Common Sense: Focus on retaining quality teachers

Let’s clear something up. There isn’t a shortage of people wanting to become teachers. There is a shortage of people wanting to endure the abuse, excessive workload, and lack of respect that comes with teaching.

We don’t have a shortage, we are experiencing an exodus. Yet, our leaders’ focus is squarely on recruitment. Districts attempt all sorts of tactics to lure individuals into the profession, but it’s nothing more than a fishing expedition, in which most of the catch is tossed back. Recruitment is important, but our primary focus must be on retention of quality and experienced teachers. 

Districts attempt all sorts of tactics to lure individuals into the profession, but it’s nothing more than a fishing expedition, in which most of the catch is tossed back.

My district, Jefferson County Public Schools, will employ a new strategy modeled after what’s being done in Chicago. Individuals with college degrees can become teachers in one year, following an intensive four-day-a-week apprenticeship in a high priority classroom, under the mentorship of a master teacher. They will also take course work at the University of Louisville on Fridays. This program has merit, but it’s a bandaid on a bleeding wound.

The real issue isn’t dropping education-program enrollment or a shrinking applicant pool. Don’t get me wrong, those are important issues, but these are symptoms of a larger disease. The greater problem is nearly half of all teachers quit within five years, at a cost of billions to recruit and train new teachers. We must address the working conditions, pay, student behavior, and lack of overall respect, if we wish to cure the disease. Successful recruitment strategies will be a waste if they must continue in perpetuity.

I was 28 when I entered the classroom for the first time. I earned a bachelor’s degree and spent the first six years of my professional life as a small-town journalist, before giving in to my desire to be a teacher. Even 20 years ago, I was discouraged by my undergraduate advisors and professors from pursuing teaching. They were right about the issues I would face, but I love the job. However, 13 years, three schools, and multiple subjects later, I find the thought of leaving the profession creeping into my mind often. 

For me, it isn’t an issue of a lack of passion for teaching, but it’s a matter of self-respect and self-worth.

For me, it isn’t an issue of a lack of passion for teaching, but it’s a matter of self-respect and self-worth. I’m highly skilled, highly educated, highly intelligent. I’m really good at what I do, and it’s what I want to do. However, remaining in the classroom is becoming tougher. Unfunded mandates, a total lack of consequences for student behavior, parents who don’t want their children held accountable for anything, an excessive workload, and the growing feeling that I am becoming more of a babysitter by the day has a burning itch to leave the classroom festering. 

One issue facing skilled teachers is advancement. What’s next for the skilled teacher? For most, it’s leaving the classroom for other positions, or the profession altogether. I’ve weighed several options – administration, counseling, resource teacher, and more. However, none of these positions are appealing to me. In fact, my pro-con list of each normally consists of only two pros – greater pay and not dealing with the continued deterioration of the teaching profession.

The reasons for leaving the classroom vary in their ranking for each teacher, but they are pretty consistent as a group. Low pay in many places give teachers no real option to remain in the classroom. It’s just not sustainable over a lifetime to work multiple jobs. Student behavior is increasingly becoming a problem. Not because students misbehave, but because there are fewer meaningful consequences. Disruptive students are kept in schools where they assault teachers, they are kept in classrooms where they prevent instruction, and they are permitted to do things most would find repulsive in any other setting, such as chronic use of profanity, often directed at adults. 

The time off doesn’t make up for the family time lost during the other 10 months of the year.

Then there are long hours. The time off in the summer doesn’t make up for working on average 53 or more hours per week during the school year. It doesn’t make up for spending 90 percent of the work day teaching, meaning much of the grading and planning is done outside of school hours. The time off doesn’t make up for the family time lost during the other 10 months of the year.

A lack of respect is concerning as well. I, like most teachers, possess graduate course work beyond a master’s degree, making myself and my fellow teachers among the most educated workforce in the world. According to Census data, only 13 percent of Americans possess a master’s degree. The skill-set to teach in a U.S. public school is so unique and diversified, very few people possess the ability to do the job well. So many think it’s a matter of giving the kids an assignment and then grading it, and do not understand the complexities of teaching. Which is why so many crash and burn upon entering the profession. Despite these facts, so many disrespect the profession, disregarding the fact that public education is the foundation of democracy and economic growth and a skilled and educated workforce.

There is data on why teachers leave. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 22 percent of teachers who leave the profession do so for general reasons, that would affect all professions, such as retirement or life events. However, in some schools, turnover can be as high as 70 percent from year to year, particular schools struggling with high levels of poverty. Turnover is the highest in the South and the lowest in the Northeast, where the pay is higher and a greater investment in education is normally made.

The professional reasons teachers leave is pay, lack of advancement opportunities, and dissatisfaction with assessment accountability, and behavior. Other reasons include a lack of support, professional development, poor school culture, and lack of overall autonomy, among others.

Many issues must be addressed to retain our teachers. We must address pay, and not just starting pay. Talented and experienced teachers must be rewarded for remaining in the classroom. We must create more advancement opportunities, improve culture, give more autonomy, and deal with student behavior, otherwise, these new recruits will become ex-teachers as fast as they became teachers.

There are three priorities that must be addressed to adequately retain good teachers – pay, autonomy, and meaningful consequences for disruptive behavior. Properly addressing these areas will also address many others.

Teacher Pay

Many will say, I knew the pay coming in, but it’s my passion to teach. Yes, this is true for most, but let’s face the facts. We are all motivated by pay. Many pursue administration due to greater pay. The cost of multiple degrees aren’t cheap and student loans can take decades to pay down. Increasing pay will make other aspects of the job more acceptable.

However, the pay increase for many must be significant. One to three percent isn’t sufficient. To keep teachers in the classroom, we must agree as a society that good teachers are investments in the future and must be encouraged and rewarded for remaining in the classroom. The six-figure teaching salary for an experienced and effective teacher must exist.

Autonomy

Teachers spend years training. Most have advanced degrees. They are highly-skilled, highly educated professionals who deserve to be treated as such. Trust them. Standardization isn’t working. It’s professional to learn from each other, but it’s not to employ a one-size fits all model to schools and classrooms with unique issues.

Implement Meaningful Consequences

Restorative practices, wrap-around services, mental health professionals – All of these things are great if implemented correctly, with proper funding, and personnel. Yet, this rarely happens in real life. These practices are also useless without meaningful consequences. No, they don’t deter all kids from misbehaving, but they must exist for those who are deterred by them and those who are in class attempting to learn and for the teacher who is attempting to teach. 

Also, there should be no work environment in which employees get hit, cursed at, threatened, or worse, on a daily basis.

There is a tipping point for all things. If our districts and leaders don’t address these problems, there won’t be any quality teachers left, and recruitment practices will fall on their face.

Where do we go from here? There is a tipping point for all things. If our districts and leaders don’t address these problems, there won’t be any quality teachers left, and recruitment practices will fall on their face. Let’s implement some common sense practices, and stop the insanity, for the sake of our teachers, but most of all, for the sake of our children.