First Person

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.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.