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Combatting Urban Teacher Turnover

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In a recent Education Week Commentary, author Jonathan Kozol offers words of advice to young teachers in urban schools—who are more likely than their peers in suburban and rural settings to leave the profession within the first several years.

Among his recommendations: find a veteran teacher in the school to serve as a mentor or ally; reach out to students' families; and, most importantly, develop an "enjoyable and mischievous irreverance" for dealing with federal mandates. Teachers who approach these external pressures with "thinly veiled lightheartedness," while also teaching their students the necessary skills and maintaining control of their classrooms, "will not quit in depair," he writes.

What do you think? Why do bright young teachers leave urban schools? What will it take to keep them there?

29 Comments

High turnover rates deplete organizational camaraderie and the interpersonal relationships that are needed to establish a prosperous school-wide learning atmosphere. School administrators must begin to establish methods for retaining instructors rather than simply recruiting them.

More emphasis should be placed on providing personnel within the organization the tools they need for success, and alternative solutions must be sought for staffing issues. The demand for new teachers can be decreased by improving conditions within the organization. A variety of improvements, such as (a) increased salaries, (b) improved administrative support, (c) reduced student discipline problems, and (d) enhanced faculty input, would reduce teacher turnover; diminish school staff concerns; and eventually, elevate the overall performance of the school (Ingersoll, 2001).

The day-to-day demands on classroom instructors continue to grow. Modern instructors are confronted with many issues that are not related to academics. Today’s instructors face diverse classroom conditions, including (a) language immersion, (b) state-mandated programs for inclusion, (c) individualized assessment, (d) technology, (e) cooperative learning, and (f) a variety of specified instructional strategies (Potter, Swenk, Shrump, Smith, & Weekly, 2001).

The school’s attrition rate will continue to be a problem unless more emphasis is placed on finding experienced instructors who are capable of carrying out their duties. Many leaders of urban school districts continue to attempt to solve the turnover problem by replacing teachers with instructors with little, if any, experience. Viadero (2005) reported,

The problem for urban schools, though, is that the resulting vacancies tended to be filled by brand new teachers--a group in the study shows to be less effective in producing student learning gains than many of the teachers who left. As a result, the researcher said, disadvantaged inner city schools are still left with a disproportionate share of lower quality teachers, even though most are novices who might one day turn out to be good at their jobs. (pp. 3, 16)


Ingersoll, R. M. (2001, January). Teacher turnover, teacher shortages, and the
organization of schools. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Seattle, WA.


Potter, P., Swenk, J., Shrump, M., Smith, H., & Weekly, S. (2001). National University study on teacher attrition. Lajolla, CA: National University.

Viadero, D. (2005, February 23). Teacher turnover tracked in city district. Education Week, 24, 3, 16.

The first year urban teacher problem falls entirely on the back of the teacher’s union. District superintendents should be allowed to put teachers where they are needed. Putting a first year teacher in a trouble spot is asking for failure.

The best means to retain new teachers in any school is to team them with a mentor. The mentor should be a veteran teacher at the particular school. Care should taken to avoid teaming new teachers with jaded, just serving time teachers. It is important to build a positive, pleasent working and learning environment. A positive attitude is the key incredient to any profession.

In order the retain new teachers, I agree with others that they should be teamed with effective mentors. However, it is going to be important to transform their thinking from the "bell curve" and the "correlation between poverty and achievement" mentality to looking at "human capacity. It will be important to confront and actively engage in their belief system before they are hired. Their belief system will drive how they think and interact with students.

From a teacher's viewpoint, I see all too often that the "new teachers" are "baptized" into teaching with the "worst" students. The tenured, veteran, residential teacher (especially those that are known as the double-dipping retirees) may hand-pick students and what courses that they want to teach.

Yes, there may be a shortage of teachers in my area, but I feel that retired teachers should not be given priority over assignments, seniority status over assignment selections, and if really dedicated to their profession, relocate to schools that could use their expertise.

There is no job security or incentives to speak of if the "retirees" continue to manipulate the system.

