“I plan on attending Central Washington University to become a music education teacher.”
“So no one was able to crush your dreams and save you from becoming a teacher?” I responded.
Like most jokes, a half-truth was buried beneath that statement. This is what an outgoing senior told me during his Oral Boards (the capstone presentation on their scholastic career), and this is the same response I give most students who tell me they want to become teachers. But this time I stopped to ask myself, why I have been pushing these bright, idealistic students away?
It’s no secret that the teaching profession is losing its allure. Enrollment is down in many teacher preparation programs, like in California where it dropped 53% in the last 5 years. (We had a -2.26% change in the state of WA last year). Whether this reduction in enrollment amounts to a “crisis” or the concerns are “overblown” depends on who you ask. Yet, like anything that intersects with politics, people are quick to assign the blame (to standardized testing, an improving job market, etc.) and like anything that intersects with education, any and every person feels the need to tinker and qualified to put their two cents in on how to solve the problem.
As humans our tendency is to grasp onto the argument that most strongly resonates with us – as a science teacher my pet argument is the “I can make more money with my Chem degree doing an entry-level lab job than as a 5th year teacher” argument. However, that argument obfuscates the real problems with the teaching profession and drives a wedge between teachers of different content and grade levels by creating a financial hierarchy. Think piece after think piece has been written about how to “solve” the teacher problem. But, from a teacher standpoint, shouldn’t a true worthwhile solution be differentiated? What might make a fifth-year Chemistry teacher like me quit would be different than a 29th-year Social Studies teacher or a first-year 3rd Grade teacher. Sure, I don’t know if I could find a single teacher who would say no to a raise, but is a few hundred more dollars going to be enough to keep a state Teacher of the Year from leaving when the state bureaucracy tells her she’s unqualified to teach?
The difficulty with differentiated instruction is you can’t simply tell a teacher how to differentiate. All you can do is train a teacher to identify surgical precision when and why a student is doing well or is struggling, and give the teacher a variety of tools to use when a student needs help. Differentiating the teacher shortage should be no different. I don’t have a magic silver bullet solution, but I do have the following suggestions to administrators and districts concerned with teacher exodus:
1) Know and understand your teachers.
None of us get into this job because we like being alone. Even the most introverted of us will have at least one go-to person we talk to about any / all of our frustrations and concerns. A strong administration will be vitally aware of that network, and even if they don’t have a strong personal relationship with every teacher, will know how to get an accurate read on every teacher. Good administrators know which key people to check with to get a representative pulse of the building, and will “formatively assess” their staff at key points – start of the year, major grading periods, TPEP due dates, etc. In the classroom, relationships come first, and with admins the same should be true with their clientele – the teachers.
2) Respond when something isn’t working.
The purpose of formative assessment is to give you information on where your students are at a given point. However, unless that data informs your next actions, it’s not actually formative – it’s just assessment. So when a principal or admin assesses discontent exists, they need to dig into their box of tools to see what can fix it. Just like with students, sometimes all it takes is a short side conversation to help the person feel cared about. Other times it’s a school culture problem where a bigger step needs to be taken to address it with the entire staff. And just like with our students, sometimes the problem is an institutionalized problem. But again, different problems may need different solutions.
3) Assess whether the response worked, or if more intervention is needed.
Otherwise, how will you know if you were successful?
Would this be exhausting to a principal? I’d bet.
But is it worth it? I’d bet.
This post focused on the second half of the headline – how to keep good teachers. The next post explores the other half of the headline – how to get good teachers.
Do you have any ideas for a principal or administrator’s toolkit on how to keep good teachers? Share them below!
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