Teacher retention has been a big problem in education for quite some time. Roughly half a million U.S. teachers leave the profession each year, and faculty attrition costs the United States up to $2.2 billion annually, according to a report from the Alliance for Excellent Education. So, why is teacher retention such a persistent and pervasive problem?
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Last month, Paul Barnwell published a piece for The Atlantic about the ongoing struggle for teacher retention. He offered his thoughts about why this problem persists and what we might be able to do about it. Let’s take a closer look at some of his ideas.
1. Teaching is crazy hard.
Barnwall begins by recalling his second day as a new teacher in his first classroom. A group of eighth-graders in Kentucky put his classroom management skills to the test.
“In a span of three minutes, the group in room 204 had morphed from contained to out of control,” Barnwell writes. “Two boys were shooting dice in the back of the room, and as I instructed them to put their crumpled dollar bills away, several others took off their shoes and began tossing them around like footballs. Before I could react, one boy broke into my supply closet. He snatched handfuls of No.2 pencils and highlighters and sprinted out of the room, slamming the door behind him.”
He goes on to explain that he left that teaching job just a few months later. The challenge, pressure, and stress of the work felt overwhelming.
Many agree that teaching is extremely difficult work – for a lot of different reasons. New teachers seldom feel prepared or equipped to tackle the challenges.
2. Frequent turn-over of faculty and administrative positions leads to even worse attrition rates.
Schools are communities, and each is very unique with its own strengths and challenges, its own culture. Rising to meet the difficult work of teaching is even more difficult in a school that has a lot of turnover, because that institutional knowledge is harder to access.
Without an experienced faculty and administration to lean on (and learn from) the challenges faced by new teachers can feel nearly insurmountable. New teachers need mentors, either formal ones assigned to them via school or district programs, or informal mentors that offer guidance and support along the way. But, these connections can be hard to track down in a school with frequent turn-over – leading to even more teachers deciding to throw in the towel.
3. It takes a while to get good at teaching.
Barnwall stuck with teaching, and over 10 years later he now feels that he has a better understanding of what went wrong that first year. Mainly, the problem was that he was new to the profession. It takes a while to get good at teaching, you have to try and fail, revise, find new strategies, try again, and repeat.
It’s a long, hard road from new teacher to master veteran. New teachers need a lot of support to help them through those first few years – but even in the best of circumstances, those first few years are going to be hard.
“The boys from room 204 didn’t need me; they needed a veteran teacher with these aforementioned abilities,” he writes. “And it seems that placing me in a classroom that nearly drove me out of the profession could have been avoided. Here lies one of the most pressing policy challenges facing today’s schools: creating equitable teaching and learning conditions for not only students, but for educators too.”
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