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Fixing the Teacher Shortage Begins With Stopping the Bleeding

By Alex Kajitani

There's a lot of talk about the teacher shortage sweeping the nation these days. Some say we knew it was coming. Others blame seemingly obvious factors like low pay, long hours, and lack of respect. As fingers point in all directions about the cause of the shortage, and districts scramble to find busloads of new recruits to fix it, we may be overlooking an incredibly valuable resource just under our noses: the new teachers already in our classrooms.

Just as the road to financial health often includes curbing one's spending, all the recruitment, incentives and even signing bonuses won't begin to fix our teacher shortage if we can't keep new teachers in the profession once they arrive. The number of teachers who leave the job in the first five years is somewhere between 17 and 46 percent (researchers are debating it)—but even the low end of that range is too many, and stopping this bleeding can turn the tides for our schools.

Over the past decade, I've seen countless new teachers (many of whom were quite talented), arrive on the job excited and eager. By December, they were dragging and discouraged. And by May? They'd decided that teaching just wasn't for them. 

Do we as teacher leaders have any power to reverse this exodus of new teachers? I say we do. Here are three simple strategies we can start implementing today to help keep the new teachers we have, while we work to recruit more:

1.     Minimize Negative Talk.

I know, schools have a lot of issues, and the longer we staff members are there the more familiar we are with those issues, and the more likely we are to complain about them. But, let's try to refrain from badmouthing the administration, fellow teachers, programs, and students in front of new teachers.This doesn't mean being fake or keeping new teachers out of the loop— but give them a chance to be excited, bring a fresh energy to the table, and form their own opinions before we impose our weathered ones.  We might even breathe in their fresh air and benefit from it in the process.

2.     Celebrate Milestones and Successes.

Getting through the first month of school may not be a big deal to us now, but remember what an accomplishment it was our first year?  Acknowledge new teachers' seemingly small milestones—the first month, the first back-to-school night, the first parent conferences—and we not only help motivate them, but we open the door to asking them how things are going and if they need anything.  At the same time, we're setting an example of teamwork and support that they will likely emulate, adding a positive vibe to our school culture, and the profession, for years to come.

3.     Help Them Stay Healthy.

The first month of my first year of teaching, each night I scarfed down a drive-through burrito for dinner after leaving school at 8 p.m. Then, a fellow teacher invited me to join him for an after-school surf on Thursdays (San Diego's equivalent of the East Coast racquetball date). I began looking forward to our surf session all week, felt so much better the day of and after it, and saw that I was actually able to leave school in the daylight and take care of myself now and then. I've seen dozens of new teachers work themselves into sickness from the pressure of that first year on the job. By helping an individual teacher be healthier, we also help our school. Well teachers mean less sick days taken, and better teaching in general, which is what our students, and our faculty teams, need. 

In short, we can all take easy steps to better support the new teachers on our teams. Then, when next year rolls around, they might actually come back—and we'll have played a part in fixing the teacher shortage.

Alex Kajitani is the 2009 California Teacher of the Year, and a Top-4 Finalist for National Teacher of the Year.  His book, Owning It: Proven Strategies for Success in ALL of Your Roles As a Teacher Today, was named "Recommended Reading" by the U.S. Department of Education. Alex is a highly-sought after keynote speaker who supports and motivates teachers nationwide. Alex has a popular TED Talk, has been honored at The White House, and featured in numerous books and media outlets, including The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.  For more of his ideas, visit www.AlexKajitani.com.

 

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