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Response: 'Treating Teachers as Professionals' Is a Step Toward Reducing Attrition

(This is the second post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

This week's question is:

Why do teachers avoid, or leave, high poverty urban public schools and what can be done to improve the situation?

Teacher attrition is problem across the board, and teacher stability has been found to be an important factor in student learning. These issues are particularly important in schools with high-needs, and many of these are found in urban areas.

Part One in this series exploring the issue included responses from educators Pia LIndquist Wong, Rufus Thompson, Gail L. Thompson, Yvette Jackson, Veronica McDermott, Karen Baptiste, Joseph F. Johnson, Jr., Cynthia L. Uline, and Lynne G. Perez.

Today's post features contributions from Mark Y. Lineberg, Doris A. Santoro, Dave F. Brown, and Patricia Jennings. I've also highlighted comments from readers.

You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Pia, Yvette and Karen on my BAM! Radio Show. In addition, you might want to check out previous shows that have covered the same topic -- one with Angel Cintron and Paul Bruno and the other with Barnett Berry and Ilana Garon. In addition, you can read a three-part series from last year on this same topic.

Response From Mark Y. Lineberg

Mark Y. Lineburg is superintendent of schools in Winchester, Virginia. As superintendent of Bristol Va. Public Schools Mark was selected Region VII Superintendent of the Year and was recognized by the Virginia Education Association with the President's award of Distinction. Mark has particular interest in issues related to poverty, law, and health and wellness; and has conducted professional development on all of these topics. Mark recently co-authored a book with Routledge publishers titled Educating Students in Poverty: A Guide for Leaders and Teachers. Mark serves an adjunct professor for Old Dominion University and Va. Tech:

Teachers exiting from high poverty urban public schools is one of the great challenges we face in American Public Schools. First, teacher preparation programs need to provide a specific instructional program to prepare their candidates for teaching in high poverty urban public schools. The traditional teacher preparation program is focused on teaching middle class children with two parents. Teaching in challenging conditions is tougher, and preparation should include how to communicate with family members and use instructional methods aimed at catching students up who are often more than a grade level behind. In addition to teacher prep training, teachers in challenging educational environments need vast support once they start teaching. Support can center on methods to meet the individual needs of students with behavior challenges.

Perhaps the most important aspect of improving teacher retention in challenge schools is to shift the reform movement from being punitive in nature to a reform that is supportive. Challenged schools need strong, stable leadership that provides consistency and continuity. In addition, school administrators need to invest more resources in high poverty public schools. For example, class sizes should be smaller and more supports in place in high poverty urban districts. In addition, funding formulas for pupil teacher ratios should be differentiated according to the level of poverty and mobility of students.

Finally and most importantly, it is time for educational leaders, as well as for state legislators, to recognize that teaching in high poverty urban schools is more challenging and more time consuming. Teachers in these school districts need a minimum of ten additional paid days in their calendar for work on school improvement plans, specialized professional development that pertains directly to teaching high poverty students, time to make family or home visits, and time to analyze data that allows for prescriptive individualized instruction.



Response From Doris A. Santoro

Doris Santoro is Associate Professor of Education at Bowdoin College. She is writing a book manuscript tentatively titled Beyond Burnout: the Moral Sources of Teacher Despair, Attrition and Resistance. She has worked in urban public schools in Brooklyn, Jersey City, Newark and San Francisco:

"Not on my back." Some teachers who leave high-poverty urban schools are deeply committed to working with students and their communities. However, they refuse to be complicit in subjecting students to educational policies and teaching practices that they believe dehumanize students and denigrate the work of teaching.

What about the teachers whose very principles that guide their teaching are violated by what they are asked to do as teachers? As someone who taught in high-poverty urban schools, I understand the stress and demands of the job. As a researcher, I found the existing research on teacher attrition incomplete. In addition to addressing the challenges teachers face in terms of lack of resources, crumbling buildings and high-need students, most research suggests that teachers leave high-poverty schools because they were unprepared for the work, did not feel successful and they move to "cushier" positions.

What about teachers who felt as though they succeeded with their students and sought out positions in high-poverty schools? My research shows that some experienced teachers leave work they love as conscientious objectors. These teachers refuse to be the agents of harm to students and their communities (e.g., giving standardized tests to English Language Learners, using scripted curriculum that does not enable teachers to respond to students' learning needs). I have also found that some teachers seek to protect the integrity of teaching. They refuse to engage in behaviors that they believe are antithetical to what a good teacher should do and they will not damage the profession by harming students in the name of teaching.

What about the teachers who burn out? A very common explanation for why teachers leave these high-need, usually high-stress, schools is that the teachers burn out. While I do not deny that some teachers are not able to conserve their personal resources and do burn out, this explanation leaves the problem squarely in the laps of individual teachers. There are also institutional and policy-based sources for what I call demoralization. Unlike burnout, demoralization suggests that the work of teaching may change to such a degree that teachers can no longer access the moral rewards, such as crafting culturally-relevant lessons or feeling like they make students' lives better, that they once enjoyed. Read the comments from my interview with the NEA to see how this idea resonates with teachers.

