Five years ago, I attended a convening at the Ford Foundation to discuss teacher retention in hard-to-staff urban public schools. During the meeting, I shared my perspective, based on my daily lived experience in two different high-need New York City public schools:
In hard-to-staff schools, the learning environment is constantly threatened, because of insufficient resources and instability, both within the school and within the home lives and communities of many of the students. At the school level, unprepared teachers and high turnover rates (often in the form of ongoing teacher vacancies) threaten the viability of the learning environment. ... For those of us working under such conditions, it is easy to slip into 'survival mode,' where our main goal is to make it through the day. The same is true for our students. ... We need support and motivation to invest in our own practices rather than simply responding in the moment to all the challenges that come to our way until we are too tired to think of anything else."
After discussing the multitude of issues that impact teacher retention, we agreed that one key place to invest would be increasing the amount of time teachers have throughout their day to discuss and collaborate in their teaching. Looking back five years later, I can actually say that a lot has been accomplished to create more space during the school day for teachers to collaborate with one another. In my experience in schools and in virtual communities, teachers are far less isolated than we used to be, and this does help us focus on the quality of our teaching rather than simply survival.
What hasn’t changed much is the number of teachers who leave the classroom, especially in urban school districts. Without consistency in their teaching staff, city schools are constantly stuck in survival mode, and students suffer. This same issue contributes to the significant principal-retention problem we have as well. It’s time to invest some serious attention and funding into initiatives that will keep our best teachers where they are needed most: with students.
We need a differentiated approach to solving the teacher-retention problem, with one common denominator—more hybrid roles. Beginning teachers need to feel supported and effective in their classrooms in order to stay. Hybrid roles for new teachers would allow them to take on reduced teaching loads while learning from experienced mentor teachers. Experienced teachers need recognition for their skills, not just nods and praise but real professional roles that come with additional compensation, status, and influence and that continue to include classroom teaching. Hybrid roles for mentor teachers and other school-based leadership roles are one avenue; district-based hybrid roles would allow selected teachers to spend half of their time as teachers-in-residence with their district’s administration influencing policy or spreading great instructional practices throughout the district while still maintaining their own classrooms.
Though there are a great many needs in education that grant dollars can address to improve the lives of children in their schooling, nothing feels more pressing to me than keeping the wonderful teachers I know from leaving students.
Ariel Sacks teaches 8th grade English at a middle school in Brooklyn, N.Y. She is author of Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student-Centered Approach.
The opinions expressed in Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable 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.