Two of the best humanities teachers I know left my district 18 months ago to teach abroad in Dubai, and now they are preparing to renew their contracts for two more years. After 10 years of teaching math, one of the best math teachers I know is seeking a teacher leadership post in another state.
Another one of my colleagues, a science teacher, recently told me about feeling exhausted and the need to leave the classroom in favor of a job in industry.
We have a looming teacher-retention crisis in Washington state and the most likely teachers to leave the career are often among our best, most impactful.
No one feels these losses more acutely than families living in poverty, for whom education is a way to the middle class. A great teacher is a powerful leader on that path.
Despite the talent drain, the public school system remains ill-prepared to attract and retain the excellent teachers that our students need, especially in high-poverty schools where turnover is even higher.
Great teachers have the ability to generate an additional five to six months of student learning in a year. A critical mass of great teachers in a building can be enough persuasion for other strong teachers to stay in the profession.
But according to TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project), the 50 largest school districts in the country combined lose approximately 10,000 highly effective teachers every year. These are the teachers who help students learn two to three months of additional math and reading as compared with the average teacher, and twice that when compared to low-performing teachers. Imagine the impact on closing the opportunity gap these teachers could have if we were more intentional about retaining them.
It is popular these days to promote education reforms, such as one-to-one programs (laptops for every student) and blended learning (a mix of online and traditional instruction). But more than a decade’s worth of research has shown that the most important in-school factor for a student’s academic achievement is his or her teacher. Therefore, it stands to reason that the most important thing we can do for our students is to focus intensely on attracting, developing, training and retaining the best possible teachers for our students.
Who knows how to do this more clearly than highly effective teachers themselves?
Over the past year, 21 teachers from the Puget Sound area worked diligently after school and on weekends not only to delve into policy research and interview peers, but to travel widely to learn from schools and districts that are doing a good job retaining teachers. The result of their work is a newly released report, “Intentionality: Strategic Preparation and Development to Retain Our Most Effective Teachers.” The report is a road map of changes in current policy and practices for colleges of education, districts and the Legislature. It will better position our state to attain an even higher quality teaching force.
Within the first week of its release, deans of colleges of education requested to work with the teacher policy-leaders who contributed to the report to re-imagine teacher and principal training. Senior leaders from local districts also pledged to alter their professional learning approach based upon the report’s recommendat-ions.
Among its common-sense recommendations are:
- Graduates of each preparation program are measured by student growth on assessments.
- Ongoing professional learning is aligned with individual and school goals.
- Exit interviews for teachers are done so that districts can learn from their experiences and improve retention of high-achievers.
The most far-reaching impact from the report will be decided by the Legislature. A group of teachers in our organization is working to strengthen standards for high-quality, professional learning so that we can do away with ineffective one-size-fits-all approaches that squander teachers’ time and millions of taxpayer dollars.
Teachers United members will keep districts’ feet to the fire to ensure these important measures are implemented as intended. Who better to lead the charge than teachers themselves?
We have all benefitted from the wisdom of a great teacher in our lives. Let’s listen to the collective voices of some of the best teachers in our state who have provided us with a path toward doing the most important thing for our students: developing and retaining great teachers.
Nathan Gibbs-Bowling is a teacher at Tacoma’s Lincoln High and recipient of the 2014 Milken National Educator Award.