What about the students and their communities? My research does not advocate for teachers from high-poverty urban schools to leave their work as conscientious objectors. (In fact, my current research investigates how nearly 25 experienced teachers who face moral concerns about their work find ways to stay.) The teachers I interviewed who left their schools did so only after sustained attempts to find ways fix the problems they saw failed. Most often, their moral concerns about what is good and just for students and what is right to do as a teacher were dismissed. My research amplifies teachers' voices. I hope educational leaders and policy makers start listening.



Response From Dave F. Brown

Dr. Dave F. Brown is an educational Researcher and the author of Why America's Public Schools Are the Best Place for Kids: Reality vs. Negative Perceptions :

This apparent "mystery" to politicians and pundits of how to keep high quality teachers in poor schools is no secret to professional educators. Once those in control of educational funding treat teachers as professionals, the challenge of appropriately staffing low socioeconomic status (SES) public schools with effective educators could begin.

I suspect employees at Google or Morgan Stanley have many perks, ones that teachers may never see; but, it's not money that defines the significance of the differences between private employees and professional educators--it's recognition, support, and respect. Think about all the signs that demonstrate that people value one's efforts in the work place. Companies that respect their employees

  • provide workers with supplies to successfully reach their objectives
  • clean and properly maintain work spaces and adjacent areas
  • provide appropriate support personnel to handle outside challenges
  • protect employees from external disturbances
  • provide professional development that meets employee needs, and
  • demonstrate respect for employees.

Teachers in low socioeconomic neighborhoods needs are not met:

  1. basic essential materials are not provided--no paper available for copies, not enough student textbooks, lack of technological equipment (computers for students or smart boards)
  2. eroding classrooms--from ceilings to walls; disgusting restrooms, and water fountains with signs indicating that the water is not safe to drink
  3. inadequate number of secretaries, librarians, and teacher aides to support student needs, and often uncertified principals and teachers working alongside professional educators
  4. a lack of support from administrators who don't protect teachers from upper level administrators, dysfunctional parents, or misinformed pundits
  5. failure to provide needed professional development
  6. no community, legislative, or administrative support or recognition for teachers' efforts, energy, dedication, or successes with their students.

I'll bet the employees at Google and Morgan Stanley have most of their professional needs met--but teachers in low SES communities seldom have any reason to believe that their peers, administrators, local and state politicians, and even parents support them in anyway.

Research studies have shown that most teachers want one thing more than any other--recognition for their efforts and their successes--of which there are many every day of the week! Current governmental policies such as NCLB and Race to the Top do nothing to support or demonstrate respect for the professional educators who dedicate untold hours of blood, sweat, and tears to help their struggling students, despite impossible performance expectations. Increasing the number of professional educators in low SES schools begins with the most powerful intrinsic motivator, that can quite simply be met, and has been so melodically described by Aretha Franklin--R-E-S-P-E-C-T.



Response From Patricia Jennings

Patricia A. Jennings, MEd, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Education in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. A regular mindfulness practitioner for over 40 years, she has spent most of her life exploring how mindfulness can enhance teaching and learning.  Now an internationally recognized leader in the field of mindfulness in education, her current research focuses on mindfulness-based approaches to improving the social and emotional classroom context and student learning. She is the author of Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom (W. W. Norton; 2015):

Before a new teacher enters the classroom he or she has spent tens of thousands of dollars on education and is most likely encumbered by student loan debt. On top of this, the new teacher can expect to earn less than those who enter other professions with comparable skill and educational requirements, and this income disparity has increased considerably over the past decade (Mishel, Allegretto, & Corcoran, 2011). If this new teacher chooses to work in a high poverty school, he or she can expect to earn less than those working in more highly resourced schools (US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights). While these factors play an important role in teachers' decisions to avoid or leave high-poverty schools, I don't believe the answer is entirely economic. Most teachers are exceptionally altruistic and many go into the teaching profession to serve high-need populations (Kraft et al., 2012).

I agree with an earlier response to this question from David Orphal, a teacher in Oakland, CA where I began my teaching career. Noting that his school replaces 25% of its staff every year, David points to the emotional demands of working in high poverty schools as a root of the problem. Teachers are not prepared to handle the emotional demands of learning environments in which students and their families, along with the school staff, face regular traumatic events and other stressful incidents. He notes: "I think that until my new colleagues are trained in these skills before they begin teaching down the hall from me, I will continue to watch that revolving door spin." Having taught for over 22 years, I know very well the emotional demands of teaching. However, it wasn't until I returned to graduate school to study stress that I began to understand why teaching can be so stressful, especially in high-poverty schools.

