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Talent & education

Building a better teacher:

No room for mediocre teachers in this school

Principal Mary Lang doesn’t suffer mediocrity in her classrooms. High-quality teaching is crucial in her North Godwin Elementary where the deck is already stacked against most students. ““Two or three ineffective teachers, and these kids are done,” Lang said.

Principal Mary Lang doesn’t suffer mediocrity in her classrooms. High-quality teaching is crucial in her North Godwin Elementary where the deck is already stacked against most students. ““Two or three ineffective teachers, and these kids are done,” Lang said.

From her closet-sized principal’s office, Mary Lang doesn’t need to talk about more rigorous teacher training. She’s living it.

Lang puts student teachers at Godwin Heights North Elementary School through the educational equivalent of boot camp, teaching classes with low-income, immigrant children and working recess and lunch duty. The hiring process is a grueling, three-month ordeal that can start with as many as 2,000 applicants.

And once teachers make it into a classroom, there’s no guarantee they’ll stay.

“I let two (teachers) go two years ago,” Lang said. “They worked their butts off from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. But I couldn’t keep putting them in front of 25-30 kids and have them affect their lives.”

Both now are successful teachers in other schools, Lang said. But in a high-poverty school with the odds already stacked against success, North Godwin children can’t afford for teachers to be just OK.

“Two or three ineffective teachers, and these kids are done,” Lang said. “It’s crucial.”

Tough standards get results

Godwin Heights Public Schools draws students from working-class neighborhoods of Wyoming, adjacent to Grand Rapids. Of the 400 students, 175 are from families where English is not spoken at home. It’s a recipe for poor academic performance.

“You have to get these kids out of the cycle,” Lang said. “It’s not an option for these kids not to do well.”

Its students learn far more than students at most Michigan schools with similar levels of poverty. For example, the North Godwin and West Godwin elementaries have similar levels of poverty (more than 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch), but more than twice as many North Godwin fourth-graders met state standards on math. On reading, North Godwin outpaced West Godwin 85 percent to 59 percent; on writing, 72 percent to 42 percent.

North Godwin’s new teachers take part in a three-day new teacher orientation before school begins, mentor meetings four times a year plus teacher induction programs four times a year.

“So many of the things you have to have aren’t available in a class,” Lang said.

New teachers are given support, but they’re told they have to show results fast.

“If only 50 percent of kids are making sufficient progress, that’s not acceptable. We can’t keep people who aren’t cutting it.”

“They’re not going to keep someone here who isn’t doing what is best for kids,” said Kelly Compher, in her first year as a full-time teacher at North Godwin.

Last year as a rookie, Compher taught at a middle-class school. “They had all the bells and whistles,” Compher said. “Any teacher could do a good job. But here, with the students’ background, they have so much against them already. I have to be special to succeed. And if I’m not special, I’ll be cut loose.”

Lang doesn’t mince words about the state’s teacher training system. “I’m not sure what they’re teaching them, but I’m not sure it’s right,” she said. Training needs to be “more realistic and hands-on. They need to be worked harder so they know what to expect.”

Why that doesn’t happen now, when teachers are vital to the state’s future, is a mystery to the principal. “It would look like Michigan doesn’t value teachers,” Lang said.

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011, after winning more than 40 state and national journalism awards at The Detroit News. See more stories by him here.

5 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Jared

    I wonder what incentives the teachers at Godwin Heights North receive for working in this intense environment, paying 20% of their health insurance premium and a reduced pension multiplier? You get what you pay for…

  2. Cindy

    What person coming out of college wants to be placed in an environment that expects the world and 12 hr. days, yet pays as much as an office worker somewhere who deals with one item at a time – and is not expected to have much college education?

    College loans, a place to live, a decent car, maybe decent clothes, and also continuing education costs, YES, that would make me want to go into Education where such demands are placed on me for very little money! Good luck with that!

    So, you are basically saying to the teachers, “You are the reason kids don’t do well at school, not the parents, not the Administration, not any other factor, so work yourself till you drop”!

    Oh and if you are supposed to do ‘More with Less’ – that would be even better! I’d like to see that College Education class – ‘How to be a miracle worker!’

  3. Gene Golanda

    If you think the conditions are difficult at the elementary schools in this district, take a look at the secondary school. It really deserves attention. The student composition is similar to that of the elementary schools, but the variability in student readiness is much more pronounced. And the conditions at this workplace are very difficult for teachers, where half of them are potentially going to lose their positions at the end of this school year, regardless of how effective they might be as individual teachers and regardless of tenure, without benefit of legal protections. But, the principal at this “failing” school is a candidate for promotion. Our educational system is in trouble; politicians have been at work messing with something they know little about, but determined to destroy public education. Alas!

  4. Denise

    I don’t think that pushing your employees to work 12 hours every day is a sign of a good administrator. Some of those teachers must have children of their own and need some work-life balance in order to provide their own children what they need, not to mention, take care of themselves. Teachers are not robots, they are real people with real lives in and out of school. Lets support them in ways that allow for maximum effectiveness in school and healthy personal and family lives.

  5. Hannah

    What I’d add to the above list is that if you want teachers to succeed with children, make class sizes smaller. You put 25-30 kids in a class, THAT’S a problem… ESPECIALLY if they’re high-risk kids.

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