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Teacher Talk: Keeping Our Irreplaceables

Note: Sydney Morris and Evan Stone, co-founders and co-CEOs of Educators for Excellence, are guest posting this week. E4E is a national teacher-led organization working to ensure that teachers have a meaningful voice in the creation of policies that impact their classrooms and careers.

TNTP's new report on the retention crisis, "The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America's Urban Schools," made a big splash in Washington yesterday for the stark and somewhat depressing look it provides on the failure of schools to hold on to their best teachers.

The report forces us to take a fresh look at teacher attrition and wakes us up to the fact that our problem is more than just retaining enough teachers, but retaining the right ones.

The nation's 50 largest school districts lose 10,000 of their top tier teachers every year -- 2/3 of them reported that their schools didn't fight to keep them on the job. We know many teachers who fall into that category, including one of the five E4E teachers who attended the launch event yesterday. She said, "Changing schools was an easy decision because my principal never made me feel valued or gave me an opportunity to grow."

For many of the policy wonks and other observers in the audience for the report's release, the findings certainly provided an "aha" moment. But for current classroom teachers at the event, it was more like an "uh duh" moment. A 10-year veteran teacher who has witnessed this kind of attrition throughout her career commented, "It should not be a surprise that people leave teaching. This report proves that most teachers are never acknowledged or rewarded and that no one seems to care if they are good or not. This really is about respect and rigor." She is a master teacher at an NYC turnaround school, and, for similar reasons, will not be returning to her school in the fall.

Another teacher who attended the event responded, "I feel invigorated teaching my students. In fact, I learn just as much from them as they learn from me. However, that positive attitude quickly dissipates the moment I open my classroom door because of the lack of appreciation and low morale in my school." As a result, she has watched year after year as some of her colleagues become disenchanted and make for the exit, and yet has felt powerless to stop them.

TNTP's solutions to the problem include differentiating pay, providing teachers with more upward mobility, and improving principal hiring and evaluation. They mirror many of the recommendations our own E4E teacher-led Policy Teams have made over the past year to address these very issues. In addition to laying out a multi-measured blueprint for evaluating teachers--the lynchpin of identifying effective educators in the first place--our members have sounded off on pay structures and principal evaluation in several well-received policy papers. One E4E teacher and Policy Team member said, "Teachers want change, but they want to have a voice in what these policies look like."

In E4E's "A New Way to Pay - Reimagining Teacher Compensation," teachers called for a higher base salary, a career ladder that gives great teachers leadership opportunities, and bonuses for the most effective educators and for those who teach in our highest-need schools and subjects.

And in "Principals Matter - Principal Evaluations from a Teacher Perspective," they recommend that school leaders are held accountable in their annual evaluations for their ability to retain their best educators.

It's heartening to see many of these ideas gaining steam, and shows that E4E members are on to something. After all, who better to know what it takes to make teachers stay, and conversely, what makes them flee, than teachers themselves.

The question is, is anyone listening?

It is possible that unions and districts will look at this report and point fingers at each other. The union will nod to principals who aren't fighting to keep teachers or properly supporting them so they feel valued and continually improve. Districts will cite contracts that prevent them from making personnel decisions based on performance. Yet, the solution will come when both sides stop placing blame and come to the table with new ideas and the willingness to modify our system to give great teachers the respect they deserve.

To end with another teacher's voice, "Although this report echoes things we already know, the exciting piece is that all of this can change if the powers that be both allow and hold principals accountable for acknowledging, appreciating, and building a school culture aimed at keeping their 'irreplaceables.'" More on how systemic change can be realized in our next post...

--Sydney Morris and Evan Stone

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