The Most Important Issue Facing Our Schools

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December 20, 2013

Major issues facing public education range from the policy level to classroom practice. Achievement disparities, graduation rates, poverty, standardized education reform, changes in public school funding, online education, teacher evaluations, equal access to quality schools, teacher quality and retention all impact the profession. Of these issues, teacher retention most impacts public education, because teachers are the greatest in-school influence on student achievement (Sanders & Horn, 1994). Improving student achievement is not possible unless we retain, support and develop quality teachers.

A staggering statistic from the results of a 2007 report drafted by the University of Michigan Public Policy Class 632 for the Michigan Department of Education revealed that nearly 40 percent of public school teachers left their jobs in their first five years. Though teachers may leave for a variety of reasons, the inability to retain quality teachers will inevitably affect student achievement and many other aspects of public education regardless of the reasons that a teacher departs from the classroom. Factors cited in teacher attrition included family and personal reasons; however, this rate is considerably higher in education than other professions. When looking at factors associated with teacher attrition, age, gender, and school characteristics have the strongest correlation. Other factors such as education level, teaching position, and race were examined but did not have as strong of a correlation to overall attrition rates.

The introductory years of teaching are challenging times of adjustment. More is now expected of teachers than ever before. The initiatives of standards-based education reform have made student achievement an imperative task alongside other classroom and school challenges. Novice teachers are sometimes inadequately prepared, in a practical sense, for what lies ahead in their career. Most teacher education programs only put trainees into internships anywhere from five to twenty weeks. Teacher education models that do not provide adequate practical experience for pre-service teachers lead new teachers to a false sense of preparedness. With heavy theoretical training but little chance to translate theory into practice, some novice teachers find themselves in uncharted territory with minimal support.

When I consider how my own experience helped me last beyond the statistical five-year threshold, I realize that I encountered no less challenging of situations than other teachers. Beyond my personal faith, however, there were three superior supports in place that made the difference for me: extensive teacher preparation, sophisticated mentoring, and ongoing professional development programs. Based on my experience teaching in two different states, I notice that support for new teachers varies widely from place to place.

By standardizing training and support programs for quality, teacher retention could be improved.

When new teachers are not equipped to handle the unforeseen challenges of a classroom, negative experiences can have a detrimental impact on their attitude. One such challenge for which no textbook or theory ever prepared a new teacher was the art of life balance. The day-to-day demands of classroom teaching can be time-consuming and daunting for new teachers, especially because it is grossly underestimated by most. The commitment to lesson planning, grading, and working with students and colleagues can inhibit some teachers from staying healthy or in balance. Often pre-service teachers are assigned for only a several week stay to a teacher with many years under their belt. While these veteran host teachers can share their wisdom and experience, they sometimes are so far removed from their own fledgling years that their retrograde amnesia prevents them from fully empathizing with the needs of a novice. Pre-service teachers might get more out of working with a host teacher having around ten years of experience, because the experienced teacher would be better able to relate to all the concerns and needs of their apprentice. Furthermore, by giving teachers a full-year teaching internship, they would get more out of their training and feel better equipped to handle their first year teaching on their own.

Mentorship programs for provisional teachers are in place in many schools, but improvements could be made to better support new teachers in their emerging career. I would propose a mentorship program that pairs novice teachers with veteran educators as well as other beginning teachers. This would help to bridge the experience gap between new and veteran teachers, which can inhibit the mentoring process because veteran teachers may not be fully capable of empathizing with new teachers. In this mentorship model, mentors and new teachers would conduct instructional rounds in each other’s classroom and discuss the resulting observations. The ability for new teachers to relate to one another while working with veteran teachers could enhance mentor programs. The lessons I learned from peer and veteran teacher mentoring experiences like these have become important anchors for my career today, and they influence how I work with new teachers now in my role as an instructional coach.

Together with good mentoring and training, support for teachers must include ongoing professional learning that supports development goals and provides actionable steps. Isolated and infrequent trainings often leave teachers inspired, yet unable to implement new ideas in their classroom. With better professional development, teachers would have an environment that fosters their autonomy, develops a sense of purpose in the profession, and helps them to work toward mastery in their classroom practice. Ultimately, teacher retention is a pervasive issue impacting student achievement and stunting school improvement. Keeping new teachers in the field is essential to the continued success of education.

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