New ideas on how to slow teacher turnover

The Parkside School
The Parkside School
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
A teacher interacting with a student at the Parkside School.

New ideas on how to slow teacher turnover

Focusing on students’ social and emotional issues may help retain teachers in low-income communities.
March 15, 2021

Over the past year the coronavirus pandemic has exposed disparities in education, like the health crisis did across so many sectors of society. When schools were forced to go remote a year ago, some students from low-income households struggled with online classes due to not having a computer, high-speed internet or a quiet workspace.

Teachers also had added pandemic burdens: adapting lesson plans, attendance and progress reports to the unprecedented demands of remote learning, as well as dealing with elevated levels of anxiety among students and parents.

Schools are not insulated from the socioeconomic circumstances of their communities, and those located in underserved areas experience higher rates of teacher turnover. A 2019 report from the New York City Comptroller’s office found that turnover was “concentrated in higher-need school districts, where the surrounding community is often lower-income and where the majority of students are children of color.”

Attrition costs to the public school system are substantial, the report found. But teacher churn, experts say, also imposes a cost on the culture of a school and can be a contributing factor to less stable learning environments.

Many new teachers underestimate what it’s like to teach in a New York City public school. It is common for new teachers to struggle with classroom management, and they may only last a couple of years on the job. “You can be a master of your content, but if you don’t have that presence in the classroom – that extra spice – you’re doomed,” said a teacher at a Queens public school who asked to remain anonymous due to not being authorized to speak to the media.

New teachers often misjudge the rigors of classroom management, and many are unaware of how many nights and weekends they will end up devoting to the academic and administrative demands of the job.

“You can be a master of your content, but if you don’t have that presence in the classroom – that extra spice – you’re doomed.” – a teacher in Queens

Just as inexperience can be a liability in the classroom, so too can a lack of familiarity with the local community. According to the comptroller’s report, in the 2017-18 school year approximately 60% of New York teachers were white, while the city’s student body was 41% Hispanic, 26% African American, 16% Asian and 15% white. The report highlighted the need to ramp up recruitment of teachers of color.

“We need to really diversify our teaching corps as our population is diversifying and look at how we can be more intentional about ensuring that our teacher population really mirrors that of our student population,” said Kenya Bradshaw, vice president of policy and community coalitions at TNTP, a nonprofit that helps urban school districts recruit and train new teachers.

Bradshaw said school districts need to be more innovative in building pipeline programs to ensure that local teachers have “the community and cultural context of their students.”

“When I first started working at the high school, most of the staffers were Caucasian and they didn’t really understand the culture,” said a Hispanic former dean of a public school in Upper Manhattan, who asked not to be identified in order to speak candidly about his former workplace. “I remember the school officials even decided to do a trip out to the Dominican Republic so the teachers could learn a little more about the students.”

Since boys tend to be more disruptive in class, the former dean said that male teachers from the community could help struggling students. “Schools need more male role models that the students can identify with and whom they can relate to,” he said.

“When I first started working at the high school, most of the staffers were Caucasian and they didn’t really understand the culture.” – A former public school dean in Upper Manhattan

Classroom management skills come more naturally for some people than others, but good training can help novice teachers make it past the first couple of years on the job. A teacher, for instance, is more likely to remain in control of their classroom if they can handle disruptions on their own without calling on outside help.

A model championed by New Vision for Public Schools, a nonprofit that runs a charter school network and teacher prep program, places teacher apprentices alongside experienced educators before they receive their own full-time classroom assignment.

“These types of programs are difficult to scale because they require a larger upfront investment in the training,” said Mark Dunetz, the organization’s president. “But they pay for themselves later because you have less teacher turnover and the teachers tend to be more effective than those trained in traditional models.”

Measures that have been shown to reduce teacher attrition often do require substantial investments. Smaller classes can ease teaching loads, but require building or acquiring more classroom space in addition to hiring more teachers. “The research is crystal clear that all students benefit from smaller classes, but low-income students receive twice the benefit in terms of test scores, grades, disciplinary referrals, livelihood, graduating from high school on time and going to college, and graduating with a STEM degree,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of the nonprofit Class Size Matters.

“Sometimes it feels as though the school’s run like a factory.” – a teacher in Queens

In any profession higher pay can help attract and retain talent, but there are also smaller ways to improve teacher morale. For example, in some schools, teachers feel that principals place them under a microscope, such as requiring them to drop off lesson plans every day. In other schools, teachers feel that they lack the support system to deal with difficult working conditions.

But school administrators in low-income neighborhoods can also become overwhelmed. Administrators often have to make sure that students’ basic needs are met – such as housing and food – before they can turn their attention to academic matters.

“Sometimes it feels as though the school’s run like a factory,” the Queens public school teacher said. “I know there’s been more of a movement towards ‘social-emotional learning,’ so now you can get away with planning your lesson that way, but ‘social-emotional’ only became the new buzzword because of the advent of COVID.”

The myriad ways in which the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected low-income communities have been well documented. With in-person instruction returning in New York City, the city could invest more in the mental health resources that many experts and educators have argued is long overdue. There is a push underway by the United Federation of Teachers, the union that represents New York City teachers, to create smaller class sizes to make up for the learning loss and academic regression that has occurred over the past year.

The UFT had been lobbying for President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which was recently signed into law, that includes $126 billion to help K-12 schools reopen. UFT President Michael Mulgrew told City & State that public schools lack the capacity to address the needs of children who have experienced emotional trauma during the pandemic. He said: “Yes, we have some psychologists, some social workers, some guidance counselors, and we know how to deal with emotional issues on certain levels, but we are not clinicians.”

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