ago, the district instituted a hiring freeze and began furloughing and reassigning teachers. When a high school biology teacher retired, MH (who is certified in biology) was transferred to the position. She shared her experiences and offers advice for teachers and administrators in this situation.
Describe your middle school experience. I was teaching in a new building, in a lab that I helped to design and with a curriculum that I wrote in cooperation with my colleagues. The lab was well supplied and the inventories were in order. During my time there, I was also an athletic coach, academic team leader, and department chair. I earned a master’s degree and additional graduate credits. I served on the supervision/evaluation and professional development committees. I presented at workshops and attended NSTA conferences. I was satisfied with my middle school role and I think I did an excellent job.
How were you informed of your reassignment? I was told of the transfer during the week before the end of the school year. Staying at the middle school was not an option. So in addition to the end-of-year activities with my eighth–graders, I also had to clean out my personal materials and prepare the lab for my successor. With the move, I was no longer a department chair. I felt as though the rug had been pulled out from under me.
What is your course load at the high school? I now have four preps: academic biology, ESL (English as a Second Language ) biology (co-teaching with an ESL teacher), advanced biology, and a botany elective. I also have a homeroom, lunch duty, and one planning period per day. Fortunately, I teach in the same lab all day and I don’t have to share it with another teacher. The technology is adequate.
How much time did you get to prepare? The high school was closed for the summer, so I could not get into the lab until two weeks before classes started. I was surprised that the lab was in disarray and that the inventories were not up-to-date. Some of the equipment was not in working order, and I was concerned about the status of safety equipment. I did my best, but it took a while to get the lab in a condition that I was satisfied with.
How familiar were you with the curriculum? I am credentialed in biology but I had been away from it for a long time and I had never taught the subject at the high school level. The subject now has more emphasis on molecular biology, biochemistry, genetics, and genomes. The only curriculum document available to me was an applied biology curriculum, and I was told to “beef it up” for the academic class and modify it for the ESL class. I had access to the textbooks for the courses that use them. I researched other botany courses and blended them to create a curriculum for the new course, and I was compensated for this curriculum work. I did a lot of reading over the summer to catch up with the content, but I found that I actually learned content right along with the students during the year.
What were your biggest challenges? I left an environment in which we had established professional learning communities with common planning time. The high school schedule does not allow much collaboration during the school day. I do meet with the other biology teacher after school hours (we do not have any common planning time during the day). In general, the high school teachers seem to be content-focused and not as attuned to the whole child approach to education.
My lab is set up very differently. It is smaller and the students sit at the lab tables. I’ve had to adapt my instructional and classroom management strategies for this arrangement.
The middle school students were much easier to engage in the learning activities, while the high schoolers seem to focus on non-academic events, such as social activities and their jobs. But I do enjoy the level of conversations I have with the advanced biology students.
Any advice for teachers and administrators? I felt like a new teacher, starting over in an unfamiliar school teaching subjects I had never taught before. But everyone assumed that I did not need any assistance. I would suggest that
- Transferring teachers receive advance notice to vacate their classroom or lab.
- Teachers should have access to their new classrooms over the summer to prepare lessons and labs, organize materials, and inventory what is there.
- Teachers should be compensated for any curriculum updates or rewrites that they must do.
- The district safety officer should be available to assist in inventorying and any clean-up of chemicals or other materials.
My most important suggestion would be to provide a welcome and an orientation for transferring teachers. Even though I was an experienced teacher, I was unfamiliar with the school building and its culture. I had a lot of basic questions: Where is the copier? Whom do I call if there is an issue with the technology? What is the budget? What is the fire drill procedure?
It’s ironic that years ago, I requested a transfer to the high school but was refused. But change can be good. If it is something that you want to do, go for it.