When I first started my teaching job, people told me my position was cursed. There had been such a high teacher turnover rate that when I initially stepped foot into my classroom, I found only skeletons of Shakespeare lessons on the shelves and a left-behind "We'll miss you" note in a drawer.
Stacks of To Kill A Mockingbird and other ninth-grade English novels had been left behind, of course, but my predecessors had had to create much of their own teaching materials because when each teacher left, they took most of them on the run. And who could blame them?
But it wasn't just my school. Half of teachers everywhere leave the profession after five years, creating a lack of continuity in teaching content from departing teacher to new teacher. So what's being done about it?
Leading education experts debated the topic of teacher retention at the recent Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles, a gathering of fields ranging from science to education discussing social, political and economic problems and solutions. I brought up teacher retention with some of the educators and policy-makers who attended.
It wasn't just a one-sided interview, however, as they were curious why I decided to become an exemplary statistic myself and leave after four years. I explained to them how, from day one, my team teacher and I were going full tilt with curriculum creation, planning our units on a day-to-day basis. I think that's where much of the stress starts. The new teacher's puritanical need to prove herself as an overachiever when asked to rise to a challenge often gets coupled with the additional expectations of taking on extra duties such as coaching or advising after school.
But my experience was far from wholly negative. My school was doing many innovative things and I was lucky to work with extremely dedicated, creative teachers. We spent extra time to create interdisciplinary units that included a mock forensics investigation and a debate on nuclear energy, combining English, civics and science. Of course, we weren't the only teachers doing units like this. There's much research that says it's important that teachers feel they have room to teach outside the textbook.
But the reality is that there just isn't enough time. To achieve what we did, we applied for grants to be compensated for spending late nights at school. If there were more opportunities like these, I know new teachers would take advantage.
So what's being done to give new teachers more time, support and keep them from walking out the door? Here's what the education experts at the Milken Institute Global Conference had to say.
Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to President Obama for Education: Government Initiatives
In an interview, Rodriguez stressed to me the importance of teacher training and continuing education to retain teachers. "For the first time, we've added professional development as a requirement in the Teacher Incentive Fund plan in the last round of dollars -- the $42 million allocated last fall."
But more needs to be done, he admitted. "We spend a huge amount of resources annually on professional development and we have very little information about the effectiveness."
He says his main concern is helping teachers know what to do with the numbers -- to understand and use data in order to improve instruction. "Too many teachers have to rely on results at the end of the year, and it's too late," he said.
On a teacher retention panel, Rodriguez also said that insofar as making sure teachers are prepared when they walk in the door, it may be time to close some inefficient teacher training programs. He said a data system that links classroom results with particular teacher training institutions is something that's being discussed. "Then we can begin to have some of those difficult conversations. I think the results will speak for themselves."
Judy Elliott, Chief Academic Officer of Los Angeles Unified District: Professional Development
I sat down with Elliott to discuss continuing education and mentoring for new teachers. She said she operates under what she calls a "For L.A., by L.A." model, meaning she's nixed all the national data coaches and outside professional development. The district's teachers rely on one another for continuing education and mentoring. "I don't believe in the expert model," she said. Elliott explained that she prefers the time-honored mentorship practice of one teacher modeling a lesson for another teacher. "We're working the collegiality within a school site," she said.
Elliott also talked about how she's started a teacher and principal task force with both new and veteran employees on Common Core Standards. "I have had so much success with this," she said. "Everybody just drops their gloves and says, 'Let's just figure it out.' This inside-out professional development shows we trust them and we respect what they do."
Lowell Milken, Chairman & Co-Founder of TAP: Restructuring the Profession
Milken spoke on the teacher retention panel with Rodriguez, and he highlighted research that said high-achieving countries recruit from the top one-third of a graduating class, but in the U.S., only 23 percent come from the top third. Milken said it's unrealistic to think the U.S. can emulate the world's most successful systems because there are too many other opportunities for top graduates to pursue in the U.S. But he said if we want to uplift the profession, it needs to be restructured to benefit teachers. He argued that right now many see the profession as a "flat career."
"They enter as a teacher, 30 years later they're a teacher and the only way you can elevate yourself is to go into administration," he said. "If you become a teacher and don't have a shared leadership role that you can evolve to in a school and help drive instruction, then what kind of career is that?"
Kal Raman, CEO of GlobalScholar: Technology's Role
With all the talk on data-driven reform, technology should be used to help ease some of the procedural tasks off teachers' plates, said Raman, who works with schools to implement digital tools such as online grade books and analytics to measure student progress.
These technologies also make recommendations for teachers' professional development by using data such as school demographics and student achievement levels. Raman said he appreciates that teachers are pulled in an increasing number of directions and sees technology's role as making it easier to juggle: "Teachers are expected to be a subject-matter expert, play the role of psychologist, be good at relationship building and good in data," he said. "Give me a damn break; give me one person in America who can fulfill all those check boxes."
The problem with teacher retention clearly mirrors other problems in reforming education. It's best summed up by one of Rodriguez's closing comments from the panel -- that making one school's proven successes work in another school is the ultimate challenge. "We have wonderful examples of leadership, comprehensive teacher reforms, good teacher compensation, curriculum and technology. But the examples are scattered across system. We need to mine those examples and bring them to scale in a traditional system."