Opinion

How to save teachers from burning out, dropping out and other hazards of experience

An abundance of recent books, research and headlines present growing evidence that our nation’s schools can and must do a better job of preparing teachers for the experiences they’ll face in the classroom. They show that if educators really knew how to address the challenges of teaching in high poverty areas, they would increase their impact and make a longer career out of teaching.

Certainly, better preparation is a crucial element to solving our teacher quality and retention issues, but it’s only half the challenge. The other is keeping those who become truly great teachers engaged and effective as they settle in to their careers.

For too long, teachers have had one of two career paths—stay in the classroom earning seniority and incremental pay increases or enter an administrative track and become a principal. This sort of flat profession wouldn’t work in most other sectors, and with half of teachers leaving their jobs within the first five years, it’s not working in education either.

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Jonas Chartock

Jonas Chartock

The good news is the question of “what’s next” for mid-career teachers is one that school districts are increasingly trying to answer. They are implementing career ladders and other strategies aimed at recognizing and retaining classroom talent.

Unfortunately, these approaches are often undertaken without regard for the impact schools want these teachers to have or how this effort can reinforce and strengthen other reforms. As a result, these initiatives have yet to bear much fruit. A 2012 study by the organization TNTP found nearly two-thirds of our best teachers continue to leave for better jobs somewhere else.

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For teacher leadership to be truly meaningful, it needs to be viewed as more than just a reward and recognition strategy. Instead, it should be designed to advance the most important district and school priorities. In a paper released recently, Leading from the Front of the Classroom: A Roadmap for Teacher Leadership that Works, our two organizations provide some practical guidance for designing these types of opportunities in part by highlighting successful examples.

The paper showcases leadership programs in Tennessee, Denver and at the Noble Street charter network in Chicago. Each of these systems is integrating teacher leadership with other top priorities such as Common Core, teacher evaluation implementation, and building strong cultures among students and staff.

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In Tennessee for instance, leaders recognized that to succeed with Common Core, classroom instruction would need to change significantly in terms of rigor. They decided that teacher leaders were most likely to deliver training that other teachers would actually apply in their classrooms. By 2013, 700 teacher leaders had trained more than 30,000 of their peers. Three consecutive years of student achievement gains provide some evidence this strategy is succeeding.

In Denver, the district is leveraging effective teachers to address one of its most significant challenges–overtaxed principals. As Superintendent Tom Boasberg has pointed out, “In any other knowledge-based profession, it’s an absolute given that you won’t see people trying to coach or supervise more than six or eight people. Yet in schools, we ask school leaders to coach and supervise thirty, forty, fifty people.”

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Ross Wiener

Ross Wiener

To address this, Denver schools have appointed lead teachers to supervise, support and develop other teachers on their teams, as well as improve their teams’ results. This structure assists in making the scope of principals’ responsibilities more manageable while helping them fully implement the state’s new requirement for more intensive teacher evaluations. Denver has been recognized for its efforts to put skilled teachers out front in supporting and developing their colleagues, thereby serving as a model for other districts.

In public school systems constantly strapped for resources, great teachers remain an undervalued and underutilized asset. We have yet to truly tap into their talent to accelerate learning and this could be one of the reasons we have yet to fully realize the promise of our school improvement efforts.

Providing educators opportunities to simultaneously lead their peers and address school wide problems has enormous potential to change that, and make teaching a more dynamic, attractive career.

Ross Wiener is Vice President of the Aspen Institute and heads the organization’s Education and Society program.

Dr. Jonas Chartock is CEO of Leading Educators, a national non profit that partners with school districts to accelerate the impact of teachers in leadership positions.

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