School systems need new blood, new creativity, new drive, and enthusiasm, as only many newer teachers can provide. We, as veteran teachers, need to find ways to encourage our "newer" teachers to stay and removing the "double-dipping retirees", even at the risk of upsetting unions, administrators and school systems.

The high attrition rate for highly qualified new teachers is a significant problem faced by all schools and districts. Yes, the problem may be more severe in the urban districts. However, whenever you lose talented young people who come to the profession to make a difference in the lives of young people, you must replace them which incurs financial, psychological and emotional costs to the district, school and, most importantly, the community and students. Human capital cannot be replace by simply submitting a purchase order to a vendor.

School districts must recognize this as a significant problem and develop a master plan using a formal induction program including a strong mentoring program with selected, trained, and volunteer teachers. The mentors need to provide professional assistance through feedback and peer observations/coaching to improve the science/art of teaching. There needs to be a strong support system in the school intiated and led by the school principal who "leads the school from the classroom." Highly qualified new teachers need to develop a sense of belonging to the school, be recognized for their accomplishments and contributions to the school culture, be encouraged to be risk-takers with a safety net provided by the principal and encouraged to question the present practices of the school/district through a series of scheduled forums both within the school as well as the district. Yes, there is a cost associated with these programs. However, the financial cost pales in comparison to the loss of human capital and the impact on districts/schools/students/community. With such a multi-faceted approach, districts and schools may stop the arterial flow of highly qualifed new teacher resignations!

As "Helen" says, the system may need new blood. The challenge of keeping it in place instead of leaking it away to other places, may not be solved by "removing the "double-dipping retirees."" Teachers will stay if they feel valued for what they do. Leaders who ignore the human interaction and dynamic, while loudly driving home agendas of "scores" and "accountability" can discourage.
As I have mentored new teachers, some of them feel ""baptized" into teaching with the "worst" students" simply because they don't have the experience or technique to deal with fairly routine problems. Most of us remember being seriously overwhelmed the first year by what later became routine.
Those who are most willing seek and accept help find school going better. The inexperienced teachers are sometimes reluctant to admit they don't know it all. Those most apt to succeed also tend to extend themselves personally and professionally to colleagues -- seeking to become a part of the school community. These connections have made veterans fiercely protective of the new faculty member.

As noted above: Salary increase(SIGNIFICANT) and experienced mentor teaming are important. This plus a building administration that maintains ABSOLUTE control of entry doors(and windows) and hallways is essential in the retention of newbies in urban schools. Any supervisor/mentor who has tried to council a student/new teacher, freshly knifed or beaten for not complying with intruder demands to "send out" a particular student knows that office claims of "secure" hallways can be nonsense. Combine money and mentoring with safety for students and teachers to stem the turnover.

Clearly school and class placement is an important issue. But here we shake our fists at standards. I taught in a school and observed in many where they are passionate and just "love" the children. They took them to water trees, pick up magazines- anything but actually learn something. With standards new teachers know exactly what is to be taught and learned. It is up to teachers on how to teach it; and that can include passion. Implementation of standards is up to district and school leadership. No reasonable principals ever asked for minute by minute schedule posting. Place new teachers well, and support them with strong mentors and accessible help. Interviews with teachers all over the country have voiced an appreciation for the guidance and standards and accessible support.

