Recruitment & Retention

Gone After Five Years? Think Again

By Bess Keller — June 12, 2007 12 min read
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How many teachers stay, especially in the schools that need them most? The question has attracted widespread attention as policymakers have recognized that expert teaching is the most important school-related factor in student achievement. Data show that poor and minority students assigned to ineffective teachers lag significantly behind their peers, a problem that compounds over time. By the same token, disadvantaged students can catch up if they have several effective teachers in a row.

Education Week has reflected the concern about teaching, publishing an edition of its Quality Counts report in 2003 on “hard-to-staff” schools. As one of the reporters, I followed six aspiring teachers from the Cleveland area—all interested in working in an urban setting, all promising—to see where they would land and why.

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Oft-Cited Statistic Likely Inaccurate

This month marks five school years since they took those first jobs in the profession. Estimates of the percentage of new teachers nationwide who quit in that time span range from at least 30 percent to close to half. In fact, “half of new teachers leave in their first five years” has become the conventional—if exaggerated—wisdom. Less cited, but still widely documented, is that teachers in high-poverty, low-performing schools are more likely to leave for another school than their peers in more advantaged schools.

So with half of my tiny, nonscientific sample in struggling urban or inner-suburb districts, how would the group fare?

To my surprise, every one of the half-dozen expects to return to the classroom this coming school year. The balance of talent may well shift in favor of districts where more students are white and live in financially stable homes, however. In January, three teachers were working in high-minority districts where at least half the students received federal lunch subsidies. By school year’s end, the number had slipped to two.

The tally may be one hint that the declaration of a general “crisis” in teacher retention was overblown.

Just as talk of an overall teacher shortage has largely given way to concern about particular fields and locations, retention may well be a problem best narrowed to some schools, districts, and subject-matter specialties.

The Stayers

The three teachers who are still in the schools where they accepted their first jobs are happy and satisfied, despite some adjustments.

Lyndsay J. Dimengo

At Jackson Memorial Middle School, Lyndsay J. Dimengo is a math and science teacher, the job she took out of college that was close to her home.

• B.A., math and science education, John Carroll University, University Heights, Ohio
FIRST JOB: Math and science teacher, Jackson Memorial Middle School, Massillon, Ohio
—Photo by Greg Ruffing

As an undergraduate at John Carroll University just outside of Cleveland, Lyndsay J. Dimengo got a jump on her student-teaching experience by showing up for the first day of school and then most weeks thereafter, though it would be months before her official placement at the site began. She loved Roxboro Middle, where about half the children came from low-income families. But the Cleveland Heights-University Heights district turned out to be badly located for her life’s next chapter.

As she approached graduation, she centered her job search around Akron, Ohio. Her new husband was attending school there, and their parents lived in the area.

The offer from Jackson Memorial Middle School in a fast-growing township that 30 years ago had been mostly farmland came quickly. Since arriving there, Ms. Dimengo, 27, has taught a different combination of courses every year. Licensed in both mathematics and science and the newest teacher in those departments, she got the lowest-level math courses.

That had its advantages, she said. “Sometimes the principal let me do stuff they wouldn’t let others do” because conventional approaches hadn’t been working with her students. And the school provided the resources she asked for—whiteboards, manipulatives, games.

The year her daughter was born, she was preparing three different courses. This year, though, she taught only science—her preference—and though the school couldn’t give her a classroom of her own, the resources continued to flow.

“I kind of like it better every year,” she said of teaching at Jackson Middle, where about 10 percent of the students are low-income. “I think part of that is becoming a better teacher.”

The trump card? “I absolutely love the people I work with and the kids.”

Robert P. Ristau gambled during his job search, and it paid off.

Robert P. Ristau


Robert P. Ristau played the odds and took a job as a teacher’s aide in the highestpaying district for beginners in Cuyahoga County. After a single year, he was teaching in the Beachwood district.

• B.A., education, Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio
• M.A., special education, Cleveland State University
FIRST JOB: Teacher’s aide, Hilltop Elementary School, Beachwood, Ohio
CURRENT JOB: Science teacher, Hilltop Elementary School, Beachwood
—Photo by Greg Ruffing

Without a job in August following his June graduation from Wittenberg University in west-central Ohio, the aspiring educator agreed to a job not as a teacher but as a teacher’s aide in the well-off Cleveland suburb of Beachwood.

A year later, the veteran retired as planned, and Mr. Ristau took over the program the older man had started at Hilltop School for students having trouble in regular classrooms. His salary more than doubled in a district that often posts the highest beginner’s pay in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland and 30 smaller districts.

A year later, financial problems forced the district to ax the program, but after residents passed a levy, Mr. Ristau was able to return to the same school, teaching 6th grade in the areas of his license: science and social studies. This year, the 27-year-old Cleveland-area native taught science at the school, and earned extra responsibility and pay as the district’s K-6 science coordinator.

“I’m teaching an age group I like to teach in a place where the community supports the schools heavily and there’s lots of parent involvement,” he said. Both the district’s resources and its way of doing things, he added, allow teachers the freedom to try new approaches.

