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Turnover – The Biggest Problem We Face: Part 3

I previously wrote about the killer effects that teacher turnover is having on my Bronx school, as well as considering some of the causes of this high turnover. It is now my hope to offer solutions to this problem.

I have been thinking long and hard about a way to solve this problem that does not cost more. In times of falling budgets and layoffs, I know any idea that costs more will get little traction. Unfortunately, I cannot think of a single solution that will not cost more at some level. If we value the education of our students, we need to be willing to pay for it. I hope there will be commenters more creative that I am.

Studies have shown that the number one reason teachers leave is not because of low pay, but rather because of poor working conditions. These solutions aim specifically at improving the working conditions of new teaches. These strategies could be used in concert or individually, but all of them would make new teachers more successful, and therefore, more likely to remain in the profession:

Provide real mentoring from trained mentors to new teachers
In his 18 years as an urban teacher, administrator, and instructional coach, David Ginsburg (whom I met at the recent Education Writers Association’s conference) has seen a direct relationship between the practical support teachers receive, including classroom coaching and new teacher induction training, and their retention rates and overall effectiveness. Here’s an excerpt from an email I recently got from him:

Last year a school that was averaging around 40% turnover of new hires from one year to the next for several years brought me on to do a teacher induction program and to coach teachers, and over 90% of teachers who received that support are back this year.

What did David do? He observed the, gave them feedback, provided them with resources when needed, and talked with them. He also did this in a non-evaluative, low stakes manner. This is not rocket science.

I am attempting to provide similar coaching this year to three teachers. Unlike David, I have no training or experience to show that I can coach teachers, other than the fact that I have been successful in the classroom. I hope I am doing a good job, but I don’t have the tools to truly assess if I am. This is the flaw in the current school-based mentoring system that exists in NYC: there is no process to make sure mentors can coach. The key to making mentoring successful is making sure we have the right mentors, then giving them to time to meet, support, and actually coach new teachers. NYC currently has no screening nor evaluation of mentors, and this needs to change.

Reduce the class loads of new teachers, and make them observe
There is no other profession I know of where someone is expected to do the same work on the first day of their job that they do in their 30th year. If an experienced teacher can handle five classes with a maximum load of 170 (which is already too high), new teachers’ loads should be capped at three sections with no more than 75 students total. Teachers should spend the rest of their day formally reflecting on their classes and students’ work, as well as observing all other teachers in the school, both good and bad.

I was blessed to go through a student teaching program that capped my load at two sections, then required me to do observations. I learned a ton from watching teachers on whom I wanted to model myself, but I learned even more from watching the others who I did not want to be like. This allowed me to enter the profession with a clear conception of both who I wanted to be, and what I wanted to avoid becoming.

Moreover though, I got to be a “perfect teacher” for four months. At my most idealistic moment, I had the opportunity to actually put all my ideals into action, and then had time to reflect on my performance. I could spend ten minutes grading every essay (now if I spend three minutes per essay, that’s 2 hours per section), make weekly calls to parents, and truly know every one of my students on a deep, personal level. I will never have the time to be that teacher again, but I know what I am aiming for. Most teachers do not get this experience.

Create new teacher support groups, with guidance from novice teachers
A very common complaint from new teachers is the feeling of isolation they have when entering the profession. It is important that new teachers be given the time and space to reflect, vent, and share their successes and failures in a safe environment. This group can take many forms. At schools with lots of new teachers, this can take place at the school level, elsewhere on a district level. For those places where it cannot, this can happen online through blogging, chartrooms, or on Twitter (there is a weekly chat for new teachers on the hashtag #ntchat that many rave about). This, ideally, should not be something extra new teachers have to do, as they do too much already, but should be part of their paid work time.

However, these groups should not happen in isolation. Teacher who have survived the early part of their career should be participant-leaders in these groups to help bridge the social divide between new and experienced teachers, but also to ensure new teachers learn that success is possible.

I would also like to point an optimistic eye towards the DC’s Center for Inspired Teaching Resident Program, which provides a new model for teaching training which I think makes a lot of sense, and hopefully can yield long-term results. I will be keeping an eye on the work of Aleta Margolis and her organization as they move forward with this ambitious plan.

These are but a few ideas, and I am hopeful that others will add to this list; from my point of view in the Bronx, there is no bigger challenge facing urban schools right now.

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