Saturday, September 5, 2009

Why is there so much turnover?

This was the question posed yesterday by two new teachers and I at an impromptu new teacher conference on issues concerning our new school just before heading to a bar to celebrate the great day that is Friday.

"There is only one teacher left from last year in the English department; the rest of us are all new."

We stopped to consider the percentage of new teachers in the entire school. It's quite large in comparison to other schools. One's initial reaction to this might be to suggest that we're an inner-city school in Washington, D.C. Of course nobody wants to teach here. But the reason we all gave more merit to is as follows.

The school we work at has VERY HIGH EXPECTATIONS for administrators, teachers, and students. There are extreme pressures to do your job well, and, unlike many other schools, there are many measures of accountability to ensure that you are actually doing your job well. Each teacher in their first two years has a mentor teacher assigned to them who supposedly meets with them once a week (practically I get the impression that this probably happens a little less frequently, but it still happens). Additionally, each teacher has two administrators assigned to them: their department chair and their grade-level administrator. You never know when any of these people might drop into your classroom and ask to see your lesson plans or ask the students what standards you're covering and why. They also expect you to regularly present student work on assessments prescribed by the school that correlate with research-based strategies to improve student learning for inner-city children. Your colleagues scrutinize your students' work using protocols designed by the Center for Improving Teacher Quality. (http://www.ccsso.org/Projects/interstate_New_Teacher_Assessment_and_Support_Consortium/Projects/Center_for_Improving_Teacher_Quality/). Additionally, other administrators AND "master teachers" from the central DC office may choose to drop into your classroom any time they choose and quiz students on the nature of your teaching and content currently being covered. Teachers must also display their student portfolios (a collection of student work that demonstrates student progress in target academic growth areas) to colleagues and administrators, which really puts your abilities as a teacher out in the open. And on top of all that, students take practice tests for the DCCAS (the DC district assessment for NCLB - said: D.C. Cass) called the DCBAS (said: D.C. Bass) pretty much all year round. The data produced by these quarterly tests are poured over by the staff and analyzed for areas of improvement.

If you don't perform in a way that's expected of you, you might lose your job. The school has been given significantly more leeway to fire teachers than your typical public school. All of these things create stress on teachers to perform. If that's an environment that suits you, then the school could be a great fit. It was, however, our conclusion that many teachers, knowing that these stresses don't exist in the vast majority of public schools, chose to go somewhere else where they weren't constantly being scrutinized (also - some of them got fired).

So the new question is: Is this degree of accountability/criticism/scrutiny really good for the school? If you lose a significant portion of your teachers to other, more comfortable environments, and end up hiring many new teachers every year (many of whom came fresh out of college), are you really doing well by your students? I suspect the answer is yes and no. There is something to be said for consistency in staffing for any student (especially students who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds). But, on the other hand, hiring new teachers who you could potentially mold into real master teachers on a year-by-year basis provides you with the opportunity to slowly weed out the teachers who can't, or choose not to, cut it, which might one day leave you with a staff of out-of-this-world master teachers.

I do believe that this degree of accountability would be good, hands down, for the school if every other school in the country was also doing it. It would create a new kind of teacher, one that knows what they do in the classroom every day matters. However, when the reality is that one could quite easily go find a job at a school that doesn't hold one accountable, thereby making one's job a hell of a lot less stressful, I think many people ask themselves why they're putting up with so much stress at this school when teaching already has enough stresses in it to begin with. I've had that feeling a few times in the last couple of weeks:

"God, it would be nice to go back to my last school. There I could do whatever I wanted and nobody had any idea. If I didn't have a great lesson plan for the following day, I could just make something up on the fly to save myself the stress of hours of planning at night and nobody would be any the wiser."

On the whole though, I deeply respect the commitment at my new school to closing the achievement gap. Everyone there works tremendously hard, especially our amazing/highly competent administrators. I think they recognize that closing the achievement gap in one of the most underserved populations in the country (students who are ethnically, linguistically, culturally, and economically marginalized) is LOTS AND LOTS of incredibly hard work. This is why I find myself putting in 13-hour days and working 6-8 hours-a-day on the weekends, and I know there are teachers and administrators that do more. There are really no silver bullet here. We have to prepare amazing lessons for these kids EVERY DAY, differentiate for their needs EVERY DAY, call their parents when they're not on point EVERY DAY, tutor the kids who don't get it in class EVERY DAY, drill them with research-based strategies EVERY DAY. The work never ends, but it does satisfy.

So the suspicion that my impromptu conference attendees had was that many of the teachers who left were simply looking for a less stressful work environment. So is this what happens when we really begin to hold teachers accountable? like in the private sector? Do they just leave because they're not used to that? Or is it that really good teaching (especially in an environment like D.C.) is simply not possible without sacrificing just about everything else there is to enjoy in life?

I kind of suspect it's the latter, in which case I'll be without a life outside of school for the next few years. Time to go plan!

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