Teach Plus Executive Director: Why We Need to Rethink the Teaching Profession

Half of new teachers leave urban classroom within three years. In this exclusive op-ed, John Lee shares how this can be prevented.

High teacher turnover is a major problem in urban areas. (Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images )

My immigrant parents didn’t have any problems with me becoming a teacher after college. They saw teaching as a noble, respectable profession. But it didn’t take me long to see there was a considerable divide between their idyllic view of teaching and the harsh realities that I faced on a daily basis in my classroom. 

I loved working with my kids, but ultimately I left the classroom out of sheer frustration. I was frustrated by the low expectations for adults and kids. I was frustrated by the lack of support and supplies. I was frustrated because no matter how hard I tried or how successful I was in the classroom, I was regarded as the same as the teacher down the hall who showed VHS tapes every day while reading the newspaper. And more than that, I felt stuck: I was frustrated by the lack of opportunities to grow as a professional.

It’s time to rethink the teaching profession. We can no longer afford to see half of urban classroom teachers leaving the profession in their first three years. We can no longer afford to see students bear the brunt of this massive turnover. We need to see improved working conditions for teachers AND higher standards for the profession in order to improve our schools and give teaching the status it deserves.

More: A California Teacher’s Secret to Raising Grades and Morale

There are significant costs to high teacher turnover. High turnover impacts school culture and staff morale, hinders the ability to build a professional knowledge base, and puts an additional financial burden on districts to replace new teachers. But the greatest cost is to our kids, particularly when the teachers who are leaving are often among the top performers in their field, as a new report from TNTP, “The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America’s Urban Schools,” highlights. We must do more to hold on to our best teachers. 

Where do we go from here?  Harvard Professor of Education Susan Moore Johnson suggests two potential scenarios for the future of the teaching profession:

  • Schools that are staffed like summer camps, with repeated turnover and no increases in professional capacity.
  • A differentiated career lattice that scaffolds the experience and expertise of teachers to increase school capacity.

There’s plenty of evidence that the latter scenario is both possible and essential. “The Irreplaceables” calls for the creation of career pathways to enable top teachers to expand their influence beyond their classrooms, without leaving their classrooms. I have the pleasure of working with phenomenal teachers who are doing just that.

Kyle Hunsberger teaches seventh-grade math and serves as department chair. He, along with other Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows, conducted forums to gather feedback from teachers across his district on the use of student growth measures in teacher evaluation. As a result of his work on the topic, Kyle was invited to provide an expert briefing to the Mayor on student growth measures.

Celeste Ferguson teaches middle school reading and writing half-time and spends the other half of her day mentoring and coaching newer teachers. In this school-based instructional leadership role, she frees up her principal to provide additional support for other teachers, and is able to share her expertise with colleagues.

Esther Hamm teaches high school English while serving on her union’s evaluation committee and helping to build a robust communication network for union leadership across the state. She is also given an additional planning period to work on her school’s accreditation process. 

Each of these teachers continues to impact students’ personal and academic achievement on a daily basis in their own classrooms—but they’re also able to take on new roles and responsibilities that provide new challenges and opportunities to expand their reach. They are able to advance their careers without having to stop doing what they love most—teaching.

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