take your vitamins: boosting school immunity in the treatment against teacher turnover

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

And stay.

childless by choice

I am mindful of the emotional weight a post like the one I’m about to write shoulders. In the proximity of both friends and acquaintances who have painfully toiled with infertility–some with success, some without–it is not fair that Dave and I choose childlessness. To Dave’s parents who long for grandchildren, it is not heartening that their son and his wife deny a course of parenthood. To a culture that views progeny as some form of social and/or religious duty, it is not moral that we enjoy and preserve our life without kids.

But we do. And at times we feel guilty for this, like it’s some secret we have to hide because our child-driven (or consumed; you pick the word which has the appropriate connotation for you) culture might look at us as if we have three hairy heads, twelve green warts, and zero wombs.

But most of the time, we find joy in our choice: vast, comforting, delicious, freeing joy. This is why:

  1. I don’t think I would make a good mom. I am ridden with anxiety and fear. When I spend time with others’ children, I am consumed with worry that they will trip, or choke, or die, or any other of the 100 catastrophes I can think up in the time it takes to wipe a child’s runny nose. The last thing I want is to raise a child in an environment of fear, for that is nothing short of prison, a life sentence of some variance of bred mental instability.
  2. We actively prioritize ourselves and our life together (or we are selfish, again, pick your connotation). When we want to travel, we go. When we want to get up at 7 on a weekend morning and go out for an early breakfast and then come back to nap, we do. When we want to be next to each other in a yoga class, we go. When we want to pull an all-nighter watching a TV marathon, we do. When we want to wander around our house naked all day long, we can. When we want the innocent laughter, light and love of children, we welcome them into our home or hang out with our friends who are parents. When we want quiet, we have it. When either of us wants to be independent and alone, we just disappear into our own hobbies. We are not consumed by diapers, school bullying, or college funds. We are 100% present to our lives, as we, and we alone, want them to be. We honor this as a blessing.
  3. I have already hit the mother lode, literally. Currently, I have 34 children, whom I teach. Add that to the 500 or so other students I have taught in the past. When I enter school, my classroom, I give everything I have to those students. They ARE my children. They are my heart. I work for them, pray for them, advocate for them, cry for them, sing for them… I live for them. I know my limits. I could not come home at night–after pouring myself out physically, mentally, emotionally, soulfully–and give equal access to my energy, my heart, my action to more children. Children from whom I can’t escape or establish boundaries.  I find fulfillment not in burping a child, but in believing in the underdogs of our society; not in changing a diaper, but in challenging an oppressive system; not in attending parent teacher conferences, but in hosting them; not in finding ways to raise a healthy and happy child, but in building healthy and happy relationships with students that help them achieve.
  4. I am a work-oriented person. My sister and I were talking this week about our parents and how we see ourselves in them (or don’t). I realized that our parents functioned as two completely different archetypes: the nurturer and the worker. My Dad was the nurturer. Soft, kind, loyal–he was the one I remember taking me to the playground, patiently waiting for my little eyes to reach up and over the 31 Flavors counter to pick my ice cream choice, and driving me everywhere in my teens…not my Mom. My Mom was the worker. Confident, sharp, strong, perpetually-in-motion, I remember her rising early in the black morning and leaving for work while I woke much later to the trail-scent of Aqua Net. My sister spent her entire life longing to be a mom; like our Dad, she is the nurturer. I, on the other hand, once I could discern and escape from the imposed expectations of society, have come to see–and embrace–my role as a worker, like my Mom.
  5. #2, #3, and #4 combined with motherhood can be explosive. Unfortunately, I have been witness to women who have sacrificed their children on the altar of their careers and selves… and I refuse to be one of those stories. I would rather not have children and be committed to my career (even if it is the unpopular or unacceptable choice), than have children for having-children’s-sake, and not be able to give them my first-fruits. I know our society likes to tote that working mothers (or fathers) can have it all… and they can, perhaps, but at what cost? I refuse to pay that price.
  6. Though cognizant of problems, we like our life; we like each other. Dave and I went into marriage like most people do…assuming kids would come someday. But then 3 years passed, and we said, maybe later. And then 8 years came and went, and still we said later. But later has kept arriving, alone, devoid of the desire for kids. Like every married couple, we have problems, but they are problems that we don’t think kids will fix (in fact, we’re sure they’ll confound them); problems we know we can chip away at more successfully without little lives depending on us. Ultimately, we are best friends, best friends who like to be lazy and like to explore, best friends who like each other and the little life we’ve created.

Perhaps someday we’ll change our minds (or God will). And we’re OK with that. But for now, we’re enjoying living childless by choice.

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