I was a "Francesca" 20 years ago. I chose to teach elementary school in an urban school district. I left after 5 years. My reasons for leaving the profession were many of the same reasons noted in Mr. Kozol's article. It had nothing to do with difficult students or not being able to relate with them.
There were two other reasons I chose to leave the profession not mentioned in the article. I didn't like knowing exactly what my salary would be next year and the next (depending on what the union could negotiate). I needed to be able to have some say in how "successful" I would be in my life from a monetary standpoint. Not that I was driven to be rich, but I am driven to do my best at anything I do and expect there to be some reward for it. As a student, we can do an excellent job and get an "A" whereas those who don't do an excellent job get a "B" or a "C". As teachers, we are suddenly recognized the same as every other teacher no matter our contribution or theirs. I honestly think that is one of the most significant problems with our educational system and one that is more easily fixed than many others out of our control. The educational/political system is what keeps this problem in play.
The other reason, in addition to those already listed in the article, is the lack of portability. Again, this is a political issue, and one that could be fixed. If a new teacher choses a tough inner-city school to teach in, they shouldn't have to feel that they are "stuck" there for the rest of their career. The experience that teachers gain throughout their career should be portable to other districts. So many policies in education are based on fear. Fear that teachers would leave less desirable districts and go to better ones if it was made easier for them. I don't think that is necessarily true. The freedom in knowing one can make a change doesn't mean that they will. It is just nice knowing there is a choice. And frankly, now these young teachers just leave the profession altogether. What's the difference?
I applaud Mr. Kozol for caring about these young teachers and bringing these issues to light with his book. I wish I was more hopeful that people who could make a difference knew how to listen and act on the information.

Teachers, seasoned and new to the profession, need support, resources, and respect. Teacher attrition has been positively correlated with the lack of these in study after study. One suggestion for decreasing teacher attrition is to implement more stringent guidelines for administrators, selecting as leaders those who use positive reinforcement and not coercion to produce systemic change.

Many years ago I aspired to be a classroom teacher. Graduating into a field that was then glutted I took a left-turn to acquire some experience that I have never regretted, but kept me away from the classroom for many years. My baptism of fire came living and working in an improverished neighborhood--delivering after-school programs and residential camping. As I walked in the door with my fresh new degree, I and others (including urban planners, writers, social workers) were told--it's OK--we know you don't know anything (we were highly insulted, needless to say). In fact it was a good many years, as Cal suggests, before I was able to meaningfully distinguish between a cabin group of institutionalized youngsters and those who came from highly stable homelifes.

One experience that I had that I know (and knew then) would have been sadly lacking had I gone first to a classroom, was that of an interdependent group of staff. I was clearly expected to ask for help when I was in over my head. My co-workers were likewise expected to give feedback when they saw me buying trouble.

It took years to go from the person who observed chaos turning into order when a more experienced staff person walked in, to being that staff person who could walk in and create order. This stood me in good stead many years later as a substitute teacher in a middle school. From that vantage point, I observed very little difference in students from school to school. On the other hand I saw enormous differences in the way staff worked together and supported one another. In some schools I always knew that there was someone who "had my back." In others, I was as invisible as the paint on the wall.

To effect change, teachers are going to have to give up some things--such as the freedom to go into their classroom and close their door on the chaos in the hallways. In order to help new/young, or in fact any teacher, there will have to be an acceptance that all teachers are not created equal, but that the collective efforts of the faculty can improve conditions for new teachers, but also for their students.

Nobody wants an abusive job. Federal mandates add the final blow, I believe that helps drive young teachers out of teaching. Pressure to succeed with all students, or be blamed for school needs improvement requirements, as if teachers can possibly achieve all that is being asked of them by fixing all the problems of society in their classrooms.
The general attitude that teachers have to be motivated by proficiency standards to be good teachers. The general disrespect for teachers, low pay, and other opportunities, in my opinion is why they leave teaching. The heart of teaching has been removed from education when academics took over at the expense of everything else. Only one type of student is valued in that system and good teachers can't cope with the narrowing of thinking. It is what education has become that is driving teachers away. They don't want to spend their lives pushing children and calling that education.

This interaction is a good into into my topic choice: teacher retention. I am putting together my proposal and am looking at the reasons that teachers have chosen to remain in the field (both urban and affluent schools). Does anyone have any suggestions?

