But Will They Stay? One More Urgent Idea for Journalists

Two local news stories this past weekend busted out a tired story line to support the attack on teachers’ seniority rights in NYC. Carl Campanile wrote in the Daily News about how new small schools could loose high percentages of their teachers; and Barbara Martinez profiled Stany Leblanc, an “excellent” teacher who, only in his second year, could lose his job to layoffs.  On the surface, both stories are certainly heart-wrenchers.  There’s only one problem with the reporting: nowhere in either story is it asked how long these teachers plan on staying in the classroom.

I’m sure Mr. Leblanc is a wonderful teacher.  It sounds like his students are lucky to have him. But anyone who wants to use him in an argument for how very difficult decisions should be made surely better seek out how long he, and others like him, will stay in the classroom.  I’ll take a mildly effective teacher who will teach for decades over a highly effective teacher who will teach less than half of one in a heartbeat.

Here’s the bottom line: nearly 50% of teachers leave NYC schools within six years. For Teach for America teachers like Mr. Leblanc, that number is much scarier: over 80% nationally leave within only three years.  This cannot be lost in any discussions about teacher layoffs or recruitment.  While Michelle Cahill and Talia Milgrom-Elcott at the Carnegie CorportationMcKinsey , Teach for America, and other high profile voices, focus on recruiting more highly educated candidates to the teaching profession, those of us in the trenches realize we do not have a recruitment problem; what we have is a retention problem.

As I’ve written before, turnover is the single biggest challenge my seventh-year school has faced. For every Mr. Leblanc I encounter, I face nine other new teachers who struggle in their first couple years.  My school devotes tremendous resources, including a portion of my time which could be spent with students, in order to turn struggling new teachers into competent ones.  But when these teachers leave after 3-5 years, our investment is wasted, and we have to start over all again with another new, struggling teachers.

Journalists need to start telling the story of what effect turnover has on the lives of schools and students, particularly those for whom school is the primary source of stability in their lives, and for whom teachers represent the strongest adult relationships they have.  They need to start telling this story now before hard working, career educators are sacrificed in order to keep teachers who are going to leave in the next few years anyway.

(Both links via Gotham Schools. The phrase “We do not have a recruitment problem; we have a retention problem” is borrowed from Ariel Sacks.)

7 thoughts on “But Will They Stay? One More Urgent Idea for Journalists

  1. Very thoughtful and provocative. How do we keep the best teachers in the classroom? And how does turnover effect our kids? Currently I am working with five rural districts in Iowa where the teacher turnover rate is 16% or higher in a year. Talking with some of the local people gives the view that there is not enough give and take between the individual teacher and the community for each to be vested in one another. Something to think about . . .


  2. Thank you for writing this so well. It is so very true, with no signs of letting up. I think there is resistance to addressing it, because it brings up those thorny issues of salary, resources, teacher autonomy and professionalism, and other working conditions. But that is precisely where we need to go if we actually want to see improvement, rather than continue to pour time, thought and resources that lead right back where we started.


  3. Thank you Stephen, again, for thoughtful and reflective writing. Our low income communities need teachers who will stay. We become important fixtures in whom the parents rely and trust. That is how community is built and that is how changes within these communities can happen. Trust takes time. Teachers need to stay, and they need to be good teachers and caring human beings who want to give back. Please visit these sites and become active with the VIVA Project. We are getting our voices heard from the policy makers and we could use you, Ariel, Kenneth et. al.

    Tweet: @VIVAProject     
    Web:    www.vivateachers.org
    FB:        The VIVA Project


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