Turnover – The Biggest Problem We Face: Part 3 (Finally)

I previously wrote about the killer effects that teacher turnover is having on my Bronx school, as well as considering some of the causes of this high turnover. It is now my hope to offer solutions to this problem.

I have been thinking long and hard about a way to solve this problem that does not cost more. In times of falling budgets and layoffs, I know any idea that costs more will get little traction. Unfortunately, I cannot think of a single solution that will not cost more at some level. If we value the education of our students, we need to be willing to pay for it. I hope there will be commenters more creative that I am.

Studies have shown that the number one reason teachers leave is not because of low pay, but rather because of poor working conditions. These solutions aim specifically at improving the working conditions of new teaches. These strategies could be used in concert or individually, but all of them would make new teachers more successful, and therefore, more likely to remain in the profession:

Provide real mentoring from trained mentors to new teachers
In his 18 years as an urban teacher, administrator, and instructional coach, David Ginsburg (whom I met at the recent Education Writers Association’s conference) has seen a direct relationship between the practical support teachers receive, including classroom coaching and new teacher induction training, and their retention rates and overall effectiveness. Here’s an excerpt from an email I recently got from him:

Last year a school that was averaging around 40% turnover of new hires from one year to the next for several years brought me on to do a teacher induction program and to coach teachers, and over 90% of teachers who received that support are back this year.

What did David do? He observed the, gave them feedback, provided them with resources when needed, and talked with them. He also did this in a non-evaluative, low stakes manner. This is not rocket science.

I am attempting to provide similar coaching this year to three teachers. Unlike David, I have no training or experience to show that I can coach teachers, other than the fact that I have been successful in the classroom. I hope I am doing a good job, but I don’t have the tools to truly assess if I am. This is the flaw in the current school-based mentoring system that exists in NYC: there is no process to make sure mentors can coach. The key to making mentoring successful is making sure we have the right mentors, then giving them to time to meet, support, and actually coach new teachers. NYC currently has no screening nor evaluation of mentors, and this needs to change.

Reduce the class loads of new teachers, and make them observe
There is no other profession I know of where someone is expected to do the same work on the first day of their job that they do in their 30th year. If an experienced teacher can handle five classes with a maximum load of 170 (which is already too high), new teachers’ loads should be capped at three sections with no more than 75 students total. Teachers should spend the rest of their day formally reflecting on their classes and students’ work, as well as observing all other teachers in the school, both good and bad.

I was blessed to go through a student teaching program that capped my load at two sections, then required me to do observations. I learned a ton from watching teachers on whom I wanted to model myself, but I learned even more from watching the others who I did not want to be like. This allowed me to enter the profession with a clear conception of both who I wanted to be, and what I wanted to avoid becoming.

Moreover though, I got to be a “perfect teacher” for four months. At my most idealistic moment, I had the opportunity to actually put all my ideals into action, and then had time to reflect on my performance. I could spend ten minutes grading every essay (now if I spend three minutes per essay, that’s 2 hours per section), make weekly calls to parents, and truly know every one of my students on a deep, personal level. I will never have the time to be that teacher again, but I know what I am aiming for. Most teachers do not get this experience.

Create new teacher support groups, with guidance from novice teachers
A very common complaint from new teachers is the feeling of isolation they have when entering the profession. It is important that new teachers be given the time and space to reflect, vent, and share their successes and failures in a safe environment. This group can take many forms. At schools with lots of new teachers, this can take place at the school level, elsewhere on a district level. For those places where it cannot, this can happen online through blogging, chartrooms, or on Twitter (there is a weekly chat for new teachers on the hashtag #ntchat that many rave about). This, ideally, should not be something extra new teachers have to do, as they do too much already, but should be part of their paid work time.

However, these groups should not happen in isolation. Teacher who have survived the early part of their career should be participant-leaders in these groups to help bridge the social divide between new and experienced teachers, but also to ensure new teachers learn that success is possible.

I would also like to point an optimistic eye towards the DC’s Center for Inspired Teaching Resident Program, which provides a new model for teaching training which I think makes a lot of sense, and hopefully can yield long-term results. I will be keeping an eye on the work of Aleta Margolis and her organization as they move forward with this ambitious plan.

