Teacher Retention and Power Dynamics

Recently, I had a conversation with my uncle, who is a small business owner, about teaching.  In the course of the conversation we noticed a confluence of these two unusual conditions of teaching.

  • First, unlike other professionals, teachers are disempowered through systems that regularly make decisions for us that directly impact our work and the conditions in which we carry it out.  We are also underpaid for the challenging, terribly important contributions we make to society.
  • Second, compared to other professions, there is an abundance of jobs available for teachers, at least in highly populated areas.  In New York City, it’s easy for teachers to move from a position at one school to a similar position at another school.

My uncle doesn’t experience either of these realities.  First, he is the main decision maker in his job, and second, there is no other “similar job” that he could easily jump into should he need a change.

I ended up describing to him what I have seen over the years in NYC: leaving is one of very few power moves teachers have when things aren’t going well at a school.

Because of the way our profession is structured, teachers are often in a position of feeling powerless in the face of issues in their schools or districts.  When teachers feel unsupported at a school or find their needs or concerns falling on deaf ears, or their expertise is disregarded or undermined, we often make the one power move we feel we have, which is to vote with our feet.  I’ve seen teachers in these situations leave a school, move out of classroom teaching, or leave the profession altogether.  In urban areas, there are always teaching positions available, so unlike most other professionals, we can move fairly easily—perhaps too easily.  I know way more teachers than I can count who have left schools out of frustration, leaving gaping holes in their school communities when they go.

We have lots of research on what works to retain teachers in schools, but the problem is complex and a single initiative won’t solve it.  It’s not just salary, or just support from administration, or support from parents, or autonomy in teaching, or support addressing challenging classroom behaviors, or input into decision making processes, or too much testing, or lack of career opportunities for classroom teachers, or more time in the day to collaborate with colleagues. It’s all of these things, but they all stem from lack of teacher input into policies that govern each of these items at various levels of our system.

I often think about what would have happened if it hadn’t been so easy for me to leave the East Harlem school, in which I first started teaching.  Though it was a tough environment, I loved teaching there.  After three years, I felt like I was really hitting my stride as a teacher.  At this time, the school was officially “in need of improvement” due to its test scores, and the principal was advised to mandate implementation of a semi-scripted curriculum to attempt to solve the problem (They also took the state’s recommendation to reduce the large ELL and SPED populations the school served in order to make it easier to raise test scores…yeah, that happened…).  Many aspects of the mandated curriculum conflicted with my own ideas about how I wanted to teach and what I believed was best for my students.  I, along with several others, left that year.

I don’t think anyone would say I didn’t have a good reason to leave.  But 6 years later, I still miss the students I taught there.  I miss the large light-filled classroom and the luxurious 90-minute periods I had.  I miss working among veteran teachers who came from the same communities as our students and taught me so much.

I find myself wondering, what would have happened if I stayed and weathered that particular storm? And why did that “storm” have to happen, and why do I continue to see so much leaving over and over again in New York City schools?

I hesitate to end this post on a negative note, so I’ll point to the incredibly aptly titled book Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don’t Leave for inspiration. Could a transformed teaching profession–with increased hybrid roles for teacher leaders and professional compensation–solve the problem?