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Teacher Retention: It Feels Good Not Wanting to Quit Everyday


Marilyn Rhames

I almost quit teaching five years ago, but I'm so glad I didn't.

I won't indulge you with all the ridiculously obnoxious details here, but suffice it to say that my principal was a bit like Steve Carrel's character on the NBC show The Office.

One day, I finally broke down in a grade-level cluster meeting. I had given up breastfeeding my infant because there was no consistent time available in the school day for me to pump. My administrators cut a teaching position, purposely giving me 33 3rd grade students while giving my 2nd grade colleagues only 12 to 14. The final straw came when my 30-year-old male principal lectured the all-female primary teachers in a meeting—and expressly forbade us to speak.

"I hate my job!" I shouted amidst tears. I just couldn't take it anymore.

He told me later, privately, "It's like you wanted me to fire you."

There is a strange thing happening in schools in terms of communication. Teachers and administrators are often speaking different languages. Teachers who are crying out for support and a voice, often get this message from administrators: "If you're not happy you can leave."

I know retaining good teachers is vital to any long-term education strategy, but I doubt it is a true priority for most schools and school districts. The main people sounding the alarm on this issue besides teachers are education researchers, who are essentially powerless to implement change. From my experience, and based on what I'm hearing from other teachers, the prevailing sentiment is that good teachers aren't really that hard to find—administrators can pick from a long unemployment line.

But when throngs of teachers are leaving a school year after year, the principal should be under high scrutiny. Hardworking teachers are not tools that should be discarded and replaced once they've gotten old or a little banged up. We are professionals who need to be supported, developed, and valued. Administrators need to understand that every good teacher who leaves significantly weakens the school's instructional program and sense of community.

By the same token, there is nothing wrong with good teachers leaving the classroom to pursue other ambitions and opportunities. When the joy of teaching fades or when a teacher is distracted by a desire to make a broader impact, it may be time for her to walk away with no regrets. Staying may actually have adverse effects.

Besides, this generation of teachers are not the kind of people whose professionals goals consists of staying at the same school or in the exact same position for 30 years (though there's nothing necessarily wrong with that). Gaining tenure, at least for me, was never a major draw when I decided to become educator. My public pension (if there will even be pension funds left when I retire) didn't have that great appeal, either. A 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics study shows that people changed jobs on average 11 times by the age of 44—teachers are no exception.

Still, poor school leadership is one sure-fire way to end teaching careers prematurely. Having a strong but collaborative principal, however, can motivate teachers to stay in the classroom longer than they ever thought they would.

I would know: I have an amazing principal now, and I'm in my fifth year of not wanting to quit every day.

Marilyn Rhames is a middle grades teacher at a charter school in Chicago and runs a nonprofit called Teachers Who Pray. She is the author of the Education Week Teacher blog Charting My Own Course.

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