These are but a few ideas, and I am hopeful that others will add to this list; from my point of view in the Bronx, there is no bigger challenge facing urban schools right now.

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3 thoughts on “Turnover – The Biggest Problem We Face: Part 3 (Finally)

  1. Steve,

    I think your proposals merit two very different responses:

    1) do they, if they COULD be, address the turnover problem, and do so in the best way?
    2) in the current conditions of war on teachers and unions, do any of them have a practical way to be implemented?

    For all three proposals, for question 1, I would agree with some modified form. Getting an answer to #2 is a big part of what makes me a union activist.

    You put real thought and work into this. It starts a conversation. I owe you as thoughtful a response. It’s coming.

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  2. Stephen, these are great suggestions. What I like most about them is that they all focus on the key idea of formally designated time and space for reflection, a fundamental concept that somehow gets completely passed over in the reality of new teacher induction. I also like that you pointed out that there is no training or support given to the would-be mentors in schools. Practical, effective mentoring could go a long way towards supporting newer teachers.

    I believe these suggestions would directly address a root cause of turnover, which is the simple fact that as a new teacher, you’re often thrown directly into the fire (i.e. the most challenging students in the most challenging schools) without any safety nets or support–and you feel like a complete and utter failure. How many people continue plodding onward when they feel like failures (in those rare moments of reflection when they are honest with themselves)? Only those who are either extremely committed and persistent, or those good at hiding.

    If teachers can be made to feel successful through direct support in their first 2 years of teaching, I would be willing to bet that feeling would carry over into longer retention spans–especially within a school that provided such support.

    Jonathan asks a good question above: now how do we work to implement these sorts of ideas in schools?

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  3. In response to teacher induction. There is much needed support for new teachers in all classrooms especially in Urban settings. Unfortunately, many large Urban school districts do not see that these programs are needed to support Great Novice Educators and they end up leaving after three years. I have worked in several districts and one of them being in the top three largest school districts in the US.
    When I began teaching I was led to believe that it was a doggie paddle, sink or swim attitude to survive my first three years as an educator.
    I offer all new teachers this suggestion:
    When you are interviewing a prospective principal DO ask him or her this:
    What support system does this school district offer to first and second year educators?
    Will I be able to work with and observe a mentor here in the district? Will my fears and frustrations be kept confidential with this mentor or does s/he have to share them with administration?
    If you are not comfortable with their response, think long and hard. If you must take their offer do so. Do your best use it as a hands on learning experience and remember to keep looking for the next year. Things do change. Who knows there may be a change of administration and new things to come for the next year. Reach out to colleagues for help and you too can help them. I have always appreciated being taught new things to do with my students. Always try to Keep a positive state of mind. Just remember this too. Just because a lesson goes well with one group of students it does not mean that it will go well with the next. Be open-minded.
    In several of my courses for administration leadership they reitierated that transparency from the principal will help with the developement of a Professional Learning Community.
    For the principals out there and if you have not read and Richard DuFour or Marzano’s materials you may want to include in this summers reading materials.

    In preparing principals I would implement a program mandating that s/he mentor a new teacher each semester.
    I recently completed my masters program for educational leadership and I learned alot.
    With the expansion of internet and blogs, teachers should not feel isolated.
    New teachers,go to the teachers in your building open up the dialog, if you are being challenged by a student, particular event or series of events ask the other teachers for their assistance or opinion of how you may want to address it to resolve it. We have been in a similar or same position. You should also be able to go to your principal or assistant principal to ask for advise. Also keep in mind just because there is teacher there that is old enough to be your mom or dad go to them too. Just because there is snow on our roof tops does not mean the fire for teaching has gone out.
    Yes, there is a difference in the environments from rural schools to urban schools but the emotions for the educators are still there. No One should feel frustrated with a sense of isolation we have all been there at one time or another. Go ahead and participate in the blogs, sharing of the success stories are needed too.
    PLEASE remember to keep names to yourself change the names to fictious animate objects. We must always keep a resposibility of privacy rights for our students and keep your school’s name out of them too, if your frustration should have any negative conotation you do not want to open yourself to any liable or fuel for dismissal.
    Good Luck and remember you worked hard to get where you are and it does mean something to one student at a time. Treat them as you want to be treated with respect and dignity and expect it in return. You are the adult with classroom experience in the profession.

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