Imagine yourself in a room with 25-30 kids. Imagine that you are tasked with getting them to pay attention, listen to you, and do what you tell them to do so they will learn the content that is mandated by the district. Now imagine that 25-30% of those kids have their own social and emotional problems due to exposure to trauma or other stressors such as poverty, abuse and/or neglect. Now recognize that all of you are basically captives in this classroom. Neither you nor your students can leave the room without adverse consequences. How do you feel?

It's really no wonder that teachers are stressed out. A classroom can be a set up for a major stress reaction for both teachers and students. When stress levels are high, minor disruptions are amplified. Teachers may feel personally threatened and over-react. Students may become reactive, defensive, or afraid. Under these conditions it's very difficult to teach and to learn.

What can be done to improve the situation? Addressing these social and emotional demands before focusing on academic content will help both teachers and students.

There are many ways to promote teachers' social and emotional skills and resilience by applying a mindfulness-based approach to teacher professional development. I have dedicated the last decade of my career to finding them. My colleagues and I developed the CARE for Teachers program, which combines mindful awareness practices and emotion skills instruction specifically focused on the demands of the classroom context and the teaching profession.

A regular mindful awareness practice can help teachers better manage the occupational stress of teaching. In several randomized controlled studies of CARE we have found that it promotes wellbeing, emotion regulation, efficacy, mindfulness and reduces stress-related physical symptoms (Jennings, Snowberg, Coccia, & Greenberg, 2011; Jennings, Frank, Snowberg, Coccia, & Greenberg, 2013). We are currently studying CARE in the context of high poverty schools in New York City. In this study we are exploring whether these improvements in teacher outcomes translate into improvements in the classroom environment and student academic and behavioral outcomes.

To better prepare new teachers to handle the challenges of teaching, we're integrating a mindfulness-based approach into the teacher education program at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. My forthcoming book Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom describes ways to apply mindful awareness to improve teachers' teaching and their students' learning.



Responses From Readers

Janice Sherman:

At this time of year every year, I face the decision of whether to re-up with my high poverty school. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I transfer to another high poverty school. Every year, though, I promise my family that it will be my last. They hate the toll it takes on me. I do not have to work. I teach because I love most of my students, and I really believe that I am in a unique position to help them achieve their goals as readers and as individuals. This year, all of my 2d graders are now reading at grade level or above.

However, the inability of public schools to effective address the persistent and perpetual misbehavior of a small percentage of students who hold classrooms hostage, is the single most important factor for teacher attrition at high poverty schools. I am a lawyer. I used to represent these students, so I understand the law; however, given the proliferation of charter schools that can expel perpetual disrupters, and the effect that attrition has on learning, the law, as applied to public schools, should be reviewed. Public elementary and middle schools must be given the same rights as charters to remove children who cannot control their behavior and who significantly impact the amount of learning time in a classroom and the ability of other children to reach their potential.

Dang Ren Bo:

About the best system I've seen for this is Korea's. Teachers are placed by the government depending on need. In Korea, this means they need to be within a certain commute time of the school, but since the US is based on districts, I can see the rule would need to be modified. Teachers are placed for five years, and must move after that.

Using this kind of system, high-need schools would get access to the experienced teachers they actually need, while new teachers could be placed in supportive environments while they learn the classroom skills they need. We could get rid of the institutionalized hazing system we have now, where "You just need to do your time in Title I schools, then move to something better after you've got some experience" is repeated so often I just wan to scream.

We'd probably also likely keep more teachers.

Albert Hee:

1. Hire experienced teachers who are sure of themselves and have life experiences and other skills besides teaching academics.

2. With some apologies to female teachers, young male students also need strong, positive, compassionate male role models who can also establish boundaries and expectations.

3. Provide the teachers with adequate training and supports, and let them know that they are valued.

4. Discontinue any unfair evaluation system, and Implement realistic and attainable goals for the teachers and the students..

5. Convey the message that ALL students are valued, and that education is valued, and establish community relations. Even a complaining parent is an ally, because that parent is communicating and is involved.

Tom Layton:

Fear. I taught Eskimos in Alaska; Navajos in Arizona; Vietnamese, Hmong, and illegal aliens from Mexico in Oregon. At no time did I feel in danger for life or limb. I am now retired, but I do not think I would have ever felt safe teaching in the inner city.


I have spent nine years of my 19 year career working in diverse high-poverty urban schools. The work is exhausting, and there are days when I close my door at lunch and cry for students due to their circumstances. The kids have always been wonderful, but I make sure to treat them with respect and earn their respect starting on Day 1. My 9th graders often say to me, "You care more than we do. Why do you care so much?" I reply, "I know how tough life is, and I know how important it is for you to graduate from high school." My students know I care about them, and I am willing to do whatever it takes to help them be successful. I can't save everyone, but I know I've made a difference for some kids. It's exciting to watch them on graduation day be the first in their family to earn a diploma.


Thanks to Mark, Doris, Dave, and Patricia, along with a special thanks to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. 

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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