“You’re a good teacher… which means you’re going to leave.”

October 19, 2013

“I mean, you’re a lifer too, right?”

This was one of the early conversations I had with the other half of the English department at my little charter school. It was on the heels of a fantastic discussion of curriculum and management techniques. We had just finished each other’s sentences about the particular ways we wanted to grow in our abilities as teachers that year. Five plus years in, we had no intention of going anywhere.

“Yes.” I answered, not realizing this made me an increasingly rare commodity. I also didn’t realize that by the end of that year, my school would have replaced (either due to firing or resigning) over a third of its teaching staff. At the end of the year my students refused to believe that I was coming back to teach them for a second year, “You’re a good teacher, which means you’re going to leave,” they informed me, based on clear evidence from their years in charter schools.

There are two issues here, (1) the high turnover rate of charter school teachers, who are most often moving to other schools and (2) the gradual changing of the teaching profession from one which people make a lifelong career to one which attracts the young and then spits them out (to other, better paying careers) or up (to administration) a couple years later.

Although there are studies that argue for teacher turnover’s harm to student achievement, many charter organizations are starting to focus on the benefits of young, inexperienced recruits: enthusiasm, devotion and “moldability,” as Rich mentions in her recent article, “At Charter Schools, Short Career by Choice” (The New York Times. 26 August 2013). Many articles on the issue cite an increasingly familiar list of the reasons teachers are leaving schools or even the profession: attacks on (or complete lack) of unions, increased expectations (longer school days or other increased professional responsibilities), the pressure of high stakes testing, a pay scale that is back loaded (or, in the case of charter schools, below market standards), an increasingly low cultural regard for public educators and bottom-line administrators (as opposed to those focused on actually educating kiddos).

I write this as someone who, even if I had not made a transatlantic move, would have been looking around for other schools, for many of the above reasons. I’m the breadwinner of my family at the moment and couldn’t afford to be at a school that was paying me below market scale (and was making it increasingly hard to do real teaching). But I also saw the devastating effect of this turnover on my students. They had little consistency throughout their high school experience, making it difficult for them to ever build on what they’d learned. They rarely saw a teacher with more than a year of experience, which meant that they were always someone’s guinea pigs, getting an endless series of teachers who were learning for the first time how to manage behavior and plan a full timetable of lessons, let alone create an engaging classroom. Teachers were not involved in the community, and had little understanding for the long-term issues in their students’ lives.

Not a good sitch, to say the least.
__________________________________________________________

By way of contrast, I was shocked by the conversation in the English faculty lounge (“staff base”) during my first week of teaching in a mixed socioeconomic secondary school just outside of Edinburgh. Of the twelve English teachers in the department, seven have been teaching for nine years or more at the school. One was a supply teacher who has worked with the school for over five years. Three had taught for over five years (at a couple different schools nearby) and one was a probationary teacher (in her first year, sort of a second step of student teaching). This is everyone’s long term (and for most, their first) career choice. Although the pay scale has been affected by Britain’s austerity measures, the nationally set pay scale climbs significantly for the first 5-6 years, quickly rewarding those who make it through the rough first couple of years. The “principal teacher” (department leadership and curriculum development) role gives teachers a way to move up in their professional career without leaving the classroom. There is an incredible amount of freedom in curriculum (and no one has heard of multiple choice tests in English). The culture all this creates is palpable: the teachers love their jobs; they deeply know the community (and their students’ families); they are constantly striving to be better at their craft.

Now, I know that this is not always the case (and I know that Scotland has serious issues in their educational system as well), and I know that I’m also experiencing the shock of having come from a deeply troubled little charter school. But … it’s good to know that it’s a bold-faced lie that …

– competitive pay not tied to high stakes testing,
– freedom from micromanaging, bottom-line administrators,
– rewarding experience,
– locally run state schools,
– a solid union

… will necessarily produce lazy, entitled, good-for-nothing teachers.

R. Card-Hyatt
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Articles Cited (in order of citation):

Ronfeldt, Matthew; Susanna Loeb and James Wyckoff. “How Teacher Turnover Harms Student Achievement.” American Educational Research Journal. 23 October 2012.

Rich, Motoko. “At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice.” The New York Times. 26 August 2013.

Blume, Howard. “High turnover reported among charter school teachers.” The LA Times. 25 July 2011.

Esquith, Rafe. “Why great teachers are fleeing the profession.” 
The Wall Street Journal. 17 July 2013.

“How to fix our schools: A manifesto by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and other education leaders.” The Washington Post. 10 October 2010.

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