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.

roaring chickens: how I found my voice

One of my Mom’s many stories was about how she kicked the bucket…literally:

I had a job stacking pails coming off a paint line. One of my bosses came in and told me to stack them one way, and so I did. Well, then, my other boss came in and told me to stack them a different way. So I did. Then the first boss came back in and asked: “Why are you stacking ’em this way and not the way I told you to?” Well, I’ll tell you what I did. I kicked those pails all over the place and turned to them and said: “When you two get your shit together, come and get me. I’ll be in the break room.”

This story can be filed under the motto of my Mom’s life of strength and fire:

You picked the wrong damned chicken to mess with!

For most of my life, I’ve been the perfect chicken to mess with. Being the youngest in the family, I fell naturally into the role of making peace. I didn’t want tension or drama at any cost, and so in my naivety, I’d be the go-between, trying to make all parties feel better. In my past jobs, I rarely spoke up, letting people run over me rather than dealing with the ramifications of protest. For my first years as an educator, I struggled in the middle-ground of blatant wrongdoings against our students and staff while wanting to keep my job. I was a woman whose voice burned within me, but sadly, never manifested externally.

During many of my conversations with my Mom, I was haunted by her persistent call to courage:

Mary, you can’t just let people run all over you.

Her deathbed words to me (though not on her deathbed, but on the owl-light-lit porch, in the darkness of night) were:

Mary, be strong.

Her conviction and her challenge have been planted in my deepest parts since she died in September of 2013. Slowly, painfully, the seeds have cracked open under the dirt of my grief, broken through the shattered pieces of my heart, and have reached toward the warm sun of her legacy. There, they bloom, while the birds’ songs harmonize with my own resurrected voice.

In this expansive field of flowers, I see and hear my Mom within me. I have cut toxic people out of my life. I have learned to declare and honor my protective no’s and my worthy yes’s. I say what needs to be said, shooting through the heart of the elephant in the room. I ask hard questions instead of making easy assumptions. I openly admit my faults but do not minimize my strengths. I talk to people instead of about them. I am the microphone for the voiceless. I foster discomfort, assured of the future benefits. I feel good in my skin, knowing I am Created. I have found my voice; I have rightfully claimed my voice.

For much of 2014, Katy Perry’s “Roar” would come on the radio…and it felt like my Mom was singing to me, reminding me of her strength and fire. This was my song, my anthem, of a life spent hiding, then finding my voice; like mother, like daughter; the wrong damn chickens to mess with.


This post was inspired by Synchroblog’s January prompt. Follow these yellow-brick-links to other ponderings!

will the real me, and the real you, please stand up?!

Chivalry died long ago. But currently in our society, slowly sucking on its last breaths, is authentic honesty. In a culture where people speak in Facebook statuses, smile Instragram pretenses, finish thoughts with @youknowwho, hashtagphrasesthatforevercementgrammaticalerrors, and abbreviate everything because “ain’t nobody got the time for that,” it’s next to impossible to find sincerity and truthfulness.

Luckily in my life, two people come to mind who keep me grounded in authenticity. My friend, colleague, and fellow blogger Heather can be sharp around the edges, but I never doubt how she views me. She is true to herself, and thus one of the most genuinely real people I have the joy of knowing and calling friend. Another is a long time friend Laura. I have known her for many years, and throughout that time, I have always admired (and still do) how she is never fake. She spends most of her time openly and honestly reflecting rather than portraying some alabaster ideal of what’s supposed to be. Being friends with both these women is a refreshing breath of air in a culture polluted with the fumes of false faces.

I want to be that fresh air for others. What does that require?

  • Courage. To be raw and real requires risk. Some people might not like who I am, and others might not like how my authentic self calls them out on their own discrepancies. But despite the responses–or perhaps in spite of them–I need to be me.
  • Cogitation. I was reminded of this through Numbers 13:25-33. When Caleb stood up and called for the Israelites to take over Canaan, the people immediately began spreading hyperbole saying: “[the] land devours its inhabitants,” and “all the people that we saw in it are of great height.” Was it true? Somewhat. But what was truer, deeper, beneath was their own fear and insecurity–which they hid with tainted responses. To be authentic, I must search below what I want to say to break down what I should be saying instead. Only in those gaps between thought and voice can I really find myself…and give of myself honestly. Mindfulness matters.
  • Challenge. There can be no honesty when all is smooth seas. It is in the challenge in communication, the challenge in community, that I discover how honest I can be–both with myself and with others. To come home and live an isolated life requires very little tension and testing of my authenticity. But to dare, to question, to broach, to venture, to misjudge, to mistake, to eat my words, to apologize, to reflect, to see someone beside myself in the reflection of my truest self–that is where the tried and tested, tangled glory of authenticity happens.
  • Congruence. Because we as Americans live dual lives–flesh and blood versus online–it is far too easy to say one thing and do another. But if I am going to be authentically honest, my actions must be congruent with my words. This takes sacrifice. Either I sacrifice my time to be faithful in what I said I was going to do. Or I sacrifice my pride by saying no and establishing boundaries. Either way, I mean what I say and do what I mean.

de49ade704e3c3a556f6218cbeaf33bbWe cannot control the social media explosion overtaking us. We cannot control the dishonesty or inauthentic portrayals surrounding us. But we–you, me– can be just that… you, me.

Real.

Raw.

Refreshing.

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