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Teacher retention

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My name is Jessica and I am part of the problem. Sort of.

I am part of the teacher retention problem that think tanks, news articles and educators grapple with. After two years of teaching sixth through eighth grade special education at my school in New Mexico, I have left my classroom and the community.

I am part of the “upwards of 40 percent” of new teachers who leave the profession, and therefore leave communities, colleagues, and most importantly, students. I am part of the multi-billion dollar tab racked up by teacher turnover. I am part of the 19 to 26 percent of teachers who leave high-poverty schools—schools that need us the most.

Leaving the classroom after only a couple years is something few teachers are truly proud of. Teaching not only comes with a paycheck; it comes with the moral and social duty of educating our children. No one wants to let children down.

But sometimes, it happens anyway. For some people, teaching isn't their passion. For others, the accountability, testing and federal mandates are too stifling. Some educators leave the classroom to explore other opportunities, while others leave their schools to teach elsewhere. None of that is wrong. None of that is unjustified. And even though teaching has about the same turnover as other professions with similar education requirements, like nursing and accounting, it leaves you feeling guilty anyway. And you don't ever stop thinking about the students you taught.

So it must seem rather odd that I, a happy and successful, but un-retained teacher (exactly the demographic we're trying to keep in the classroom, right?), am writing a blog on education.

I graduated with a degree in journalism and had mapped out my career in media when the chance came two years ago to join Teach for America. My plans changed unexpectedly when I fell in love with children and teaching during my two years on the Navajo Nation. Barely realizing it, I began planning my life and career around the classroom. But as much as I had made a home in the community and as much as my students needed me, I knew I wanted to teach closer to my family on the East Coast. I planned to attend Columbia University's Teachers College this fall to finish my Masters degree in education, and return to the classroom to teach general or special education in an upper-elementary or middle school setting.

Then life threw me yet another curveball. Last spring, I was offered the chance to join Teach for America's team in the Rio Grande Valley as a program director. As much as I love teaching children, I knew this was an opportunity I couldn't pass up, even though it's still far from home. For the next few years as a PD, I have the opportunity to do work I consider as important as the front-lines, day-to-day work in the classroom: guiding, problem-solving, and, most importantly, building the leadership of first- and second-year TFA teachers in the Valley.

Please bear in mind that I don't claim to be a master teacher—my role is to be a problem-solving thought partner and leadership builder. Undoubtedly, I will be calling for the advice of master teachers out there as the year goes on! =)

My own TFA program director worked with me over two years to develop my confidence and analytical skills in the classroom. Without Rachel's guidance, who knows if my students would have made 85% of their IEP goals this year. Without her support, who knows if I would have even wanted to continue to teach.

While I am comfortable with my decision, and feel I am doing what is best for the greatest number of students in the long-run, I still cringe every time I read a new article on the number of teachers who quit and why they do. Because it's true. The bottom line is that it takes effective teachers to leave no child behind. And for the students who are perpetually left behind—the ones with IEPs and the ones from under-resourced communities—they need effective teachers to stay the most.

And so that is where "New Terrain" comes in. It will cover the new terrain between the worlds of the starting teacher and the experienced. It will feature the advice of someone who herself is still only two years into the profession, supplemented by the sage advice of some of you who have been in the classroom for many years. I will draw upon my own experiences as well as those of my corps members, and address issues hot on teachers' minds—whether it's about paperwork vs. teaching time, ways to find your own extraordinary teaching mentors, or how to make the most of your vacation and downtime.

I look forward to readers' comments, questions and suggestions about issues or topics to write about. Please leave your e-mail address if you would like a response (from me or from other readers). You can reach me personally at teachfornm (AT) gmail.com

6 Comments

Good luck Jessica! Your corps members are lucky to have such a passionate and thoughtful teacher to work with them. As I leave the PD role behind and head back into the classroom my teaching will be greatly impacted by the example your classroom provided of a teacher who truly believed in her students.

You're not exactly part of the problem, I think, because even though you're leaving the classroom you're not leaving the profession. You may be painting with a different brush, but you're still an artist.

Leaving a high-poverty school district to support a demographically similar (and broader) population in another high-poverty area is hardly a coup.

And welcome to the RGV!

Jessica,

I support everything you said but, I feel you left out one important component of the problem every school and teacher faces. The MAJOR problem we as educators face is the fact that schools place students in our classrooms that should not be there in the first place because they are not ready to be there! I used to have an 86% and 92% passing rate for students in my Algebra II and Geometry classes respectively. But, last year the Clark County School district thought that in order to improve their Proficency Pass Rate they would put all student into the next level of math regardless of their ability level. I saw my success rate drop dramatically to as low as %50. The only way to fix the problem is to do what Chicago did recently put more emphasis and resources into elementray schools where the problems begin. You want to build a strong house you must first lay a solid foundation and that is what a lot of schools are not doing EVERYWHERE

RESPONSE:

Dear Steve,
There are countless things keeping the achievement gap wide open, aren't there? I agree that one major component is not preparing our students properly for the next grade, and that one of the things districts should focus on is maximizing the effectiveness of elementary schools. That's where it all starts, right?

Our responsibility as teachers grows even greater when we have to bring our students up 3 or 4 grade levels. When we just let kids "pass" into the next level without the necessary skills, we're putting them, their peers and their teachers at a major disadvantage. But then again, when we don't let students move on after being retained way too long, they become discouraged and more likely to drop out... There probably isn't a right answer for any of this, but I suppose that's where good teachers come back into the picture.

-- Jessica

Congratulations on your exciting new job. Because I am a regular reader, I know your thoughtful approach will make you an effective facilitator for novice teachers.

I do believe, however, that the revolving door of newer teachers seriously damages efforts to build a real profession. Building a solid teaching practice is a serious commitment, not something interesting to do before going to graduate school.

The research shows that the large majority of teachers do not become fully accomplished for several years. Why would any policy or program endorse teaching for a very few years, then moving on just as the novice teacher was developing a level of competence or mastery? And what about the value of leadership emerging from excellent classroom practice (instead of adversarial politics)? Where will the "sage advice" and perspectives to guide new teachers come from?

Very interesting. I was just wondering the other day of how TFA teachers affect the retention data.

I hope you someday make it to TC. As an alumna, I will tell you...I loved it there! My degree was not for classroom teaching, but for college student personnel. Yet 6 years after graduating, I will find myself in the classroom in August. TC changed my life!

Thanks for the blog...it is great!

Dear Jessica,
Teaching on the Navajo Nation must have been a wonderful experince. I see you as a hero, remaining motivated and taking your teaching to the next level. It is always an option to go back to the classroom if that is where your heart is. Good luck with the new job and remember that you must be willing to let go of who you are so that you can become what you can be.
Take Care,
Marin

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