But sometimes, Mr. Ristau said—especially when he’s spent time with teachers from Cleveland—he’s questioned if he could “do more good for kids” if he were teaching in a district beyond the quiet driveways and manicured lawns of Beachwood. Still, he reasons, “kids need you wherever you are.”

Andratesha M. Fritzgerald

Andratesha M. Fritzgerald has stayed put at Shaw High School in East Cleveland since earning her license. The English teacher is now part of a leadership academy.

• B.A., women’s studies and English, Cleveland State University
• M.A., urban teaching, Cleveland State University
FIRST JOB: English teacher, Shaw High School, East Cleveland, Ohio
—Photo by Greg Ruffing

Unlike the other two who stayed in the schools where they began teaching, Andratesha Fritzgerald (née Munn) didn’t just consider the possibility of teaching in a district of concentrated poverty. The one African-American in the group set her sights on it, preparing with a master’s degree in urban secondary teaching from Cleveland State.

She chose the East Cleveland district over Cleveland because of a positive experience student-teaching in the district’s one high school, where a position in English would almost certainly be open to her, officials promised.

During her first two years at Shaw High, she received “good support.” Looking back now, though, she sees that the location of her classroom in the school, a rambling collection of additions to an almost century-old building, put her at a disadvantage. The isolation became clear when the 1,000-student school moved to temporary quarters and divided into several smaller units thanks to money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Ms. Fritzgerald, 28, began sharing a large classroom with her colleague in social studies. Just as important, together with a math teacher and a science teacher, the four became the core faculty for the Leadership Academy’s 250 students.

“I like to teach [in East Cleveland] because … you teach life skills along with English and literature,” Ms. Fritzgerald said. “[Students] really tell us everything and count on us to do it all. It’s exhausting, but not as exhausting as it was when it was just my classroom.”

She praises the district for investing in its teachers. In her third year at Shaw, she was tapped for a leadership program at Cleveland State University. She earned an administrator’s credential and got a chance to explore “looping”—keeping students with the same teachers for more than a single school year—at the high school level. Now, she is a passionate advocate of the practice in her district, she said.

This year, like every other, had its challenges. When Ms. Fritzgerald’s first child was born in November, maternity leave disrupted the usual rhythm of the semester. A different way of grouping students also meant she had to experiment with how fast she was covering lessons.

Still, in the coming year she’ll move into the sleek new high school building just being completed, and she regards her school within a school as “very, very successful.” For Ms. Fritzgerald, just about everything is going in the right direction.

The Movers

If Michelle Flanagan had stayed at Elyria High School in the small Rust Belt city of that name, a new school building would have been in her future, too. Instead, she is wrapping up her first year at a high school in the far suburbs of Akron, one of two teachers in the group of six to switch districts.

Michelle Flanagan

Personal reasons prompted Michelle Flanagan to leave her more urban school and move to Medina, Ohio, where she could be closer to her family and have less stress on the job.

• B.A.,communications, University of Wisconsin-Madison; teaching certification, Cleveland State University
FIRST JOB: Math, Elyria High School, Elyria, Ohio
CURRENT JOB: Math, Copley High School, Copley, Ohio
—Photo by Greg Ruffing

The 40-year-old single mother’s personal situation contributed to the change. After a recent divorce, Ms. Flanagan wanted to be closer to her parents and brother in Medina, south of Cleveland. But she was also looking for a less stressful job.

Not that Ms. Flanagan, who earned her math credential from Cleveland State while working in secretarial jobs, had been wildly unhappy at her old school. “Elyria’s a tougher area,” she explained. “There are lots of kids from broken homes … who have parents in jail, who have abused them, or who are drug addicts.” Yet the 9th grade teachers she worked with as part of a special team to get freshmen off to a good start were a “saving grace” during her four years at the school, she said.

At the same time, Copley High School looked more promising. Its rating from the state was a notch above Elyria High’s, and its pass rates on the state’s graduation tests were higher. Cuts to school programs seemed less likely than in Elyria, where it took decades to get voter approval last month for the money to build a new high school.

After visiting, Ms. Flanagan was persuaded that she should switch to Copley. She noted that compared with the math department at Elyria High, the teachers were on average younger, though all had several years of experience—signals that the school was attracting educators with options. The pay was better, which could account for the higher proportion of male teachers. And the building was air-conditioned.

Ms. Flanagan would have to cope without her own classroom, but on balance, the choice was easy.

“It’s the kind of school where you get a job and you stay,” she said. “And that’s what I wanted.”

Heather L. Penny


After starting out in a more affluent district, Heather L. Penny found a job as a soccer coach in an urban district and parlayed that position into a job teaching math and social studies there as well.

• B.A., sociology and education, College of Wooster, Wooster, Ohio
• M.A., school counseling, John Carroll University, University Heights, Ohio
FIRST JOB: Gifted and talented teacher, elementary and middle levels, Wooster
CURRENT JOB: Math and social studies teacher, Wiley Middle School, University Heights, Ohio
—Photo by Greg Ruffing

Heather L. Penny, 27, also had to move to find the kind of school where she would be happy for a good long time. Only she moved in a different demographic direction: from more homogeneous and affluent to less.

