Teachers are leaving the profession in droves. From retirements, a lack of students signing on to teach in the first place, and the 50% of educators who leave the profession within the first five years, something must be done. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know as a teacher who made the move from a rural district of 600 students in grades 9-12 to a suburban district with over 1,800 students in grades 10-12, and then quickly back to that rural district the following year, I have a unique perspective, and valuable insights on what might be done to train, recruit, and retain effective teachers: the single most important factor in student achievement.
Never in my seven years of teaching have I truly understood the importance of smaller class sizes until last year. In my rural district, classes are typically in the high teens to low twenties. My classroom management is stellar, the relationships I build with students are personal, meaningful, and lead to some incredible learning, and my grading is always manageable. This leaves me plenty of time to enjoy my life outside of school with my family, and the ability to walk away from school without the stress of a mountain of essays lurking. Not last year.
Last year, my classes ranged in size from 30-36 and my total number of students was 153. The differences were astounding. My classroom management suffered, my classroom set-up was cramped and crowded, kids felt lost in the system, and I felt lost about how to help them. Class sizes are so important because they affect EVERY other aspect of good teaching and learning. This is why I came back to my smaller rural district this year. This aspect is even more important to me than money, as is evidenced by the fact that I took a decrease in pay to come back.
New teachers suffer the most in our current system. Often, they are left to their own devices, unsure of where to turn for answers to their most important questions. Feeling as though they should know what to do and worried about their evaluations, they often lack the support they need to grow in their practice.
As a mentor teacher for OSPI’s BEST (Beginning Educator Support Team) mentoring program, I see the difference it makes for beginning educators. Comprised of equal parts meaningful professional development, learning-focused conversations, and non-evaluative observations, this program allows new teachers to feel safe and supported in sharing their difficulties, asking questions, and strengthening their practice.
These conversations encourage first-year teachers to self-assess and reflect on their current level of knowledge and skills, and then create goals to facilitate specific growth. We know that “We don’t learn from doing. We learn from thinking about doing” (Laura Lipton, 2003). We have to provide beginning educators with the tools and support to reflect on their practice and find meaningful ways to improve.
Creativity & Autonomy
We know the adage about fish climbing trees. Teachers and students alike are feeling more and more like cogs in a machine, and less like the creative individuals we are. Sir Ken Robinson’s thought-provoking TED talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” explores this idea. He reminds us that creativity is as important as literacy, and if we don’t explore students’ individual talents, interests, and abilities, we rob them of the chance to fully develop as human beings.
Teaching is both an art and a science. There are research-based best practices and studies to support many of the decisions we make. There is also that creative aspect that comes from designing meaningful lessons, finding ways to connect with students and their interests, and integrating our passion for the subject. That is also becoming increasingly difficult for educators, and often they find themselves cutting out the “fun stuff” that students might love the most because they feel pressured to cover all of the content area standards and pressed for time.
Twenty-One Pilots says it best: We’re stressed out. While teachers are choosing to leave the profession, students are staring at clocks in classrooms all over the country, counting down minutes until they can leave too. If we decrease class sizes, provide support, and cultivate creativity and autonomy, we will see our most effective educators choose to stay, and our students will stop staring at clocks and start engaging in authentic and meaningful learning.