Every morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is check Facebook and the current events app on my phone. I read the daily stories as I prepare for work, like how my parents used to read the newspaper while eating breakfast.
Lately, my newsfeeds are filled with stories and statuses about political tension, global warming, healthcare reform and even the Kardashians. As a teacher, I can’t help but notice one striking absence. I don’t see the public absolutely outraged that our public schools are suffering, and I’m not talking about funds, though education always seems to be suffering from inadequate funding; I’m talking about a loss of teachers, especially new teachers.
In my 12 years of teaching at four schools in two states, I have seen my fair share of educator struggles. But now more than ever, I’m worried for our students. In my school district, we lose 50% of new teachers within three to five years. For two years, I have been actively participating as my district develops and implements a plan to solve this problem. We’re not the only district struggling to address new teacher attrition. California has seen 20% to 40% of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years, and the percentage has been increasing.
The fact that our country’s most at-risk schools are filled with our most novice educators should alarm the public. The result is that only wealthy children can afford quality education, our most vulnerable students miss out on valuable educational experiences, and the disparity between the wealthy and poor in this country continues to grow.
Research shows that teacher attrition costs the US more than $2.2 billion each year. That’s billions of dollars we could be spending on additional resources for students: technology, textbooks, meals and additional support staff, to name a few. If we truly care about supporting students, then we need to get serious about the way we prepare and retain our beginning educators.
Though I could argue for better salaries until the day I retire, we must start with the people who are closest to our novice teachers: veteran teachers. Just as teachers have the most influence over student learning, I believe veteran teachers have the most influence over new teacher development and, ultimately, retention. Below, I provide a list of actionable steps I have used to better support new teachers in my school and district.
1. Cultivate meaningful mentorships. Veteran teachers often get so bombarded with grading, lesson planning and classroom management that we forget about the new teachers in our building who could use some guidance. If your school has not set up an official mentorship plan for new teachers, approach your administration with a few ideas, or make your own efforts to welcome new teachers, and check in on them regularly.
Five years ago, when a young math teacher began teaching across the hall from me, I made an effort to keep my door open. This signified that she was welcome to ask me anything she needed. I was not her official mentor, as we were in different departments, but because of our proximity she often walked across the hall to ask me questions. This ritual became so successful that even when I went on maternity leave, she would text me, starting her message with, “Hey, I got a question.”
2. Build committed partnerships. Mentorships are the first step, but then you must build partnerships where both colleagues can learn from each other. For new teachers to feel valued, they need support — and they need to be heard. Treating our new generation of millennial teachers with respect will allow them to feel like they belong in the teaching profession and to find success in a challenging career.
At a recent Leader U conference, I spoke with the keynote presenter, Ryan Jackson, an executive lead principal in middle Tennessee. He stated, “Education is changing, and new teachers have to be a part of shaping it and implementing it. It is a long road but worth it and purposeful. [It’s] life-changing, when you do it well, for everyone — teacher, student, community — but you’ve got to invest.”
3. Spread your teacher voice. I implore you to close your doors at lunch time and email a state representative or a district official at least once a month. For too long teachers have gone silent and let others, who know little about our craft, tell us how to succeed in our profession. The more we advocate for ourselves, our students and our profession, the more we will be heard. My dad always used to say, “A squeaky wheel gets the oil” — teachers, we better get squeaking.
Leticia Skae is a Literacy Teacher Development Specialist at MLK Magnet school in Nashville, Tenn. She specializes in diverse and urban education and earned a master’s degree in education from Vanderbilt University. She believes in all students’ potential to learn, and she is an advocate for teacher retention and teacher empowerment in the current educational system. Leticia has participated in many teacher-leader fellowships and served as a story ambassador with the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ). Her most beloved activities are spending time with her family, reading, writing and tweeting. You can catch her on Twitter @LSkae.
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