Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Retention Problem and the Profession of Teaching

Yesterday I went to the doctor, and, looking at my information form, the clerk asked me where I teach. She then confided that she was once an English teacher. "Oh really?" I said, trying to sound friendly, but feeling sad. Of course, this woman may have had any number of reasons for leaving education to become a clerk in a doctor's office, but she is merely one among thousands who leave the profession every year. Almost half of all teachers (46%) leave the profession within the first five years. Beginning around the year 2000, the number of teachers leaving the profession after their first year crossed the 10% mark. Turnover has been steadily increasing since the 1990s. Does any other profession have anywhere near this rate of turnover?

This study from the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, from which I've taken a lot of this data, credits "industrial-era recruitment practices" for the high rate of turnover. This strategy, the authors write, "treats young teachers like easily replaced, interchangeable units--rather than individuals who merit individualized professional development investments." In other words, it would help teachers to remain teachers if we treated them like professionals, rather than assembly-line workers. The biggest obstacle to viewing teaching as a profession is that everyone spends so much of their lives in school that they think they know all about teaching. In actuality, there's a whole lot more to teaching than what students see. I learned this the hard way when I first started teaching without any training. Students probably learn more about teaching while they're in school than patients learn about medicine by going to the doctor, but that may only be because they go to school every day for 13-17 years or more. 

This is where the residency model of teacher training comes in. Residency programs' numbers are somewhat misleading, since the programs usually require some sort of time commitment that falls beyond the 3-year retention measurement that they use. But I can say from anecdotal evidence that teachers who train in a full-year residency (as opposed to a 10-15 week "student teaching" experience) feel more prepared to enter the classroom and are more effective in their first year than teachers from traditional programs. In my own personal experience, having tried to teach right out of college with no training and having taught for a year now after a residency, I definitely feel like a better teacher after the residency. This year has been tough, but my other first year as a teacher was arguably tougher, even though the environment was much more forgiving. The one important caveat here is that I was fortunate to have a true master teacher as my mentor teacher. If a resident is matched with a mentor who is not well-informed about best practice and not an expert on teaching and coaching teachers, then the outcomes won't be as good. And these mentors are not easy to find.

The study also mentions that it is "worth noting" that the trend in higher turnover coincides with the growth of "efforts to expand the pool of potential teachers via alternative pathways.  The influx of more new teachers increased the speed of the revolving door into the teaching profession, but did not stabilize the teaching workforce, and did nothing to improve teaching quality in high-need schools." Programs like Teach for America and its offspring have raised the prestige of teaching in some respects, by attracting Ivy League graduates to the profession, for example. But those same programs have also made it appear as though anyone with a brainy brain can become a teacher, and that it's the kind of thing that anyone or everyone should do for 2-3 years, but not necessarily longer than that. At our last reunion, a classmate told a good friend from high school, who has been teaching in my district for more than ten years, that she thinks "everyone should teach for a year." Burnout is also a major factor in teacher attrition, especially at schools where teachers are expected to work long, unsustainable hours. And many education wonks seem to think that this is not a problem. I just spent about 20 minutes hunting for an old blog post, sadly with no luck, in which a policy wonk said it was no problem that KIPP teachers burned out so easily because there are "plenty of people lined up to take their place." Setting aside the fact that this is a disgustingly utilitarian view of teachers and teaching, this particular wonk is also wrong--the NCTAF study points out that hiring new teachers alone won't suffice to plug the anticipated shortage when baby boomers retire. Current reforms that attempt to convince the public that we should implement "what's best for the children" with an utter disregard for what's best for the working lives of teachers only make things worse.

Teacher turnover is costly and bad for students. By increasing professionalism in teaching, we may be able to turn the tide.