I'm an experienced teacher who has thought about leaving the profession more times in the last week than I ever thought about leaving in my first year as a teacher.
I've taught in South Central Los Angeles since 1988 and I have seen the demands placed on teachers grow in proportion to the failure of the system to provide for our students or our teachers. Teachers have always taught but the system has never been so unresponsive to the needs of our children, and consequently to the needs of the teachers.
Inner city schools are almost text book examples of dysfunctional family systems: you have your heroes, your scapegoats, your rebels etc. New teachers not only must meet the requirements of their districts, but of their famiies, their very needy students, administrators on tight budgets with tighter attitudes, and little or no support.
Our state has a new teacher program that, instead of making it easier on new teachers, places extreme pressure on teachers with escessive assignments, and hours of preparation and reading in addition to their regular workload. New teachers are not only leaving they are running away.
I am staying, and I try to help new teachers as much as possible, because despite the interference from governement and well meaning administrators, the work we do is extremely rewarding, even on the worst of days.
I admit it; I am codependent. I need the challenge of this job, and when the challenge is too much I take off on a weekend cruise to Mexico, or a quick drive to Las Vegas and come back on Monday ready to start again.
What will keep new teachers in urban schools: make them feel valued, and give them the support and resources they need to survive that most difficult year of teaching. We need them to stay so that we oldy but goodies can retire.

Having been a teacher in an "urban" district I can first say that the idea of what "urban" is varies. Fort Worth is considered "urban" but realistically, there are some of the schools that aren't. I work in a predominately minority school and I would consider it "urban". The reason teachers leave these types of schools is because like mine, the facilities are in shambles (I haven't had air conditioning all week), the students have a myriad of social and psychological issues, and my students constantly come to me behind and without the socialization skills they need (and i teach 3rd grade).

I have taught and been an administrator in urban school districts for the past 19 years. I enjoy it and want to serve a community that will utilize and honor my talents.

My teachers work hard and have a great deal of compassion with our students. Instead of compensating high scores in high performing school districts - compensate high scores in areas where 100% are in poverty. I wish there were some way to compensate the folks who work hard in the tougher parts of town. Compensate does not necessarily have to mean money.

I honor and listen to what my teachers say and know that my job as an administrator is to ensure all students have access to a high quality education and that I serve my staff as a resource and support them.

I made a previous point of helping teachers to serve students in an "urban" school setting. I failed to mention that as an administrator in this setting it is hard to deal with some of the situations that our students encounter. Yet, if a 9 year old can handle it, then why can't I? We want to do so much more than a system allows.

If you want a humbling experience do home visits. This is the greatest country in the world and some children go hungry when they are not in school, go dirty because there is no running water, can't afford new shoes, won't have the money for school supplies and are subjected to some of the worst conditions but come to school smiling everyday. In stead of pity, we should respect that our children are so "resilient."

Thanks to generous teachers, parent groups, community leaders, business partners, college groups and their generosity of caring, giving time and money which will go a long way in some of our schools.

In my opinion, valued professionals are not expected to cover lunchrooms, hallways, pep rallies, play grounds, etc. Rather, these important jobs are better designated to those in direct care positions. Monitoring positions are not the highest and best use of teacher expertise or time.


Many of the comments above allude to the deep "systemic" problems of many public school systems that cause good teacher to quit, but they don't seem to realize that these problems (which have been with us for years) will not go away without deep system change.

I sent the following reply to an August 29 New York Times Editorial on this topic, "In Search of Good Teachers":

The Times' editorial "In Search of Good Teachers omits a major cause of unsuccessful teacher recruiting and retention: Public school systems commonly fail to provide professional working conditions. Unfortunately, this is hard to correct, since it comes from obsolete characteristics deeply embedded in American public education.
One of them is its factory-model organization that places teachers at the bottom of a bureaucratic hierarchy (which is one of the causes of the labor-management problems that the Times editorial blames on unions). Another is its acceptance of mediocre achievement for most students, which, when combined with suburbanization, American class and race biases, and other basic flaws in public school culture, has made inner-city schools places of failure—not favorable for recruitment.

Only when we face up to the need for in-depth redesign of public education's underlying culture will the "search of good teachers"—-and excellent schools—-begin to be successful.

