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Battling teacher dropout, Paul Simon style

Before we gorged ourselves in the land of turkey and gravy at Thanksgiving, my blog delved into the messy and somewhat neglected topic of educator burnout. This spurred some great dialogue around teacher retention and got my gears whirling to identify solutions. 

I want to preface by making the claim that as a nation we must spend more of our time, energy, resources, and brainpower on this topic. We have a serious teacher dropout problem which is a catalyst to many of our other woes in the realm of education policy. Want proof? My colleague Sandy Merz, teacherpreneur at the Center for Teaching Quality, pointed out recent data that the greatest number of teachers in public education are currently in their first year on the job. That’s right...the recent mode of teaching experience is a whopping one year (gasp!?!!).  Add the financial impact on top: it costs on average $11,000 to replace a teacher and the annual national cost of teacher retention is (you might want to sit down) is approximately $5.8 billion. Not to mention the impact on our students. Yowzers.

So, to the tune of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave your Lover,” I’d like to begin to offer some ways to combat this retention crisis with research-based lyrics inked by yours truly, “50 Ways to Combat Attrition." (Preface: It's only seven, but it's a mighty seven and a great start!)

  1. A latticework of choices for our career, my dear. I’m excited for the movement here, with research from the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY), the Center for Teaching Quality, and others. We have to build on this momentum and build options for educators that are beyond moving into administration. I loved my job as a teacherpreneur last year, which offered me the chance to lead without leaving the classroom (read more on my year here).
  2. Differentiated compensation for our job, Bob. Actually this was from commenter @Brad. And he brings up a good point. Read more on compensation structures for mastery and merit here, developed by a team of accomplished teachers from across the nation. I think it’s fair to ask to be paid differently for our hard work, expertise, skills, experience, results, and hours. I think of all the specializations in medicine as an example of this...
  3. Support from our admin, Ben. Boyd et al. (2011) found that great administrators matter, and I can “second that emotion” from personal experience. Administrators can support us and offer us shelter from the slew of policies and mandates that fall our way, giving us the ability to concentrate on our students in the classroom. I love the quote Sandy Merz mentioned from his principal who asked: What can I do so you love your job? That’s what I’m talking about!
  4. Collaboration we adore, Lenore. Teaching can be an isolating profession, especially when you are in the trenches and up to your tired eyeballs with classroom and school responsibilities, student needs, and paperwork. I know the CTQ Collaboratory and the Teaching Channel have been saving graces for me, working as springboards for collaboration with teachers and education supporters across the nation. Commenter and blogger Angie Miller also brought up the necessity of collaboration within the walls of our schools as well. We need to work as a team to offer each other support, ideas, and teamwork that can be the lifeblood of our practice as educators (and we need the time and freedom to do it).
  5. Balance between work and life can be tryin’, Brian. It is so important for educators to allow personal time for family, friends, and self. This is a toughie but an important one, for happiness and balance outside of the classroom leads to increased productivity and effectiveness inside the classroom. Take a yoga break. Go for a walk. Don’t lose sight of the beautiful world outside our classrooms. Read more on ways to reconnect with your personal and professional mojo here.
  6. Induction systems that continue support, Mort. We need to offer our novice teachers continued support after the completion of university teacher education and through their first years teaching. The best proof I’ve seen? Get ready for this. How about a retention rate for newbies that has jumped from 72% to 94.5% (whoah!) with the implementation of such support in Hillsborough County, FL? Read more here (and shout out to my colleagues in Florida who are working to make this happen). Ingersoll and Perda have pointed out a 40-50% attrition rate during the first five years of teaching. Induction programs that support and develop new teachers combat this new teacher dropout rate, allowing teachers to “season” in the profession and develop into master teachers who can help develop stronger novice teachers themselves. It's a powerful cycle. And it just makes sense.
  7. Freedom to do our job well, Michelle. (Soapbox moment coming.) One of the biggest issues for me is not the need for new policies, but the need to peel back existing policies. I want time. Space. Freedom to do what I feel is best for my students. As teachers, we are highly skilled experts, trained not only in content and pedagogy, but able to apply that knowledge to many students, assessing and diagnosing multiple situations at any one point in time. Scripted curriculum, curriculum calendars, time spent on needless paperwork, and a bazillion other policies (big p and little P if you've read Rick Hess) can cage our creativity and box-in our expertise. Give us freedom to do what we know is best for those amazing learners we are responsible—and accountable—for.

