Sending My Colleagues Back to Class

Brian was frustrated by his school’s high rate of teacher turnover, so he started sending his colleagues back to class.

Every year, roughly 20% of teachers in high-poverty schools don’t return to the classroom.  Don’t believe me? Just take a quick look at The Teacher Dropout Crisis to get a little better idea of the issues we are facing in K-12 education.

Teacher dropout is a pervasive problem, and arguably it’s an epidemic.  The turnover rate impacts everyone: students are left wondering which teachers will return next year, remaining faculty are at a greater risk of burning out to help keep schools running, and the school community is left to reshape itself year after year.

I do consider myself lucky.  I teach at one of the best middle schools in my district.  As a Pre-IB, pre-engineering Magnet school, our students are provided with mind-blowing opportunities.  They build and program robots, develop computer games, and work with engineers from the community.  I also get to work with amazing colleagues who go far above and beyond the requirements of our class schedule. Teachers stay late to tutor kids, play basketball with them after school, and sometimes wait for hours until parents arrive to pick them up.

Our school is also Title I, which means we have a large percentage of students who come from low-income families.  Even though we have a dedicated staff and great learning opportunities for students, teaching here is tough—and we are stricken by an extremely high turnover rate of teachers.  Just four years ago, I was one of 24 new teachers on campus.  If that number seems high, that’s because it is.   It’s over a quarter of our school’s teachers!

After my first year teaching, I was asked to take on the role of New Teacher Mentor.  Essentially, I was to serve as the initial point of contact for new teachers at our school and assist them with understanding school and district policy.  Personally, I had a fantastic New Teacher Mentor who did everything she could for our new 24 staff members, so I wanted to make her proud.

This role as a mentor quickly grew as I partook in projects and developed programs for the new teachers on campus.  One of these was Peer Observation Days. This project, pushed by the coordinator of the New Teacher Mentors throughout our district, was something I consider to be a turning point.  These days were opportunities for new teachers to visit the classrooms of seasoned veterans to observe good teaching in practice.  Just seeing the capabilities and pedagogy of veterans was eye opening for some of these new teachers. Many called the observational periods “the best professional development I’ve had all year.”

But teaching at a Title I school is hard for any teacher.  It presents a unique set of challenges and struggles.  Parental support and involvement is typically lower, and students often have fewer learning opportunities at home.  Many students are also more concerned with what they will be able to eat for lunch than what they are learning in the classroom.  As a result, their teachers need extra support and training as they develop in the profession.

So I lobbied to our New Teacher Mentor Coordinator and my principal for additional funding to open up the observational days to ALL teachers on our campus. Without hesitation, they supported the idea.  Since that conversation, dozens of teachers have participated in these observational periods, getting into the classrooms of their peers, discussing academic strategies, and building their own expertise in the classroom.

This amazing experience has truly helped our teachers feel supported.  These observational periods have given teachers the opportunity to develop their pedagogy by working with their peers—experienced educators who know what they are going through.  They get to share ideas with one another, which will immediately impact their classroom and teaching practices.  One teacher observed, “Seeing the challenges I face every day, and watching others tackle them with ease, gave me hope I am not alone and can learn ways to better my management and teaching skills.”

In addition to our Peer Observation Days, we are continuing to bolster our induction and onboarding of first-year teachers.  We have teachers collaborate on cross-curricula lessons, film one another’s classrooms, watch “game film” to critique their practices, and find ways to impact the lives of our students in and out of the classroom.

Last year, our school began the year with only nine new teachers—a dramatic improvement in retention from just four years ago.  I cannot take credit for this as I believe this is due largely to the support and structure provided by the fantastic colleagues I work with.  They are always there if a new teacher needs support, opening the doors of their classrooms and providing help when needed.

Finding ways to develop our craft by learning with and from one another is key to building expertise in our classrooms.  Peer observations are like a grassroots movement—one teacher at a time, one classroom at a time, one school at a time—developing the skills and practices to impact the lives of hundreds of students.  Just as our students come to school each day ready to learn, we must do the same!

Brian Furgione (@MrFurgione) is a seventh-grade Civics teacher and New Teacher Mentor at MIlwee Middle School in Seminole County, Florida.  He was recently named the 2016 Seminole County Public Schools district Teacher of the Year.  He graduated from Rutgers University in 2009 with a B.A. in History and Journalism & Media Studies and from the University of Central Florida in 2011 with his M.A.T. in Social Science Education.  When not in the classroom, Brian loves to travel with his wife Ashley, visiting historic sites and experiencing new cultures.