David S. Seeley

Thus far the Times has not printed it. There was no space in such a short etter to spell out the "other flaws in public school culture" that keep causing them to fail despite multiple "reforms." But, if educators would get behind this kind of deep system change, perhaps we would not have to keep complaining about the same things over and over.

I work in an urban inner city school,where teaching goes hand and hand with behavior managment. First year teachers need to learn how to take advice and be willing to try various techniques. This goes without saying they need the support of all employees in the building.
I saw a wonderful teacher decide to leave because she was not given the support she needed when (falsely)accused of stricking a child. She was cleared but someone should of listened to her and investigwated before accusing her. The problem was the student accusing her of this action parent was a state social worker as well as a very involved parent. OOPS ! procedure is procedure and a wonderful teacher is gone. As she said," If you don't have your good name you don't have anything".

I don't need to be paid more to continue to work in an urban public school. I'd like guarentees: small classes, enough books for everyone, and administration that deals with behavior issues. Computers that work, the same text books they get in the suburbs. . . .that's all.

Here is the essential conundrum with regard to the retention of teachers and the learning of children across the board: The primary purpose of school is to prepare children to make a living as capable adults.

"Making a living" means more than just making money, but without the mean with which to function in an increasingly complex world, everything else falls away - happiness, security, stability, etc.

However, making a living in the conceptual economy of the 21st. century means that our kids must be able to think, create, and communicate effectively. Learn to deal with the unexpected, imagine what isn't, create what wasn't and communicate with others unlike themselves.

Ironically, the prevailing emphasis on data-driven "proof," as opposed to providing evidence of advancement; top down dictates in contrast to "front line" innovation and, finally, looking upon the teacher as a cipher instead of the key catalyst in educational success creates a climate that is inimical to the very purpose of education.

I started teaching in the inner-city in 1964, the same year as Jonathan Kozol. I clearly remember reading his first book "Death at an Early Age" and loving it. All of his books are very well-written. However, I remember feeling somewhat crestfallen that he had given up his job in an urban school so easily. True, he had been fired, but big city districts were absolutely desperate for teachers at that time, so I knew he could have gotten a job in another city. Instead, he took a position in a suburban school and wrote his best-selling book. I'm not sure I could have put it into words at the time, but I understood that inner-city teaching was not a job for the Harvard educated son of a physician. Nor is it now.

What bright young people need to stay in teaching are other bright young people who will stay and fight the stupidity that is so rampant in K-12 education. If Francesca (young teacher in Kozol's book) stays at her school, she might be the only person to teach subversively. After a while this leads to isolation, disillusionment and burnout. A very bright and creative person needs to work in an environment that encourages and rewards her gifts.

To understand why schools are like this we need to go back to early America. Although colleges were founded in the tradition of the great European universities, public schools were often one-room buildings with a young girl as the teacher. Usually these girls had little more than a high school education. Teaching children soon became "women's work" and was not seen as an intellectually challenging job. Even today many men wouldn't consider it a "man's job." My two sons (Harvard and Stanford grads) screamed with laughter when I suggested they consider teaching.

Now our citizens are rightly demanding academically talented people as teachers for young children, but the old paradigm is still very much in place. A very intelligent and well-educated teacher could find herself under the thumb of a less talented administrator who insists that the teacher submit to inane practices. As one teacher told me just today, "The students have all kinds of stomachaches with these test prep workbooks." (And it's just September!)

The reality is that a public school can be a frustrating and even humiliating place to work. It has become much worse since NCLB because frightened administrators are transferring their anxiety to teachers. When a professor at my graduate school took a year off in order to teach first-grade (so she'd have "real life" experience) she found the experience so unpleasant that she wrote that she'd "slit her throat" before going back to such a job. The principal had made her life miserable with all of his petty dictates. For a great description of life in a high school, read "The Spiral Staircase" by Karen Armstrong. Contrast the author's experience as a college teacher with her experience as a high school teacher. As Frank McCourt put it, teaching is definitely "the downstairs maid of the professions."

