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“Where did you go?” The Problem Of Teacher Turnover

Nearly every morning after I groggily grope for the kitchen light to grab my pre-packed lunch, I notice the drawings made by my fiancée’s former students still hanging on the fridge. Stick figures grin and hearts frame students’ last messages to a teacher that had positively affected them: “Where did you go?” “When are you coming back? I want to learn more about dinosaurs.” “Ms. D I love you. What happened? Where do you live now?”

My fiancée worked at Harlem Success Academy 3, which lost more than a third of its staff over this summer alone. This figure did not count those who were fired or who left of their own volition during the school year. Ms. D is just one of the many dedicated young educators who were incompatible with the school’s structure and model for teachers and students. One popular defense of high turnover rates is that teacher firings are always done for the good of the students. Yet the refrigerator art in our apartment stands as just one compelling example that hasty dismissals can have a profoundly negative effect on students.

At non-union schools, top-tier administrators can now dispose of any teacher at any time, with or without cause. In my fiancée’s case, just a few months into her first year teaching she was given 10 days to get “98 percent compliance” in all her classes, whatever that means, or be terminated. She had no choice in the matter and was ordered not to tell any of her 150 students that she would not be back the next day. This explains the students’ questions (“What happened?” “When are you coming back?”) included in personal notes written after they realized she was gone.

None of this was a surprise to me. I had seen similar scenarios play out three years earlier, when I worked as an after-school tutor at Promise Academy charter school. A teacher would be working on grades and conferencing with students one day, and then all but disappear the next. No staff member spoke his or her name, acting as if that teacher had never been there. But the students could not forget so easily. I remember kids expressing to me that they felt like the entire year was starting over in March. Not a good time to completely turn the page, but that was the students’ problem.

Though Hyde Leadership Charter School, where I work, retains teachers well, we have had faculty members resign for one reason or another (they were moving or going to graduate school). I have seen how the loss of a trusted adult has set some students back emotionally, if not academically. It’s hard for any of us when a mentor or a special adult is suddenly taken out of our lives. This feeling of abandonment is only compounded when it happens to students, like many of ours, who have already suffered this kind of loss in their personal lives (Dad leaves, a family member goes to jail, a grandparent dies). Last year I was struck by how many students asked me how long I would be staying at Hyde and if I would be coming back next year. It seemed to me that this was their way of trying to salvage some sense of security and consistency. I believe that students should not have to feel such fear that the adults they trust will stay with them.

The other side of this picture, of course, is those more rare scenarios when the only consistency students can count on is to have consistently bad teachers. So, how do you create a system that allows you to retain dedicated teachers while being able to dismiss that minority who are doing their job poorly? Kay Merseth, a former instructor of mine at Harvard, suggests in “Inside Urban Charter Schools” that there must be leadership opportunities for teachers so that the longer they stay, the higher they climb on the ladder. This idea has been embraced by charter schools and others, including Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp. While it rewards educators’ hard work, we risk creating a revolving-door situation where people teach for several years and then, by the ripe old age of 25 or 26, graduate to bigger and “better” things in education. Merseth mentions a more enticing idea pioneered by Community Day School in Boston, which offers sabbaticals for teachers to pursue studies that would enhance their curriculum and instruction. The model treats teachers like professionals and urges them to improve upon their craft. Yet the model would be too costly for many schools.

One option is to find the funding to offer teachers sabbaticals — something the city has eliminated in this tough budget climate. Another option is to create systems in schools where teachers, especially young teachers, will be helped rather than fired if they experience some struggle. They don’t need to have a “job for life” but they do need the assurance of job security as they figure out just how to do the job. Sadly, these ideas seem radical in the current political climate. If you work in certain charter schools your job is always in jeopardy. Recent reports show that Ms. D was not the only one who felt the overwhelming burden of that fact.

There is no evidence I have seen that this intense pressure improves teacher performance, and there is no evidence I have seen that it improves student performance. What we do know is that this new way of treating these once eager teachers can make them miserable enough to jump ship, depriving students of yet another much-needed lifeline.

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