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How a First-Rate Principal Stopped the Infamous "Revolving Door"

Guest blogger Whitney Bubenzer is a third grade teacher and Teach Plus Fellow.


Seven = The number of years I have been a Chicago Public School teacher.

Three = The number of years I predicted I would be a CPS teacher.

One = The number of principals it took to convince me that a career within CPS was sustainable and rewarding.

Whitney_photo.jpgI spent a year of my post-college life working in a stuffy Chicago high rise, analyzing demographics and creating spreadsheets for an advertising agency. I quickly realized that spending a lifetime in front of a computer screen was not for me. In revamping my career, I harnessed my life-long passion for children and learning and decided to pursue teaching. Through an alternative certification program, I received my M.Ed. and began teaching at Hitch Elementary School on Chicago's northwest side.

My certification program required that I serve in Chicago Public Schools for three years, after which I assumed I'd move to the suburbs. I grew up in a suburban community outside of Detroit where the schools enjoyed outstanding resources and were some of the best in the country. Spoiled by this educational utopia of my childhood, I cringed when I first set foot in a CPS school. Large class sizes. Limited resources. Run-down facilities. Family and friends shared my expectation of a short stay within the system.

But it didn't turn out that way, and my principal, Deborah Reese, is the reason I am still a CPS teacher. We've all heard stories of lackluster supervisors—the one who makes you panic as her heels clink in the hallway because your classroom is disheveled or your data charts aren't updated. Or there's the detached principal who avoids entering your classroom and steers clear of any interaction with her staff. For me, this was never the case.

In fact, in the seven years I have been teaching at my school only two teachers have chosen to leave.

It appears that some CPS schools—and indeed, many urban schools nationwide—have become "revolving doors." Teachers frequently grow unhappy and leave the school, the system, or even the career altogether. About half of urban teachers leave the classroom within three years.

But I walk through the halls and see the same faces I saw 7 years ago. Why? Because my principal treats us with respect and values our contributions.

Through the recent recession there were several years in which teaching positions, including my own, were in danger of being cut at my school. However, year after year, my principal reallocated funds to ensure no positions were lost. In fighting for our jobs, my principal created an incomparable sense of loyalty, community, and unity at my school. When you find that in a job, you stay committed to that job.

In addition to ensuring she has the funds to pay us, my principal also retains teachers by recognizing our talents and challenging us with new opportunities. During my third year, I was confronted with a 3rd/4th grade split. To learn the scaffolding knowledge this position demanded, I attended a workshop on differentiation. Differentiation techniques soon became my passion. Rather than overlook my newfound passion and knowledge, my principal offered me a position on my school's RTI (Response to Intervention) team, where I could use these skills to benefit even more students.

During my fifth year, I found that I had a knack for analyzing progress-monitoring data. I loved researching ways to help our school make gains in weak areas. To reward my investigations, my principal invited me to join my school's ILT (Instructional Leadership Team). These positions, among others, have given me the sense of pride I needed to feel valued at my school.

According to the 2009 CALDER Urban Institute report called "The Influence of School Administrators on Teacher Retention Decisions," satisfaction with school leadership is the most important school-based factor affecting teachers' overall satisfaction with teaching, as well as their decision to stay or leave.

Unfortunately, not all of my colleagues across the district have experienced the support of an effective leader. One friend who teaches on the west side of Chicago claims that before the new Framework for Teaching evaluation system, her principal entered her classroom a total of one time in the span of a year. The motive behind the unexpected visit was to interrogate the teacher on claims of harassment from a student's parent. The teacher was never given an opportunity to present her side to the story.

Another teacher attributes her lack of leadership opportunities to her principal's strong friendships with other teachers in the school. Year after year, the same teachers are offered opportunities for leadership when my friend, a skilled educator continuously proving her expertise in collaborative learning, is overlooked. I fear that similar stories of shortcomings in the areas of ongoing feedback and leadership opportunities run rampant through our district.

Unfortunately, my seventh year will be my last at Hitch. This summer I will relocate to Charlotte, NC, where my boyfriend has accepted a new job. Had we remained in Chicago, I believe I would've lived out my teaching career as a Hitch Husky thanks to my principal.

Teachers want to feel valued, empowered, and surrounded by an amazing community of educators. A strong principal is critical in achieving this success, which I believe every teacher deserves. I feel lucky to have had the fortune of working with a remarkable principal who advanced my career and nurtured my passion for teaching. I hope every teacher has the same opportunity at some point in his or her career.

Years ago, I expected to leave CPS after a few short years with a skip in my step. Instead, I will leave with a tear in my eye.

Photo provided by Whitney Bubenzer

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