She fell in love with the Cleveland area’s ethnically diverse East Side while a student at the College of Wooster in a rural part of the state. But when jobs in Cleveland and its nearby suburbs hadn’t materialized by June of the year she got her license, Ms. Penny decided to teach in a district near Wooster. Later that year, she tried to insure herself against the possibility of a layoff by applying for a job in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights district, where she had wanted to be in the first place.

The job was soccer coach at Cleveland Heights High School, and it helped her land a position teaching 7th grade math and social studies, the areas of her license, in the 6,500-student district.

After considerable study, leaders at Wiley Middle had adopted both a more flexible schedule and the practice of advisories, a special class, meeting daily in Wiley’s case, where the teacher stays with the students as a counselor and advocate throughout their three years. The innovations helped attract Ms. Penny and more than a half-dozen other young teachers to the school. “We made a dramatic shift in the climate of the building,” she said.

Then financial cutbacks in the district threatened the progress. Ms. Penny briefly despaired of losing many of her colleagues. By September, however, most of the teachers were back in place, and the changes—for the good, in Ms. Penny’s view—have continued.

Most recently, Ms. Penny earned her master’s degree in school counseling at nearby John Carroll University and bought a house not far from the school. She organized Wiley to host a regional writing tournament and wrote a grant proposal that brought her a “smart board,” which functions like a cross between a chalkboard and a computer screen.

That range of roles she plays is what she likes: “Mother, nurse, counselor, advocate … I feel like I can make a difference in [my students’] everyday lives.”

In Limbo

At the end of five years, five promising beginners had found professional satisfaction. What’s more, two had found it among schoolchildren who routinely don’t get their fair share of teaching talent.

Allison Hauserman

Allison Hauserman’s first teaching assignment seemed a perfect fit for the career-changer, but the school closed. Her last assignment came to a premature halt last month when a student pushed her into a doorjamb.

• B.A., history, Susquehanna University, Selinsgrove, Pa.
• M.A., American history, Binghamton University, Binghamton, N.Y.; M.A., urban teaching, Cleveland State University
• FIRST JOB: Social studies teacher, East Technical High School Annex, Cleveland
• CURRENT JOB: None, but planning to teach in the fall
—Photo by Greg Ruffing

The sixth teacher’s story starts well. Like Andratesha Fritzgerald, Allison Hauserman graduated from Cleveland State’s master’s-degree program in urban secondary teaching and wanted to work in the city. The 57-year-old career-changer had long been a Cleveland resident and her daughter had attended public school in the 55,000-student district.

Though it came through at the last minute, her first job was perfect: a social studies position at a small Cleveland high school. Bolstered by a collegial atmosphere, the teacher took on new responsibilities right away, becoming the building representative for the teachers’ union and running a model state-government program that took several of her students to Washington. The school’s graduation rate was 89 percent that year, its best in a long time, she recalled.

The following year, the financially troubled district announced the school’s closing and hundreds of teacher layoffs. With no social studies jobs open to someone with so little seniority, Ms. Hauserman eventually accepted a position in English at Patrick Henry Middle School near her home. Though it was not her field and she had never taught the middle grades, through a technicality, she was eligible for the job.

“It was a challenge,” Ms. Hauserman said, “but the principal was really very supportive. He knew I cared about doing a good job, and I could go and say, I’m struggling, and he’d come and sit in my classroom and give suggestions.”

The following year, as a result of seniority rules tightened in a legal challenge brought by the teachers’ union, she, too, was laid off. For the next 1½ years, she worked as a substitute here and there in the district.

In December of last year, administrators asked if she would finish out the year of the 7th and 8th grade English teacher for whom she had been subbing at a K-8 school. The school, built as a high school in 1940 and located in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, had discipline problems—and vermin. Ms. Hauserman daily cleaned her own boards and floors.

She accepted anyway, and struggled with unruly and sometimes threatening behavior until a fateful Friday.

Late on May 4, an 8th grade girl angry about detention threatened to “beat the ass” of the teacher, prompting her classmates to take up the chant. In the next period, a mouse poked its head out. During the commotion that followed, a 7th grader carrying the dead rodent slammed Ms. Hauserman into the doorjamb. She closed her classroom door and couldn’t stop crying. “I can’t do this anymore,” she thought as bruises began to form.

Now diagnosed as suffering from post- traumatic stress syndrome that developed over months, she hasn’t been back to the school.

Ms. Hauserman is unsure about the coming school year. Even though there are likely to be high or middle school social studies jobs open in the district, she is at least interviewing elsewhere.

“Everybody I’ve talked to who’s left Cleveland marvels at simple things,” she sighed. “Like you leave at the end of one school year, and you know what you will be teaching the following one.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2007 edition of Education Week as Gone After Five Years? Think Again


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