Driving Miss Daisy - Away
Two recent reports about teacher retention and turnover are worth a read. The first, "The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America's Urban Schools," was prepared by The New Teacher Project (TNTP) and the second, "Thoughts of Leaving: An Exploration of Why New York City Middle School Teachers Consider Leaving Their Classrooms," was released by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools (RANYCS).
Both underscore my belief that the school reform which will have the greatest positive impact for improving education in the United States is ensuring that we have high quality teachers in every classroom, and providing environments to keep them there.
Fast forward five years and fantasize with me for a moment that we solved the recruitment problem by initiating measures that created new hiring cycles that attracted the top of the talent pool into the profession. A dream come true? Not if these new teachers continue to leave at the current rates of attrition. A recent study by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF) found that America's teacher dropout problem is spiraling out of control, with attrition growing 50 percent over the past 15 years. So now let's take our futuristic fantasy further by imagining some no-cost ways to actually retain top talent.
Imagine Sarah Daisy, valedictorian of her high school experiencing intense competition for acceptance to a highly sought-after teacher preparation program. She is ultimately admitted and finishes the program at the top of her class (since this is a fantasy -- she finishes the clinical program in three years with no loans because once accepted into this prestigious career path, her tuition was waived). As a newly certified middle school math teacher who graduated at the top of her class, Sarah Daisy receives several job offers. She chooses the one closest to her home and is thrilled with the conviction that she is going to make a difference in the lives of kids. She can't wait to get started.
Miss Daisy immediately visits her new school to set up her classroom and meet her colleagues. When she arrives, the custodian gives her the keys and directions to her room where she finds a bare classroom with old student desks along with a dilapidated teacher desk. There are some books but they are 20 years old and falling apart. At least there is a metal cabinet where she is able to hang her jacket. Luckily, there are some bulletin board strips where she can affix some motivational posters. The air conditioning is churning but is weak and the room feels hot. After two hours of cleaning, she begins to wish for some time anywhere else besides this hot room.
She decides to seek out her colleagues to introduce herself and find out when the Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings will be held. She goes to the main office where the secretary, who has been at the school for 29 years, is working on her computer and does not look up. (She does notice that the air conditioner is really working well.) "Hello, hello - I am Miss Daisy, the new math teacher and I am looking for our principal, my mentor and to find out about the PLC schedule." The secretary finally looks up and says, "Sorry, he won't be in today and we do not have mentors or PLC's at this school. You are a big girl sweetie so don't be coming down here bothering me. Oh, and a couple of other things - take this schedule with you, it has your five (5) preparations on it. And remember you are only allowed two (2) reams of paper this semester and one (1) box of paper clips - anything beyond that you buy yourself." This could go on but I know you get the point that this school has a toxic culture. Any wonder why in the end, Miss Daisy leaves and goes into pharmaceutical sales?
In contrast, imagine that Miss Daisy chose a different school. She gets a call from her principal inviting her over for an orientation and to meet her mentor and some of her colleagues. Miss Daisy immediately visits the school where she is met by her principal in the front office and he escorts to her new classroom. She can't believe how clean the building is as they walk together down the hall. Along the way, the principal introduces her to the custodian and tells her that this is the person who is responsible for this sparkling building. The custodian beams and tells her that if she needs anything in her room to let him know. When they get to her classroom she is astonished to find a large group of her colleagues, PTA folks, and community members there hosting a "new teacher shower" with classroom supplies and gifts to help her get started in her new room. Mrs. Jones, an 11-year veteran and outstanding math teacher, comes right over to her to introduce herself as her mentor and takes her around to meet everyone. The room is bright, there are new computers, and everyone seems very happy to be there. The school secretary of 29 years whispers in her ear, "Sweetie, if you ever need anything you just come and see me!" Mrs. Jones tells her that she would be there to help her in any way possible and this isn't going to be a big paperwork thing. She just wants to ensure that Miss Daisy will be successful. Mrs. Jones tells her she will have two (2) preps and some individual tutoring time to devote to kids who are struggling. She gives her some sample lesson plans and shares the PLC schedule. You know the ending to this story - Miss Daisy goes on to become a great, beloved teacher whose kids soar for many years ahead. Her kids still come back and see her to let her know the difference she made in their lives. She is serving today as a mentor for new teachers coming to her department and I hope my granddaughters end up in her class.
As we think about reforming our educational systems we must pay close attention to the cultures and climates of the work environments in our schools. Both of the above scenarios are just the tips of the icebergs and they do exist, but the stark difference between them is not explained by cost. Attention to human interactions matter and we must and can do better to make those who have chosen teaching feel valued and supported. In this context, climate change is not only good but necessary.
As the alarm clock goes off in the morning which school should Miss Daisy drive to in order to ensure that our kids learn at high levels? The reality is that an alarm clock won't be able to wake Miss Daisy in that first school and she won't need one in the second!