First Person

Why Teachers Quit, And Why We Can’t Fire Our Way To Excellence

In the past few weeks, two major reports on teacher turnover and retention have been released. One was rolled out with extensive media coverage, and has been the subject of much discussion among policymakers and education commentators. The other was written by me, along with Teachers College doctoral student Clare Buckley.

The first report, “The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America’s Urban Schools,” was prepared by TNTP, an organization formerly known as The New Teacher Project that prepares and provides support for teachers in urban districts, and that advocates for changes in teacher policy. The second, “Thoughts of Leaving: An Exploration of Why New York City Middle School Teachers Consider Leaving Their Classrooms,” was released by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, a nonprofit research group based at New York University. (The research alliance published a report by Will Marinell in February 2011 that examined detailed patterns of teacher turnover in New York City middle schools apparent through the district’s human-resources office.)

There are some important similarities between the two new reports. Both surveyed teachers in large urban districts about their plans to stay in their current schools or to depart either for other schools, other districts or other careers. Both also sought to understand the features of teachers’ work on the job that were influential in their plans to stay or leave. The study of New York City relied on a large, anonymous sample of middle-school teachers: roughly 80 percent of the full-time teachers in 125 middle schools across the city. In contrast, the TNTP study surveyed smaller numbers of teachers in four urban districts (one of which appears to be New York City), and the surveys were not anonymous, because TNTP wanted to link teachers’ survey responses to what the authors viewed as measures of teachers’ performance, such as value-added scores or summary teacher evaluations.

The headlines from the two studies aren’t that different: In any given school, many teachers think about leaving, and it’s not easy to predict why some teachers are more poised to move than others.

The New York City study suggested that the rhythms of teachers’ lives matter, including their pathways into teaching and the positioning of teaching in a life with adult family responsibilities. The teachers prepared through alternate routes such as the NYC Teaching Fellows and Teach For America — 26 percent of those surveyed — were more likely to consider leaving their classrooms and schools, even when other teacher characteristics were taken into account. And teachers who were separated, widowed, or divorced, and those with responsibilities for raising children, were less likely to think about leaving, perhaps because of the financial risks. Commuting, too, takes a toll, with teachers who commute an hour or more each way to their jobs more likely than those with shorter commutes to think of leaving their current schools — but not more likely to think about leaving teaching altogether.

But regardless of teachers’ biographies, administrative leadership and support — and student behavior and discipline — matter a great deal. Teachers are more likely to consider leaving their classrooms if they believe they aren’t getting adequate support from their principals, and if they believe the school doesn’t function well as an organization. Good leadership is not randomly distributed among schools; on average, New York City teachers report less satisfaction with the leadership in schools serving high concentrations of low-achieving, high-need students.

The key divergence between the two studies is that the TNTP report sought to identify high-performing teachers — whom the authors labeled “irreplaceables” — and low-performers. These groups, the TNTP authors believe, are stable; a teacher identified as a high-performer early in his or her career is likely to stay that way, and low-performers, although they may work just as hard, unfortunately rarely get better. Rather than try to provide extensive support to struggling teachers early in their careers, TNTP argues, it’s more efficient to invest in retaining the “irreplaceables,” and to counsel out — or move more aggressively to push out — low-performers who may well be replaced by teachers who will be “better.” To date, the authors suggest, principals have not been this strategic, leaving who stays and who leaves pretty much up to chance.

I’m less sanguine than the TNTP authors about the ability to easily identify those teachers who are “irreplaceable” and those who are — what? Expendable? Disposable? Unsalvageable? Superfluous? The terms are so jarring that it’s hard to know how a principal might treat such a teacher with compassion and respect. Given what we know about the instability from year to year in teachers’ value-added scores as well as the learning curve of novice professionals, a reliance on a rigid classification of teachers into these two boxes seems unrealistic.

I don’t doubt that there are some individuals who are natural-born teachers, just as Michael Phelps has shown himself to be a natural-born swimmer, and perhaps their talents are revealed on Day One. But there are thousands and thousands of children and youth around the world who are competitive swimmers, and none of them is Michael Phelps. For these children and youth, as for most teachers — and there are approximately 3.5 million full-time K-12 teachers in the United States — technique and practice can yield great improvements in performance. This is perhaps even more true in teaching than in swimming, as there are many goals to which teachers must attend simultaneously, rather than just swimming fast to touch the wall as soon as possible.

