I need a break from politics today.
Many (many) years ago I graduated from an all women’s private Catholic college in northern Virginia with a Bachelor’s degree in education and got license to teach. I landed my first teaching job in Washington DC Public Schools. I was one of two white teachers and the youngest by 15 years. I was hired to teach fourth grade a week after school started, and had 21 smiling nine year old mostly African American children waiting for me on my first day. Very little that I learned in college prepared me to teach in an urban school district-I was schooled in theory and pedagogy, but not so much in understanding how culture and community affect learning.
The principal handed me several curriculum binders, patted my back to wish me luck and said she’d be back soon to check on me. Then next time I saw her was just before Christmas when she poked her head in my classroom, gave me two thumbs up said, “I hear you’re doing great!”
I survived my first year, and stayed for a second, though I was transferred to a different school. I had amazingly supportive colleagues and a lot of determination. I asked questions, made mistakes, asked more questions, and did my best to immerse myself in the community. At one point my students taught me how to double dutch at recess-that was funny. I remember a blizzard the first winter and schools within 50 miles of DC were closed. DC Public Schools was open on time. I learned the number of students receiving free/reduced lunch was so high that if they didn’t have school, they didn’t eat. So I drove to school. In the blizzard.
I went back to see one of my professors at the end of the first year. Unknowingly I laid out a prophesy that one day I would teach college students practical skills needed to teach so they would be better prepared than I was to teach in an urban environment. I’ve been doing just that for over 12 years. In addition to teaching pre-service teachers, I place my students in urban school districts to complete clinical practice hours, and parallel what they’re seeing with what I’m teaching back in my classroom. That is the practical experience I never had. I had on-the-job experience.
I may have been an exception as I did not leave the profession after my experience in DC. But many leave. The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) reported the number much lower than the often reported 50% (NEA Today).
Here are a few facts:
Using three sources of data from NCES, that report calculated a teacher turnover rate of 30% after five years in the profession (NEA Today).
High turnover rates in public schools cost the districts roughly $2.2 billion a year (NPR).
New teachers assigned mentors stayed longer than those who were not.
Teachers paid a salary above $40,000 stayed longer than those earning below that salary.
Poor working conditions are often the most cited reason for teachers leaving.
If you had to guess why teachers were leaving the profession, you’d likely cite some of the reasons I listed. Common sense tells us why. What do we do about it? How do we recruit and retain teachers to be effective in urban environments? From where I see this problem as a teacher educator, we need to help aspiring teachers understand who they are culturally before they can understand others because their culture is likely different from students in urban environments. Teachers need to truly understand how culture and community affect learning.
- Ninety percent of student enrolled in teacher prep programs are middle class white women. So we need to increase the number of students of color in teacher prep programs. Better recruitment and support throughout high school and college.
- Assign new teachers a mentor to guide, teach, observe, and support them during their first five years. School districts need to see new teachers as investments-especially with the astronomical cost in turnover. It would likely cost more to invest than not to. $2.2 billion is a lot of money.
- Give teachers what they need to succeed- materials, supplies, resources, technology, services, professional support and competitive salaries.
- Hold teachers accountable but not through standardized test scores-through peer-evaluation, mentorship and professional development.
- Use assessment to inform instruction, not punish good teachers.
- Apply researched and proven instructional methods, curricula, and standardized assessments, not government imposed mandates.
- Study and model successful practices from other districts, states, and especially other nations (Finland, eg.) who are doing it right.
- For the love of all children, hire experienced educators for legislative positions in Federal and state departments of education, administrative positions, and classroom positions.
The revolving door of new teachers leaving the profession should be of concern to educators, legislators, teachers, students, parents. And as such, committees, school boards, government offices should comprise all the players. Ask questions, make mistakes, ask more questions, and learn from mistakes. Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
These are my reflections for today.