Education Opinion

Teacher retention

By Jessica Shyu — July 10, 2007 4 min read
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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

The opinions expressed in New Terrain are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.