We’ve long known that almost half of new teachers leave the classroom within the first five years of employment. But the cost of this churn has been hard to pinpoint. Even now, it can only be estimated at between $1 and $2.2 billion each year (“The Problem Isn’t Teacher Recruiting; It’s Retention,” the Journal.com, Jul. 17).
Whatever the exact figure, it’s disheartening, particularly because the highest rate of attrition occurs in schools serving the neediest students. The clear trend is for teachers to move from urban to suburban schools, which is a proxy for high-minority to low-minority schools. The issue of higher salaries aside, the more likely reason for the shift is that disadvantaged students tend to be harder to teach than their affluent classmates.
I learned that first-hand when I was teaching in the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District for my entire 28-year career. During the first two decades of my career, the school was composed of students from the adjacent neighborhood, which was populated by families in professional, managerial and creative fields. But busing and Third World immigration slowly changed enrollment. These students often brought with them huge deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development through no fault of their own. Lesson plans that for so long had been highly successful soon became total flops.
If I had been younger, I would likely have transferred to a different school. That’s because I found myself having to play the role of parent, police and psychologist far too often. Teaching subject matter took a back seat to performing triage. It was not what I had signed up for. My colleagues also complained about the changes that forced them to rework their lessons, but the district provided little support. Speakers at after-school faculty meetings and Saturday workshops offered platitudes that proved meaningless.
“Collegial collaboration” is often offered as one way to help teachers cope. But given the lockstep schedule of public schools, I question how effective this approach can possibly be. Teachers are too exhausted at the end of the school day to be receptive to what is presented. They are not professors who have the luxury of meeting with colleagues at the faculty club. I don’t think anyone who has not taught in a public school can possibly understand what teachers today are facing on a daily basis. That’s why I believe that retention will continue to be a major problem.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.