I was honored today to take part in the first “Tea with Teachers” round table discussion of 2016 focused around teacher retention. While Acting Secretary John King was the host, he mostly listened and asked questions. With only an hour to discuss such an important issue in education, it felt as though a lot was left unsaid. However, I was glad to share my stories of SLA Beeber’s model of teacher leadership, empowerment and ethics of care and to hear about treating teachers as professionals, about offering meaningful, purposeful and teacher-led professional development, and about teacher preparation and school culture.
Before the conversation, we were sent materials about teacher retention policy and research that really didn’t offer anything new or game changing. In fact some of it was just plain nonsense (increase the number of students excellent teachers teach, have them lead other teachers in teaching exactly like them in other classrooms to “replicate” good teaching methods).
There was no mention in any of the materials we were sent of how to retain teachers of color and while there was the typical rhetoric of rewarding excellent teachers and firing the bad ones, there was no mention of how to grow teachers and how to help average teachers become great ones. Also, as NYC educator Brian Jones stated, the research focused on retaining the “best teachers,” but not just retaining teachers, period. This focus on the “best” teachers also brings the conversation back to over quantifying teaching and does nothing to eliminate the constraints that endless data put on excellent teaching.
I don’t think attracting and retaining good teachers is brain surgery. It’s similar to how many companies retain their top talent: Know their strengths, give them opportunities to shine, celebrate successes, offer opportunities for collaborating and learning with peers, provide top notch, just-in-time training, and compensate them adequately for the work they do.
So many of these factors, however, are not going to be solved by top-down policy from the Federal government. The Department of Education can set up systems and policies that support these factors, but in the end, this hard work must be done at the local level. We teachers must speak out and be vocal about what keeps us in the classroom, we need to feel safe voicing our concerns within our buildings, and just as students deserve strong, compassionate leadership in the classroom, teachers should also have the same guidance and support from their leaders (and school-based leaders also deserve strong, compassionate guidance from their district or state-level leaders!)
Just as our schools of education often fall short in preparing the next generation of teachers, educational leadership preparation programs are also failing to properly prepare administrators for the hard work of leading a staff of empowered and professional teachers. Teachers are often unprepared for the work of teaching ELL learners or students whose culture and experiences differ than their own, and administrators are often unequipped for leading teachers through this work. This enhances the gaping holes in our ability to support and set up these students for success and it leads to teacher “burnout” when that work feels impossible.
I hope to see the DOE hold up examples of schools and districts that embody compassionate leadership, cultural sensitivity, and teacher leadership and empowerment as well as strong academics. While policy may not be an option, using its microphone to broadcast what is working outside of test scores and data can still make a powerful impact and remind all of us about what really matters. I also believe that the continued support and advocacy for Edcamp-style professional development will fundamentally change how teachers connect, learn and collaborate within their schools and across districts and across the country and it will help change the culture of schools to one that trusts teachers, empowers them and taps into the shared expertise within a building.