The Problem of the Disappearing Teacher and How to Solve It

Katy Faber discusses her views on reforming our education system so that we can retain our outstanding teachers and nurture a new generation of lifelong leaders and master educators.
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Katy Farber's "Why Great Teachers Quit and How We Might Stop the Exodus" addresses an enormous problem of turnover in our current education system. According to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, one in three teachers quit after three years in the classroom, and 50 percent quit within the first 5 years. While it certainly may be the case that we are happy to see some of these folks go, we are also losing some great instructors due to a system that is clearly not doing enough to retain promise and cultivate potential.

I had the opportunity to interview Katy, a Vermont teacher and author of a book whose clarion call for change offers practical and inspiring solutions to this issue. Here, she discusses her views on reforming our education system so that we can retain our outstanding teachers and nurture a new generation of lifelong leaders and master educators.

Pam Allyn (P): In an ideal world, once reading your book many schools would be inspired and empowered to implement your suggested reforms to retain their great teachers. However, this does not always happen. What do you think is one of the most common, first issues that they should address in what would probably be a wave of reforms?

Katy Farber (K): Schools should begin by providing full and comprehensive mentoring programs for new teachers and principals in all schools. According to the National Commission on Teacher and America's future, comprehensive mentoring programs yield significant gains in reducing the attrition of beginning teachers, improving teacher quality, and boosting student achievement. We need universal standards of best practice in mentoring programs and insist that schools fully develop and fund these programs.

P: There is an ongoing great debate on how to address the problem of "bad" teachers. You mention, in several instances, that anyone can see that Abby, and several other teachers in your book, are great ones. Do you think it is possible to write down the characteristics of a great teacher so that they are quantifiable and easily identifiable? If so, is it then possible to identify "bad" teachers as well?

K: Great teachers have a love of children, a love of learning, constant motivation and effort to improve their practice, flexibility, kindness, humor and grace. As for bad teachers, we know those traits, for the most part, as well: late, careless, disorganized, demeaning, unable to connect with children, unmotivated to improve -- the list goes on. How many of those teachers, however, missed the opportunity to become successful? In my view, we need to be looking at how to best support teachers from the moment they are hired so more of them can become great and stay in teaching for an entire career.

P: You address the different roles and paths of many different groups of people -- administrators, school boards, parents, and students. The school system itself is a great web of interlocked individuals that are extremely influential on the others. However, do you think each group has the same opportunities, autonomy, and power to enact change? Do you think one particular group should be leading this movement and do you think change is possible if spearheaded by one group alone?

K: Teachers are busy teaching and rarely have time to lead, advocate and provide feedback. This must change. Teachers can no longer shut the door and teach in isolation while their profession erodes. In fact, teachers named "lack of faculty influence" as a top three reason for quitting teaching. The folks who are often powerless to make system changes are the ones with the most contact with children, the most teaching experience, and the ones most able to change their practice -- teachers.

P: You wrote that many new teachers and administrators have suffered because they did not have mentors and were placed in situations entirely alien to them, their teaching education, and experience. Did you have a particular mentor that helped you through the difficulties of teaching, and how did that experience shape you and your views on how mentoring can benefit teachers and administrators?

K: Oh, how lucky I was. There was no mentoring program in my school when I started teaching, back in 1999. Luckily, my grade level colleague, Marilyn Wallace, was a 25-year veteran. She worked tirelessly and modeled commitment, excellence, resilience and joy in teaching. Marilyn was my unofficial mentor. I think back now on how annoying it must have been for her, to have me asking a million questions about everything. She never showed any irritation, only patience and kindness. The administration changed each year at my first school, but I felt I had consistency, support and structure, because Marilyn was there. I had no idea that her essence of positivity, obligation to fellow teachers, and constant love of learning would carry with me all these years. Had I experienced the deep piles of trash and papers strewn on every surface in my new classroom, or the first angry letter from a parent, or my first fight on the playground without her, I am not sure I would still be teaching. I was a lucky one, but it doesn't have to be luck anymore. This is a choice and a change we can make.

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