Principals must, it seems, strike a delicate balance, seeking to cultivate a professional community of successful teachers through a mix of selection, “de-selection,” and professional development. But even in systems that view principals as “mini-CEOs” of their schools, knowledge of teaching practice is distributed throughout the school and district.

It’s true that teacher professional development is often weak and ineffective, and, particularly in the early career, probably requires a more coherent strategy and division of labor than currently exists in most school districts. But that’s not a convincing rationale for giving up on professional development for all teachers in favor of the quick termination of those teachers who don’t hit the ground running.

There’s a reason revolving doors are frequently out of order.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan famously said, “You can’t fire your way to the top.” TNTP apparently disagrees. For once, I agree with Arne — mark the date.

This post also appeared on Eye on Education, Aaron Pallas’s column at The Hechinger Report.

First Person

How I stopped wishing for ‘seventh-period flu’ and came to love my first year teaching

PHOTO: Richard Delmendo
The author, Autumn Jones, in her classroom.

Ubaldo and I had a rough start.

Ubaldo is a lanky eighth-grade boy. He prides himself on baseball, basketball and disrupting classes.

He also refused to do any work in my journalism class. He ditched one day, was tardy the next two. He asked to go to the bathroom constantly. We went up the “discipline ladder” daily.

I struggled big time with Ubaldo and his entire class. We dealt with plagiarism, disruptions, and an overall lack of participation. In anything. At all. I started calling them my “dead fish” class. Actually, I think dead fish would have been better.

Every day, I walked out of that class defeated. I thought about finding a weeks-long movie and playing it for the rest of class. I desperately wanted to come down with the seventh-period flu.

One morning, Ubaldo was due in my room for a follow-up conversation about his latest blowup. He shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes when I asked him what was going on in class. The only thing he could land on was that he was bored and didn’t want to be a journalist. He wanted to be in gym.

At that point, I stopped. I turned the conversation to my initial stories as a writer. I pulled up the first list of obituaries I wrote for the Gonzaga Quarterly (now Gonzaga Magazine) and I showed him those short little blurbs  —  someone’s name, date of birth, date of death, location and not a whole lot else. They weren’t the most exciting thing to write, I told him, but they helped me learn the structure of storytelling and AP Style.

Next, I pulled up some feature obituaries  —  stories that told more about a person’s life, their family, their hobbies, their impact on the world  —  at which point Ubaldo said, “You only wrote stories about dead people?”

After we both laughed, I told him, “No, but this is how I got my start as a writer.”

We went on to have a conversation about how things start out  —  in sports, in academics and in life  —  and how those things, like the first obituaries, provide the structure we can later expand from. I told him that we have to know the rules before we can break them. He liked that part.

We had a much longer conversation that morning. We didn’t spend much time on his outburst in class the day before. Instead, we talked about his pending high school acceptance, his family and his fears of being deported. His sister, a senior in high school, is a part of the government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In the current climate, that feels like it poses a huge risk for their entire family. He is afraid. Many of his friends are, too.

At the time, Ubaldo didn’t know where he was going to high school. (Denver allows students to apply to their choice of high school.) Getting into a good high school could be the ticket to higher education and a ticket to a better life for himself and his family. At 13 years old, Ubaldo faces far more uncertainty in his daily life than many of us face in the entirety of life.

That conversation changed how I approached my classroom. Ubaldo wasn’t causing chaos out of spite. Quite the opposite actually. Ubaldo, like every other student at my school, needs someone to listen, someone to care, someone to respond to the difficulties he is facing.

I wish I could say that particular classroom dynamic got better overnight. Or that, in an instant, some of my kids decided they were going to be journalists in their future careers. That didn’t happen.

It was a struggle until the end with that class, but Ubaldo bought in. More importantly, I bought in, too.

