How can we prevent new teacher turnover?
**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**
A guest post by Daphne Stanford
A little over ten years ago, I believed I was ready to become a high school English teacher. My first degree was in English. My second degree was in Secondary English Education. My third degree was in Creative Writing. I am using two out of the three degrees, as of yet. I feel as if I wasted a great deal of time and money investing in education and training for a field that seems doomed to fail—at least for all but the privileged few. That field is public education.
My first position as a high school English teacher was nothing short of horrific. Well, that might be a slight exaggeration. I didn’t fear for my life: I wasn’t living in a crime-ridden area, for example; nor did I feel physically threatened by other teachers or any of my students. My major obstacle was my lack of sufficient time: time for planning, time for grading student work; time for sanity and breathing room, outside of teaching. However, when you teach in a rural school district with only eighty-five students in a combined junior-senior high school setting, there is little wiggle room with seven lesson plans to prepare every day, with only one prep period.
For a first-year teacher, this type of teaching schedule is brutal. Not only did I have no support from the principal, who was only present half the time (she had to go back and forth between the grade school and the junior-senior high school), but I also lacked any kind of mentorship program with any of the other teachers at the school. Being immersed in this type of isolated environment is most certainly harmful to any teacher. For new teachers, however, it is especially detrimental. The Alliance for Excellent Education notes this difficulty specifically in a recent article on teacher retention:
But as an Alliance report notes, research shows a positive effect on retention among new teachers who experience comprehensive induction programs. Furthermore, programs that provide novice educators with multiple supports, including high-quality mentoring, common planning time with other teachers, intense professional development, and support from school leaders, show the greatest impact.
In other words, beginning teachers need help. Although Richard Ingersoll’s original article on first year attrition has recently been called into question, there is still plenty of reason to support new teachers—whether one semester or a few years into the profession—especially since it is estimated that 46% of teachers leave after five years.
A recent article published in The Conversation compares teachers in Finland versus teachers in the United States, pointing out the importance of teacher collaboration and teamwork. This factor, coupled with increased autonomy given to teachers to teach in a way best suited to them, is among the most important indicators of job satisfaction among teachers. The article stresses that it is not merely school autonomy, as with curricular freedom and innovation granted to charter schools, but teacher autonomy that is the most crucial factor in teacher satisfaction.
This observation makes perfect sense to me and to many others who enter the teaching profession expecting to have a similar classroom experience as their own formative high school years as a student. Of course, the situation is always different; my memories, for example, consist of the majority of class time being devoted to discussion of the literature, writing & journaling, giving oral presentations, and answering short teacher-generated essay and multiple-choice questions about the reading we’d just completed. Very little of our class time was devoted to standardized tests.
The majority of time, in other words, was devoted to dialectical learning: if we weren’t having a dialogue with our teacher or classmates aloud and in real time, as we now say, we were writing our thoughts down and interacting with ideas in an active way. This dialectic is not only necessary on the part of students; it’s crucial for teachers, as well. Moreover, not only is it beneficial for more experienced, veteran teachers to mentor newer educators, but a recent study at Bradley University showed that it is also beneficial to subject specialists to learn from educators of other disciplines. This practice, known as ‘transdiciplinary teaching,’ encourages expansive thinking about teacher’s subject areas and teaching methods, ultimately allowing students to better understand the inherent connections between subjects and encouraging real world understanding of subjects.
We can see this approach in schools that teach the same topic across a number of classrooms: for example, take the subject of bridges. It’s possible to study bridges from a literary perspective, a historical perspective, a sociological perspective, a scientific perspective, and a mathematical perspective, all at once. The same goes for methods of teaching: a Biology teacher might have a very different approach to the study of Crime & Punishment than an English teacher.
Encouraging students to engage in real-life dialogue about reading material, and requiring them to transfer their in-class ideas into writing for use in assigned essays, is a practice that instills confidence in students that their ideas are worthy of being expounded upon. This trust factor also hopefully discourages plagiarism in high school and later into the college years, as well. A focus on learning for learning’s sake, in class—despite the realities of standardized testing—will also help to instill a sense of ethics into students’ psyches regarding the proper attribution of ideas not their own. Students can’t be expected to realize that plagiarism is a universally negative practice unless this idea is taught on all fronts—not merely during English class.
Similarly, new teachers need support from the administrative side, from fellow teachers, and from expectations they are given from the district level. If they are encouraged and supported on all fronts, as well as granted a good deal of autonomy, they’re more likely to stick with the profession. Teacher longevity is good for everyone involved: teachers, students, and administrative staff. To get there, support, autonomy, and respect are key.
Daphne Stanford is a writer living in Boise, Idaho. Although no longer teaching in a classroom, she believes that art, language, education, and community radio have the power to change the world. Listen to “The Poetry Show!” on Radio Boise, or find her on Twitter @TPS_on_KRBX.