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Turnover – The Biggest Problem We Face: Part 1

At the Education Nation panel I attended last fall, AFT President Randi Weingarten begged the moderator, reporter Steven Brill, to ask me and the other teachers about the biggest problem we faced in our schools. Here is the answer no one else bothered to ask me to share:

The biggest problem my school faces in our efforts to reform education is not the students nor their poverty; it is not the union contract, the union, or the administration; it is not too much testing or too little accountability. No, the biggest problem in my school is the turnover of our pedagogical staff. If I could ask the education genie for one wish, it would be a group of teachers who would stay and serve our students for a career.

When I interact with teachers at conferences and online, they’re shocked to hear my school has such high turnover. They’re shocked because we have such a good reputation, or we’ve had such strong results, or the economy is so bad. And I’m shocked they’re shocked. We all know 50 percent of teachers leave teaching within five years. Why would anyone be surprised that this hits the Bronx and other students in most need the most?

There are 40 adults who work at my school as teachers, administrators, or in guidance roles. This is only my school’s seventh year, and already, 76 different people have filled those positions. Our current staff shares an average of 3.15 years at my school. The average number of years all teachers have spent at the school is a measly 2.84. The data by department follows at the end of this post.*

Why do people leave? Of the 36 people who have left my school:

  • 10 moved away from the city
  • 8 remained in the city, but left teaching
  • 5 have moved to higher positions in education in the region
  • 5 have changed schools (4 to other public schools, 1 to a private school)
  • 3 have been fired
  • 3 left to go to grad school
  • 2 have been excessed
  • 2 are unknown to me

When people leave, they take with them the institutional knowledge we so desperately need to build a new school’s culture. They take with them the trust earned from students, who are less likely to then give new teachers a chance. After all, many students think, what’s the point of building relationships with new teachers if they’re just going to leave anyway?

I do not blame any of the individuals who left. They each did what was right for them and their families. I used to be quite mad at them, but I have since come to blame the logic of capitalism.

It is difficult to state the challenge, though, each departure brings the school and our students. First, there is the huge amount of time we are forced to spend annually recruiting, interviewing, and selecting new candidates. To fill an open history spot this summer, I went through over 100 resumes, and interviewed a dozen teachers on the phone for at least 30 minutes each. I only spent that little time because it was two weeks before the start of school; normally, we would have had 3-5 finalists come in to teach sample lessons and then interview with a full panel of teachers, administrators, and students.  I have a friend who is a full time director of recruitment with a staff of three people who work full time to recruit for a network of three charter schools. At my public school, all this work is done by teachers and administrators, whose plates are already plenty full.

The selection process is only the beginning of the time investment we make in each new teacher. Even previously successful teachers need significant coaching and mentoring to adapt to our schools’ culture of project-based assessment, inquiry-based learning, and advisory. We run a new teacher group and provide each with a mentor to meet with them weekly.

Many of our new teachers, though, come with little or no experience. These teachers often need significant help with all aspects of pedagogy, most visibly in classroom management. The most challenging new teachers require hours and hours of time from administrators, coaches, deans, and their peers in order to help them be functional in the classroom. For a really struggling teacher, we often invest two years before that teacher can stand on her or his own two feet in the classroom, which usually is just enough time for them to leave us. In the meantime, okay teachers only receive minimal support, and therefore often do not reach their full potential.

I am in my first year as an official instructional coach at my school, and I love working with the three novice social studies teachers I support. All three are good now, and I believe all three will be great in the near future. But at the same time, it concerns me that at this early stage of my career, I am already being pulled out of the classroom. The time that was invested in my development, rather than going straight to more students as it should, is being redirected to other teachers. This is not a sustainable model for educational change. But as department chair and the most experienced history teacher in my school, there is little choice.

Coming up: Part 2 on causes of the problem, and Part 3 on possible solutions.

*Note: The data is my recreation and accurate to the best of my knowledge, but it has not been verified by anyone. There are many limitations to it, so I would not encourage anyone to use if for other purposes without further research.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.