I showed up and I continued to teach. I pumped that class full of goofy activities and relationship-building exercises, despite the eye rolls. I shared more of my life story, even when it felt like there wasn’t an ounce of empathy anywhere in those four walls.

I now have a new group of seventh and eighth graders in my journalism class, a group that is talkative, friendly, excited and enthusiastic about the material and each other. That’s given me another insight: There are students  —  maybe entire classes  —  who are not going to love the content of my classes. There are also students who are going to buy in to such an extent you can see them working in media production, coding the next great news website or becoming a future New York Times columnist.

Regardless, my classroom will regularly be a space where preteens are looking for affirmation, assurance and love. That I can give.

A few weeks ago, in front of about 200 families, teachers and kids, Ubaldo presented a sports broadcast video he created for my class. He was one of two students to select the most difficult option for a project-based learning assignment. And Ubaldo got into one of the best high schools in Denver.

I know it doesn’t always work out that way. Not everyone gets to experience such a quick turnaround in behavior, attitude or academics. But it did this time, and, whether it happens one or 100 more times, it’s what will keep me coming back to the classroom.

Autumn Jones is a teacher at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, a 1st-8th grade school in Denver Public Schools where she teaches journalism, digital media and online safety. She previously worked in marketing, public relations and journalism and volunteered with CU Boulder’s Public Achievement program.

First Person

How I learned not to be ‘that mom’ — while keeping up the good fight for my son with a learning disability

The author and her son.

Each day, I do all in my power to fight the “good fight” for my son. I was his first teacher, after all.

But it hasn’t always been easy to know the right way to fight it.

In early 2016, my son was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a learning disability similar to dyslexia. Instead of manifesting itself in his reading ability, it was identified by his inability to write. This is a difficult situation for a school, especially pre-diagnosis. When a child is able to verbally articulate content but has limited capacity to express those ideas in written form, teachers often label that child as lazy, unmotivated, volitionally unwilling to engage.

Post-diagnosis, though, there is support available for students who struggle to overcome a learning disability, from individual education plans to resource teachers and and technology assists. For my son, however, these tools did not materialize.

It was lonely, trekking to and from school with suggestions from a learning therapist and watching them go unimplemented. As a mother, more than a few other emotions colored the experience: frustration, exhaustion, confusion, anger.

These feelings were especially acute as I realized his school was not adjusting the way they taught or interacted with my son, despite the policy and legislation that said they must.

A former teacher and administrator, I know all too well how easy it is for a parent to place blame on teachers. I know, too, that it takes effort to work with a student’s learning disability — effort that was not on display in his classroom.

Why? Had I turned into “that mom,” the one whose email address or phone number’s very appearance on a screen makes a teacher want to throw their phone off a cliff? Did they not like my son? Was he really not trying? What was I doing wrong?

Anger and self-doubt were not helping my son or the situation at his school. I want to fight the good fight for him, and, to me, that means making sure the transition to understanding and meeting the needs of his dysgraphia is a positive one. For him, for his school, for me.

I was determined to cut through the fog of inaction and use it to teach my son about perseverance. It is a parent’s responsibility to be involved, to embrace the struggle, and to demonstrate how collaboration and cooperation can yield much, much more than anger, blame, or avoidance ever will.

With this understanding, I had to pivot. I had to be resourceful and strategic, and to listen to my instincts as a parent. I wouldn’t lay in wait to ambush teachers as school let out or escalate every incident to the principal’s level, but neither would I take no for an answer.

I would, however, continue to educate the staff about dysgraphia; share promising strategies for supporting students with learning disabilities; inform other parents of the school’s legal obligations and responsibilities; volunteer as often as possible to develop positive relationships with those who watched over my son’s education; and celebrate the successes and discuss the challenges with everyone involved.

We are all familiar with the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But for parents, especially, it can be helpful to acknowledge that not all villagers share their same level of commitment to their child. It can sometimes be on us to fill in knowledge gaps and help other adults adapt to new roles when a child needs support — to enlist fellow soldiers to join us in the good fight on behalf of those who are not yet able to do so.

Amy Valentine is the director of the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, and previously served as executive director of three virtual schools in Colorado.