Turnover – The Biggest Problem We Face: Part 1

At the Education Nation panel I attended, AFT President Randi Weingarten begged the moderator, NY Times reporter Steven Brill, to ask me and the other teachers about the biggest problem we faced in our schools.  Here is the answer no one else bothered to ask me to share:

The biggest problem my school faces in our efforts to reform education is not the students nor their poverty; it is not the union contract, the union, or the administration; it is not too much testing or too little accountability. No, the biggest problem in my school is the turnover of our pedagogical staff. If I could ask the education genie for one wish, it would be a group of teachers who would stay and serve our students for a career.

When I interact with teachers at conferences and online, they’re shocked to hear my school has such high turnover. They’re shocked because we have such a good reputation, or we’ve had such strong results, or the economy is so bad. And I’m shocked they’re shocked. We all know 50% of teachers leave teaching within five years.  Why would anyone be surprised that this hits the Bronx and other students in most need the most?

There are 40 adults who work at my school as teachers, administrators, or in guidance roles. This is only my school’s seventh year, and already, 76 different people have filled those positions. This current staff shares an average of 3.15 years at my school. The average number of years all teachers have spent at the school is a measly 2.84. The data by department follows bellow.*

Why do people leave? Of the 36 people who have left my school:

  • 10 moved away from the city
  • 8 remained in the city, but left teaching
  • 5 have moved to higher positions in education in the region
  • 5 have changed schools (4 to other public schools, 1 to a private school)
  • 3 have been fired
  • 3 left to go to grad school
  • 2 have been excessed
  • 2 are unknown to me

When people leave, they take with them the institutional knowledge we so desperately need to build a new school’s culture. They take with them the trust earned from students, who are less likely to then give new teachers a chance. After all, many students think, what’s the point of building relationships with new teachers if they’re just going to leave anyway?

I do not blame any of the individuals who left. They each did what was right for them and their families. I used to be quite mad at them, but I have since come to blame the logic of capitalism.

It is difficult to state the challenge, though, each departure brings the school and our students. First, there is the huge amount of time we are forced to spend annually recruiting, interviewing, and selecting new candidates. To fill an open history spot this summer, I went through over 100 resumes, and interviewed a dozen teachers on the phone for at least 30 minutes each. I only spent that little time because it was two weeks before the start of school; normally, we would have had 3-5 finalists come in to teach sample lessons and then interview with a full panel of teachers, administrators, and students.  I have a friend who is a full time director of recruitment with a staff of three people who work full time to recruit for a network of three charter schools.  At my public school, all this work is done by teachers and admins, whose plates are already plenty full.

The selection process is only the beginning of the time investment we make in each new teacher. Even previously successful teachers need significant coaching and mentoring to adapt to our schools’ culture of project-based assessment, inquiry-based learning, and advisory. We run a new teacher group, and provide each with a mentor to meet with them weekly.

Many of our new teachers though, come with little or no experience. These teachers often need significant help with all aspects of pedagogy, most visibly in classroom management. The most challenging new teachers require hours and hours of time from administrators, coaches, deans, and their peers in order to help them be functional in the classroom. For a really struggling teacher, we often invest two years before that teacher can stand on her or his own two feet in the classroom, which usually is just enough time for them to leave us. In the meantime, okay teachers only receive minimal support, and therefore often do not reach their full potential.

I am in my first year as an official instructional coach at my school, and I love working with the three novice social studies teachers I support. All three are good now, and I believe all three will be great in the near future. But at the same time, it concerns me that at this young stage of my career, I am already being pulled out of the classroom. The time that was invested in my development, rather than going straight to more students as it should, is being redirected to other teachers. This is not a sustainable model for educational change. But as department chair and the most experienced history teacher in my school, there is little choice.

Coming up: Part 2 on causes of the problem, and Part 3 on possible solutions.


*Note: the data is my recreation and accurate to the best of my knowledge, but has it been verified by anyone. There are many limitations to it, so I would not encourage anyone to use if for other purposes without further research.

13 thoughts on “Turnover – The Biggest Problem We Face: Part 1

  1. Thank you Steve! Not only for pointing out this great need, but pulling together this data. This scenario is repeated at most high needs schools with devastating results for students, yet it’s impact is not only ignored but amplified with policies such as mass firings at low performing schools. It’s like using gasoline to put out a fire.


  2. I am personally working on my certification and it saddens me that some of my fellow sub co-workers are certified teachers. Who have left their regular position to sub while they pursue another career. High turnover in our NYC schools is damaging students academically and emotionally.

    Academically, many of our schools lack math and science teachers.In June I subbed at a High School during regents week. Some of the kids did not want to take the regents, because they said they never had a science teacher. I had to cojole them into trying to take the test. I often get called for one subject and when I get there, I am teaching three different subjects in one day because of the number of teachers absent.

    Emotionally, students are becoming more disruptive because of the fact that they get a different sub everyday. Behavior problems in a class with an absent teacher is manageable. But behavior problems in a class with no teacher and a different sub everyday is dangerous. When I talk to these students about their behavior they always ask me, when are we gonna get a teacher? Then they tell me stories about “how many” teachers they had. Just this past Friday I was at a school with a group of student whose behavior was pretty good and the students told me the teacher left cause they did not pay her. When I went into the lounge on my break, half of the people in there were subs also.

    High turnover is common place in many schools in NYC. I got a call in August to sub on the first day of school, because some teachers at a school decided not to return at the last minute. The turnover rate is not only high at schools with tough students, but also at the ones with well behaved ones too. So we can’t even say that teachers are leaving because the students are rambunctious.

    Just my random thoughts as I read your blog.


  3. Steve, this is so true. I taught in Brooklyn for 4 years with a friend who taught English. In year 4, we were the most senior people in the building — including faculty and administration.

    New York is not unique in this, but I do think NYC has extraordinarily high turnover.

    I taught more recently at a school that was in a turnaround stance, and had a mandate to keep faculty stability. It made all the difference.


  4. In some small schools, perhaps yours, we have a strange phenomenon: the kids stick together for 4 years, or are stuck together, but the adults rotate through. Strange twist on the small school advantage. It’s really a mess, and it is repeated in place after place in Brooklyn and the Bronx.


  5. Great post. The focus too much is on firing bad teachers. A more pressing problem is how to we retain good teachers? We had a year where if you were 3 out of what I’d say were our 5 best teachers left. We lost 50% of our staff that year but frankly we could have plugged in most of them and not lost a step. Those 3 were devastating. It was 4 years ago and I don’t think we’ve fully recovered.


  6. I totally agree; the yellow elephant in the room reformers ignore is attrition. How can we address the “Turnaround Challenge” if the school house becomes a revolving door?
    Additionally, taxpayers SPEND BILLIONS annually on teacher turnover. I read with interest the amount of effort and time you spend going through resumes to recruit and replace teachers. Until reformers address its teacher EQUITY challenges, we will NEVER close the achievement gap.

    It is common knowledge that most high poverty schools encounter difficulty attracting and retaining capable and experienced educators. Rates of attrition in at-risk schools are higher than attrition levels at more affluent schools. Nearly 50 percent of new teachers in high poverty schools leave the profession during the first three years vs 50 per cent during the first five years in affluent schools. (National Partnership of Teaching in At-Risk Schools Research Statistics). Research furthermore shows that children assigned to effective teachers for three consecutive years in a row score an average of 49 percentile higher on standardized tests than children assigned to ineffective teachers three years in a row.


Comments are closed.