So getting to the question: "How can we attract and retain talented people (like Jonathan Kozol) into the teaching profession? Well,in my opinion, the answer is actually rather simple. We need to offer these people the same things that are used to lure people to other professions: competitive salaries, professional perks, opportunities to work with colleagues, professional autonomy, opportunity for advancement (assistant teacher, associate teacher, teacher, mentor teacher etc.)and time to prepare lessons. For me the most important thing is professional autonomy. Intelligent people don't want to be told exactly what to teach and how to teach it. They don't want to read scripts. They don't want to write their objectives on the board each day or have their lesson plans ready to be "checked" by the principal. For me, the nadir of my teaching career came when a twenty-five-year-old assistant principal criticized me for showing the Nutcracker Ballet to my students. (Yes, I was teaching to a standard but she didn't know it.)

This is the reality we must accept: If our citizens are not willing to pay to attract and retain bright people in urban schools and treat them as valued professionals, we will not get them. This should be so obvious to all of us.

I agree wholeheartedly with Linda/Retired Teacher. Her erudite comments reflect my 15 years as an urban educator -- it took me this long to strongly consider not going back to public education in any capacity. It truly is an abusive and often hostile working environment -- 20 minute lunches, no bathroom breaks for hours at a time, school lockdowns because of student fights throughout the school, 36 students in my classes, half of whom are special education students without special ed support (except bulging IEP folders) -- I spent 10+ years dealing with these issues. It's a losing proposition for the kids, the teachers and our society. NCLB has added another negative dimension to this chaos.

If we could staff urban schools without the interference and the politics of the downtown district administration we'd probably see less turnover. I walked into school this morning (5 weeks into the school year) and was informed that downtown has 'ordered' us to staff reduce so they can maintain their administrative bloat without impacting the overall budget. In other words, I have to remove teachers from our building so that downtown administrative staff can keep collecting their salaries.

Unfortunately, urban schools are saddled with district administrations that truthfully aren't as concerned about students as they are about maintaining their bureaucracy/administrative bloat. When push comes to shove regarding dollars spent these administrators will spend them on their own salaries and NOT on students.

Reduce governmental demands for paperwork, paperwork, paperwork and make demands that monies collected be spent on students rather than administrators and there'd be more stability in staffing urban schools.

I know, I'm there and I've been there for years. I'm getting tired though, and need some support in the battle.

I have been teaching in a urban district now for four years and I have had just about enough. I LOVE the kids and I want to stay there for them but it is the administration and chaos of the district that is forcing me to leave. Where I teach is so messed up finanically, I am suprised that we even have books. What is also extremely frustrating is that you are told to do one thing and the next day you are told to do something else. There is NO consistency.
I want to stay becuase I feel that I am giving something these kids who do not have much to begin with but I feel as though I work so hard and when I need that commitment and support from the parents it is not really there. I go above and beyond to try and get my parents involved and noting seems to work. Some parents are great but the majority are not. When are the parents going to sttart being held accountable and not only myself?
So many of my students have alot of learning disabilities and all the district is doing is pushing them along, so then when I get a student who is low functioning I have to go though the work to get the child the help that he or she needs. It is like no one else cares or no one wants to be bothered and I can't do it all by myself.

I think first year teachers in urban areas are just thrown into the class blind because of the desperate need for teachers in these areas. In doing so these teachers get frustrated, completely overwhelmed, and burn out too fast. School districts need to either put a veteran teacher as their mentor, one who will faithfully check in daily, or they need to have a transitional teacher in the class with them. I say this only because many of these teachers come in after the school year starts.

I agree with Deb, I also work in an urban inner city school. It is true that teaching and behavior management work hand in hand. As a first year teacher, I am learning from the teachers that provide their lending hand to help me. I take the bits and pieces together to suit my needs, I have been lucky to get support from my collegues in the school. Along with support, a salary increase and mentoring are definitely the best means to retaining new teachers in an urban inner city school. As a first year teacher, I need an environment that is supportive, encouraging and rewarding.

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