So colleagues, start brainstorming more with me,

And let’s set ourselves free.

5 Comments

David Cohen commented on December 13, 2013 at 2:59pm:

Paul Simon fan here

And I love what you did here. I don't know you well enough to know if shortening your name would bug you but I'll take a chance and say, 

You got this one pegged, Meg!

Glad you're in the fight with us trying to make these changes into realities for more teachers, more schools and districts.

Windy Mitchell commented on December 14, 2013 at 9:51pm:

It's a great plan!

Your ideas are right on! The only thing I would add is some kind of support for teachers when the administration changes. Sometimes it's a good thing and other times it's downright terrifying! How can we support teachers when this occurs? 

I've been teaching for 11 years at the same school. At the beginning of my 4th year our principal left for a job at district office. Between then and now we're on our 3rd set of administrators.  A lot of good teachers end up leaving each time, or silently smoldering over the changes imposed. 

My story has a happy twist in that I overcame burnout and found renewed focus through the pursuit of National Board Certification. 

Ali Wright commented on December 16, 2013 at 4:30pm:

So smart, Bart!

As a HUGE S & G fan who is interested in teacher burnout, your blog made my day!  

I can't help but think about one of my dear friends who was an AWESOME first-year teacher- full of innovative, cool, engaging lesson ideas (like dropping eggs on the classroom floor and having students describe the experience from the egg's perspective to teach point of view) who started having panic attacks and had to leave the classroom mid-year. The stress from the parents and the administrators- plus the inflexible and grueling teaching schedule of 100+ freshmen- was just too much.  

What can we do to help teachers like her in that terrifying first year?  I would like to add to the Induction and "Collaborate, Nate!" ideas and suggest that student teaching last an entire year, and then the teacher's first year of teaching is actually co-taught with a master teacher. Co-teaching is one of the best things that I have ever experienced professionally, and it really takes off the pressure of having to do EVERYTHING (classroom management, formative and summative assessments, parent contacts, lesson and unit design, etc) perfectly every single day.  First-year teachers could focus on one area at a time and slowly build their expertise throughout the year.  And maybe even (gasp!) enjoy that first year.  

Let's continue the conversation- I love the Hillsborough mentorship program.  What are other districts doing to support first-year teachers?

Thanks again, Jen!  (Sorry, I know your name is Megan, but this is just too much fun, hon!)  

Lori Nazareno commented on December 18, 2013 at 12:25pm:

Jobs rotation, Nathan!

As one of our veteran teachers I, too, have a deep appreciation for Paul Simon and all things S & G! Thanks so much for this post!

For those who are interested in this topic Sean Woytek is desgning a school for Denver Public Schools and in his post Burnout: How to Create a School to Alleviate this Cancer he is asking for help finding solutions to  this very issue. Feel free to pitch in there as well and help him design his school.

One of the ideas that really resonated with me is the idea of having teachers rotate jobs on a regular basis. In his model he is thinking that a teacher would loop with their kids for up to 3 years and then rotate into another position like coach/mentor, peer observer, community liaison or others. Then they would rotate back into the classroom after a few years. These different positions could also be hybrid roles.

I think that this idea gets to a few things mentioned in your list above, career lattice, differentiated compensation, collaboration time and high quality induction.

Love the notion of reimagining the profession and using the "dropout rate" as part of the rationale!

Brianna Crowley commented on December 18, 2013 at 10:51pm:

*Blush* No Idea...

...about Paul Simon and his style! I have what I somewhat abashedly call my "black hole" years where I had little to no interaction with popular culture or music. In times like these, I feel it! 

BUT, I love all the ideas rolling here about teacher retention. I posted this to CTQ's GOOD.is profile in hopes of getting more people in on the conversation!

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