There is an epidemic eating at the bloodlines of our educational system: teacher turnover. Not only is teacher attrition expensive (wasted expenses), it is also detrimental to student achievement and school culture.
I personally have seen the symptoms of this deadly disease. I have spent my entire teaching career (to date, I’m in my eighth year, which you’ll see by the end of this piece makes me Jurassic) in at-risk schools: urban, poor, underserved, underestimated, at-risk, traumatized, overwhelmed, overtested. And in both schools, the teachers are predominantly young and inexperienced–me included. And if they’re not currently, just wait another year… because sadly the teacher attrition rate in high-need schools is an atrocious and powerful illness.
Nearly 20 percent of teachers at high-poverty schools leave every year, a rate 50 percent higher than at more affluent schools. That’s one of every five teachers, gone by next September.
But far more than research, this sickness is personal to me. I have left friends and have been left by my friends in both schools I have worked. I have been interviewed by people looking for teachers in it for the long haul, and I have sat on the other end of that interview table, hoping for the same thing. The eradication of teacher attrition–teacher sustainability and investment–weighs heavy on my heart… every. single. day. To that avail, I’d like to prescribe some treatments for schools like mine…and schools like yours.
- Vitamin C–school Culture: Teachers, students, parents, and administration all want the same thing: community…a place where all stakeholders come together for the sake of a vision which, though inclusive of achievement, is bigger than a number. This requires adults who act like adults, professionals who treat each other as such. This also demands a group of people who want to be together and who spend time together in and out of the workplace. To swallow this vitamin, there must also be a focus on the social-emotional health of ALL members of the culture.
- Vitamin D–Dissemination: There is no Vitamin C without open communication and transparency. This means all parties have an open-door policy…from the top to the bottom and back up again. People want to be heard, and this doesn’t stop when they go into their places of business. In order for Vitamin D to permeate the organism, there has to be veins: emails, meetings, hang-outs, collaboration. An essential nutrient to pair with Vitamin D is humble questions. Questions are the antibody to assumptions–and assumptions are toxic. Dissemination of information is also critical for a group of people to be moving forward toward a common goal in unity.
- Vitamin A–Autonomy: Teachers will want to stay in a school where their professional judgement is trusted implicitly and explicitly. With this Vitamin, they have the creative license to “make things work” inside of the system–whatever that system may be. Schools who regularly take their Vitamin A hire the best there is, and then provide space and inspiration for those employees to do just that–their best.
- Vitamin E–Expectations: In a school fighting teacher turnover, there must be equal and fair accountability. Staff should expect the best from themselves, and those around them. But instead of expecting this in a passive-aggressive way (gossip, slander, playing the mom vs dad game with the students, popularity contests), staff should be held accountable to having courageous conversations with each other, talking to instead of about. The same goes for administration. Especially in at-risk schools, there is no time to waste with mediocrity. Each stakeholder should be putting their best foot forward, and each stakeholder should expect that from themselves and each other. A staff healthy in Vitamin E is committed enough to call each other out on the carpet in a loving way, and humble enough to be called out.
- Vitamin S–Synergy: In many articles about teacher turnover, a common cause is teacher isolation and lack of support. The remedy for this is collaboration. Collaboration should be both top-down (delegated by administration) and grassroots (teacher to teacher, organic and informal). It should be across grades, content, and staff role. The more teachers reach out to each other as experts, the more synergy builds inside of a school, and synergy neutralizes teacher attrition’s poison. This synergistic collaboration must also exist between the administration and the teachers. Schools where there is an “us vs them” mindset provide the perfect breeding ground for teacher attrition. Instead, Vitamin S is most effective when coupled with a entire staff of innovative, problem-solvers who want to make progress.
- Vitamin G–Growth: Another critical part of the treatment against teacher attrition is creating a place where teachers can grow inside of the building, as opposed to beyond it. There must be more paths to teacher leadership than just pursuing an admin license. Teachers must have a place at the table…whatever that table looks like.
Before I conclude, I want to draw attention to what’s not on the list: student demographics, funding, amount of testing, teacher evaluations, etc. Though overwhelming, these are not the issues; they are the system. Urban schools are always going to be challenging places to work. But what’s important is how a group of people comes together, inside the broken system, to make it better, to make it sustainable, to make it a place all parties want to be.