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Thompson: Why Teachers Leave the Profession

The best thing about a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd year teacher is that they have the potential to become a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th year teacher.

I kid the young teachers - mostly. Besides they are on the receiving end of far more abuse than my good natured jab. 

Seriously, the learning curve of the first years in the classroom is incredibly steep. When schools lose newcomers' hard-earned knowledge, that is tragic. And, the idea that we can have effective schools without a cross-generational sharing of insights is preposterous.   

Let's recall the (mostly) pre-reform days of the 1990s when the predictable retirement of Baby Boomers was discussed as a problem that must be addressed.  Back then, we understood that the loss of so much teaching experience would be a threat, as opposed to a potential stroke of good luck. 

In my experience, stakeholders at all levels used to accept the common sense that education needed to institutionalize ways for the professional wisdom of veteran educators to be passed on the newbies. Then came NCLB and the indictment of veteran educators as the problem, not a part of a solution for our education woes. As NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia says, veteran teachers are leaving the profession because reformers "tie both [our] hands and a foot between our back." They "hyperventilate" over test scores and impose ridiculous ideas like evaluating us on the test scores of students that we have never met.

Oklahoma teachers have endured the same assault by national reformers, but we face an additional crisis that is driving educators out of the profession. Our salaries have dropped from 46th to 49th in the nation. As schools are starved, the social problems undermining instruction grow more unmanageable, but wages are declining in real terms.

The Tulsa World's Nora Habib, in Education Department Working on Equity Plan to Put Effective Teachers in All Classrooms, explains that 40% of Oklahoma education school graduates leave the state or the profession within five years. Such an attrition rate would be worrisome for a troubled urban system, but it is incredibly alarming when an entire state loses so many of its teachers.

In theory, Tulsa should have an advantage in retaining teachers. It has been the supposed beneficiary of Gates Foundation "teacher quality" grants, and those efforts have been in place long enough to have produced positive results. If the Gates grants were working, by now Tulsa should have fewer classes taught by novices. 

But, 30% Tulsa teachers are inexperienced - which is defined by having less than three years of experience. That figure is much higher than its neighboring districts, and not much better than Oklahoma City.

In the OKCPS, 36% of teachers have less than three years of experience. Even the most zealous TFA-loving, true-believing reformers must know that 90 to 100% low-income schools are not going to improve with such inexperienced teaching staffs. 

I have confidence in the process started by State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister in order to improve equity and retain teaching talent, even though I also understand that Oklahoma schools won't get better until budgets are raised significantly. If anyone can convince our Red state to stop the blame game, it is the moderate Republican Hofmeister.   

One of Hofmeister's first steps was to initiate a process for attracting the best teachers to the schools with the highest challenges. Even as her plan was announced, Habib reports, some Oklahoma Board of Education members "commented that sometimes newer teachers make the best teachers because of their energy and lack of preconceived ideas."     

With all due respect, those criticisms are examples of preconceived ideas. These Board members seem to assume that the ideas pushed by edu-philanthropists and other reformers are recipes for improving schools. They ignore the way that these policies - policies that veteran teachers resist - have taken struggling schools and made them worse.   

The contemporary reform movement has long been surprisingly uninterested in the actual problems that undermine teaching and learning. It focuses on incentives and disincentives that could supposedly drive school improvement. One of the reasons why reform has been so obsessed with test scores is the hypothesis that financial rewards could be linked with increased "student performance." Reformers seem to be honestly unaware of how unreliable and invalid their metrics are.

More importantly, they don't seem to understand that the greatest incentive for a teacher is the opportunity to participate in meaningful teaching and learning. The greatest disincentive is being forced to comply with test-driven pedagogies that hurt students. 

I came to education through alternative certification. Even though I was different from most of today's rookies in that I was a 39-year-old with a decade of experience in the inner city, I would never discount the value of fresh eyes being brought to education. The perspectives of TFA cadets or any other young teachers must be welcomed.

But, we can no longer afford to discount the judgments of the persons who know the most about education because some non-educators don't agree with us.

Given the way I started this post by ribbing young teachers, I should add one more thing. We need to get back to the time when the big majority of inexperienced teachers became experienced teachers. To borrow the words of Randi Weingarten, education must become L'Dor V'Dor, from Generation to Generation. We can do so if veteran educators are empowered to help young teachers build on their own strengths, and not just comply with top-down mandates. -JT (@drjohnthompson) 


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