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As hundreds of teachers leave Oklahoma for better pay or improved working conditions, school leaders must turn to underprepared teachers. This year, the state Department of Education issued 3,023 emergency certifications to teacher candidates. This is highly concerning because when new teachers have no education degree at all, a principal cannot rely on university training to show teachers how to teach and spend valuable time offering on-the-job training.

And because of this, administrators are forced to decide who to support with limited time. Some leaders devote all their time to the least-experienced teachers. But there’s no guarantee that novice teachers will stay for a second or third year, and in this strategy, veteran teachers are on their own. Other leaders split their time between all classrooms, which means newbies may flounder for an entire year, creating student academic gaps.

Imagine an Oklahoma principal who has 300 students and 18 staff members. As the leader, she is responsible for everyone’s success. Even three new teachers with no training can dramatically affect a school’s effectiveness. So where should she spend her time?

Option 1: Focus solely on the three new teachers. That’s about 60 kids. But these teachers may not even be there within the next year; sadly, many emergency certified teachers are only filling a void.

Option 2: Split her time between all classrooms. That’s about 300 kids. But the three new teachers need much more support. Who has sufficient time when she also has to be the custodian, coach, bus driver and counselor?

Option 3: Bet on a few classrooms she thinks will be successful and responsive to coaching and feedback. How many kids is that? If she ignores the new teachers’ needs and their students, that is almost 60 kids who will not get the educational experience that they need to thrive.

This is an impossible choice. Every classroom has students with high needs: those who have life trauma, academic shortcomings and who need their teacher’s help to find a bright future. But given limited resources, administrators are left to play the numbers game with children’s lives.

Unfortunately, this is a zero-sum game. There are, in fact, winners and losers. The collective growth of a school cannot happen if professional time and capacity are devoted to on-the-job training. Theoretically, schools should receive teachers who have a baseline of understanding, experience and commitment. But this is no longer the reality for schools. An underfunded and under-supported school system leads to a cycle of “haves” and “have nots” at both the teacher and student levels.

Schools and districts must have a comprehensive novice teacher strategy. This is exactly what districts like Tulsa, Norman, Edmond, Cleveland, Union, Cushing and Broken Arrow have done. We know that the basic teacher orientation model no longer works. Schools must frontload training and provide support throughout the year.

Our teachers are one of our most critical investments because without quality teaching, quality learning cannot occur.

Joanna Lein, Ed.D., is executive director of the Tulsa-based Teaching & Leading Initiative of Oklahoma.

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