It’s been a difficult day for me because I just learned that yet another remarkable colleague is leaving teaching. Maria is young and motivated—having served as a cooperating-teacher and accepting positions on school-level leadership teams—but she’s been dissatisfied for a while now. “I’m 28,” she told me, “and I’m afraid I’m going to get locked into the classroom if I don’t make a change now.”
Maria’s decision surprised me because she has been professionally energized by the work of her learning team over the past few years. Together, they have challenged traditional structures and beliefs about teaching and learning, which led to great success for students in their school. She regularly describes a synergy and connection with her colleagues, and feels a sense of loss at the thought of walking away from what they have created together.
Maria has also invested countless hours in work beyond the classroom over the past few years. She has taken on leadership roles at the school and district level, working with another colleague to refine and reshape instruction at her grade level and in her content area. She has gained credibility with teachers and administrators alike by developing useful tools that benefit teaching and learning. Watching her grow has been incredibly rewarding for me because I saw the potential she has to impact education in meaningful ways.
The turning point for Maria came a few weeks back when she learned about an opening at a national software company that has its headquarters in the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, area. “The starting salary is thousands of dollars more than what I’m currently making,” she said. “I want to be able to provide the kinds of experiences for my child that the parents of my students are able to provide for theirs. That will never be possible for me in education.”
“So it’s about the money?” I asked.
“Actually, it’s not,” she replied. “I’m also excited because this company works to identify and develop your individual skills and interests. They provide opportunities for you to advance in the company over time and I like that. If I stay in teaching, I’ll never be anything other than a teacher. There’s nowhere to go and that’s discouraging.”
Much of Maria’s story resonated with me because I, too, have become discouraged. Each year I watch new colleagues walk away from my chosen profession. Maria didn’t exactly make me feel any better when she said, “Honestly, Bill, I don’t want to end up like you. You work incredibly hard and yet you get nothing in return for it. I’m not sure that I can ever match your motivation when it goes unrecognized and unrewarded. I just don’t know how you do it.”
So how do we keep teachers like Maria from leaving the profession?
That was one of the central questions that I wrestled with through long conversations with members of the Teacher Leaders Network and the TeacherSolutions team that worked to rethink professional compensation over the past year. Could changing salary structures, we wondered, have an impact on our efforts to keep “Marias” in the classroom? What would a compensation strategy that encouraged and rewarded accomplishment look like?
One key element in our thinking is a structured system that rewards teachers for succeeding with students and spreading knowledge and skills to colleagues beyond their classrooms. This is work that accomplished teachers have done informally for years, and yet there is often no financial incentive for investing time in such efforts. Differentiating pay for teachers who amplify effective instructional practices is a simple way to improve student achievement across classrooms while increasing compensation for deserving educators.
A system designed to keep teachers like Maria in the profession would also help teachers to grow beyond their classrooms by providing for formalized leadership roles at the school, district, and state level. Our most accomplished educators often grow frustrated with the lack of opportunity to advance in meaningful ways. Leveraging this very human desire to be challenged is a first step to retaining highly motivated educators who are not interested in becoming school administrators (the only upward mobility commonly available to teachers today) but who see stark differences between teaching and the opportunities available to young professionals in other careers. Hybrid positions that meld classroom teaching and leadership opportunities in innovative combinations—and with additional rewards—could help us combat the lure of other careers.
I feel a sense of loss about Maria’s decision, because I know that her colleagues are going to lose out on her knowledge of teaching. Her leadership was at once invaluable and undervalued and her ability to translate instructional strategies across classrooms will be missed. More importantly, though, the students of Maria’s school are going to be cheated out of access to a great teacher. Traditional district practices and structures have driven yet another successful young professional away from children.
Will we ever learn from our mistakes?