It’s no secret that retaining quality teachers in our schools is a challenge faced by school districts from Oakland to Omaha. All you have to do is ask teachers themselves.
“It’s an incredibly big number of teachers we’re losing in the first five years,” Lisa Rothbard, a teacher at Skyline High School, said.
A 2005 report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that “In recent years, nearly 450,000 teachers—one-sixth of the teacher workforce—have left American schools annually. Some have transferred to other schools or districts and others have left the teaching profession altogether. It is clear that turnover, whether due to migration or a complete exit from the profession, occurs on a grand scale among American schools.”
When you start looking at the numbers based on income and ethnicity, the effects of teacher flight become more pronounced in low-income communities of color.
According to the same report, public schools within high-poverty areas experienced a nearly 33 percent higher turnover rate than low-poverty schools. Among schools that enroll more students of color, the study found that teachers left at a rate almost 19 percent higher than teachers in predominantly white schools.
All this puts Oakland schools in the middle of an increasing crisis in public education, a notion seconded by the Alameda County Grand Jury. Recent findings by the Grand Jury state that OUSD “has many problems including high teacher turnover, low teacher pay, teacher assignment issues, an ineffective and cumbersome teacher evaluation system,” as well as other issues involving contracts and the district’s relationship with the teachers’ union.
Of all the issues faced by OUSD, teacher retention has the potential to effect student success the most.
According to the Grand Jury report, 13 percent of Oakland’s teachers leave the district each year—twice the California average—and 70 percent leave within the first five years. The end result is an environment of instability for teachers and students that hinders student learning and teacher development.
“When a school experiences the frequent departure of a considerable portion of its faculty, turnover takes a heavy toll on the functioning of a school and, ultimately, on its ability to deliver high-quality instruction to students,” the Harvard study said. “Additionally, high turnover requires a school to restart their instructional focus each year, resulting in a less comprehensive and unified instructional program.”
Speaking with Oakland teachers, they choose to focus on the positive gains made by students when continuity is maintained in teaching assignments.
Recently, Rothbard was given the opportunity to “loop” with her students, keeping a single class intact with the same teacher for two years even as the students move up in grade level.
“I was able to accomplish more in two years with that cohort than two years with individual groups,” she said. “So much of what you do is build a classroom environment, setting up norms and procedures … I didn’t have to recreate it from the beginning each year and was able to build more academic instruction into classes … They know your classroom and the trust is already there, relationships are already there.”
The same is true for Christi Carpenter, a teacher at United for Success Academy in Fruitvale. Carpenter looped with a group starting in 5th grade, making an effort to take every single one of her female students on field trips outside of paid classroom hours.
“I really had a strong relationship with that class. The investment really paid off,” she said. “We use things like Google docs and apps in the classroom. It made my life a lot easier because they had already learned how to use those things. I can get more done, and they already had the tools to learn more content.”
But as with any teaching endeavor, learning is a two-way street, and teachers also find themselves beneficiaries of retention as they continue to learn on the job.
“My first year, I worked 7 a.m. to midnight and on weekends planning, grading, communicating with parents. I created the entire curriculum … did lesson planning on a daily basis,” Rothbard, who is entering her fifth year of teaching, said. “Now I have solid units well planned out and incorporate new sources and adjustments as needed.”
Carpenter has spent the last 13 years developing as a teacher in both Oakland and Detroit.
“As you grow as a teacher, you are able to contribute much more to the school and form stronger relationships with the kids,” she said. “At first it’s overwhelming with all the tasks you’re doing for the first time, but when you stay at a school you’re spending less time doing those things. Once you’ve stayed in a place you have more time and resources to build relationships with kids.”
While this early stress and the workload of being a first-time teacher may lead some to leave the classroom, the teachers we spoke to brought up a laundry list of reasons why teachers go.
Pay is certainly one reason. According to the grand jury report, when comparing average teacher salaries, Oakland pays its teachers $14,000 a year less than teachers in the rest of Alameda county.
But what came up time and time again was professional development. Teachers, like most of the working world, want to develop their skills and progress in their careers.
“I don’t think retention needs to mean you stay a full-time teacher for the rest of your days,” Rothbard said. “If you want to continue, that’s amazing, but you may want to keep your foot in the door and then spend the other half of your time supporting another teacher or doing research. What we’re really talking about is losing teachers before they reach their peak.”
According to the Harvard report, 87 percent of teachers leave because of issues other than retirement. Of that number, the research shows a strong “link between teachers’ sense of being effective, their satisfaction with their work, and retention.”
“I want to keep becoming a better and better teacher, but as I become more aware about what’s happening outside my classroom, I want to help there too,” Rothbard said. “I really like knowing what’s happening district-wide because it all comes back to how well my students do in my classroom. Status quo, there is very little opportunity for teachers to tap into that interest and still teach.”
Marc Tafolla, policy director at GO Public Schools in Oakland, spent five years teaching in California and Oregon before leaving the profession for law school.
“I got into my fifth year and there was a bit that looked very flat, and I had no interest in administration,” he said. “So I started looking for other opportunities to use other parts of my personality and my brain.”
A report by the Bay Area New Millennium Initiative (NMI) points out that there are a multitude of ways to leave the teaching profession, but few ways to move up.
“The profession’s current structure does not encourage students’ or teachers’ success, because it often pushes effective and enterprising teachers out of classrooms,” the report says. “Our proposed model allows effective teachers to keep a foot in the classroom while taking on new responsibilities that build and spread their professional expertise.”
The NMI model would create hybrid teaching positions that would allow teachers to take on leadership roles at the school, district, county and state level while taking on a reduced teaching load or rotating between teaching and leadership.
Other effective, veteran teachers would have the option of taking on mentorship roles while reducing their teaching loads to train new teachers in effective methods and help them build relationships with their students and colleagues.
Teachers we spoke to also sought part-time positions for experienced teachers, allowing them to continue teaching while also exercising their creative talents elsewhere and bringing the insights they gain back into the classroom.
While restructuring the teaching profession continues to be debated in our school districts, what is clear is that all teachers, regardless of their reasons for staying or leaving the profession, seek to be appreciated.
“The biggest reason I’ve stayed is having an incredibly supportive administration team at Skyline … Feeling valued in your workplace by your peers and students and administration is essential,” Rothbard said. “It’s important to retention. Why would you stay somewhere you feel undervalued?”
This story and the entire Education Voices series were made possible through the support of The California Endowment. Our student reporters for this series are participants in programs at Urban Peace Movement. Our lead trainer in the Education Voices project is Irene Florez of Oakland Local staff and our staff reporters are Barbara Grady and Jon Leckie. Many thanks to the Endowment and UPM for the support of this program, and to our wonderful coaches, trainers and student reporters.