Commentary: The U.S. Must Focus on Improving Teacher Retention
The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE.
As educators, we are responsible for preparing students for life after graduation. Thus, many of our debates focus on optimizing the student experience: things we should do – or not do – to create a well-rounded individual who is ready to take on his or her next challenge, whether it’s a job, college, or the sixth grade. Far too often, however, we focus entirely on the people who sit in classrooms and neglect the people who stand in front of them. Educational policies must make sense for students, yes, but they must make sense for teachers, too.
Unfortunately, we are falling short in that endeavor. Teachers are not only leaving education; they are doing so publicly, posting letters of resignation for all to see. According to Alyssa Hadley Dunn, an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University, educators are not leaving the profession because of poor pay or student behavior. Rather, they are frustrated by the field’s obsessive focus on standardized tests, rigid curricula, and punitive teacher-evaluation systems. These frustrations are felt by educators across all grade and experience levels and with varying emotions. In fact, some teachers do not feel that they left their job; they feel that their job left them. Either way, the message is clear: This isn’t what we signed up for.
And the field must take note.
Teacher turnover costs more than $2.2 billion annually in the United States and has been shown to adversely affect student achievement. As a result, teacher retention is a vital and worthwhile goal, and there are many ways to achieve this.
First, universities must continue to espouse the clinical education model and steer teacher candidates toward internships and residencies. These experiences will help teacher candidates determine whether teaching is the right path for them. Residencies, in particular, support novice teachers and allow for mentoring opportunities that help reduce teacher burnout. Teaching is a challenging profession, an honorable profession. Let’s respect the work that teachers do and give them the support that they need.
Second, teachers must have a voice in curriculum development and education policy. If teachers are silenced or do not feel valued, they can lose their sense of purpose and decide that resignation is their only option. This is especially true in low-income schools, where teachers often bear the brunt of district and societal shortcomings.
Third, we must fight on behalf of public schools and resist the push toward privatization. On July 4, the National Education Association (NEA), to its credit, railed against charter schools, dismissing them “as a failed and damaging experiment.” The NEA, as part of a new policy, will only support charters that closely resemble traditional public schools in terms of rules, laws, and accountability measures. The rest of society should follow suit.
Charter schools have multiplied in the new millennium. In 2000-01, for example, there were fewer than 2,000 charters serving fewer than 500,000 students. By 2014-15, there were roughly 6,700 charters serving roughly 2.7 million students – more than 5% of public school students. Such rapid growth, the NEA said, is a result of the push toward privatization, which segregates students and pilfers funds from traditional public schools. To that end, we must do what is best for our teachers, not the bottom line. To ignore our teachers is to ignore our students, and that is something we cannot do.
We must also not ignore teachers of color, who are leaving the field at a higher rate than White teachers, especially in low-income schools with poor working conditions. Black teachers sometimes feel overlooked or taken for granted, especially if their ideas are quickly dismissed by White colleagues, or if they are asked to serve as disciplinarians, especially for students of color. With added disciplinary duties, Black teachers have less time to plan lessons and perfect their craft. We must work to retain all teachers, but especially teachers of color, to ensure diversity and help create racial equity in education.
Ultimately, teacher retention is one of the biggest challenges in education, and we must work together to improve it. As educators, we should always do what is in the best interest of our students, but let’s not forget our teachers in the process. They are people, too. And without them, our students would suffer. Teacher retention is our best response to teacher recruitment.
Renée A. Middleton, dean of the Patton College of Education at Ohio University, is chair of the AACTE Board of Directors for 2017-2018.