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The year I learned to be an effective teacher was also the year I almost left the profession.

teacher retention
Erin Dukeshire

As happens with many teachers, my first few years in the classroom were spent furiously developing my craft. By my fifth year, thanks to coaching and opportunities to observe excellent colleagues, my classroom had come to be a source of pride for me and my students. Each of my adolescent scientists could generate unique, testable hypotheses, and their eager experimenting led to masterful explanations of subjects from electricity to the rock cycle. That year, my students flipped the achievement gap: A higher percentage of my predominantly low-income, minority students scored proficient on the state science exam than in the average Massachusetts school.

But I sat down in class one day, amidst my engaged fifth-graders, and thought, “Is this all there is to teaching?” As the daughter of two elementary-school teachers, I learned about the profession early. Early in my career, I assumed the job description would remain static. Though I’d seen several of my own fantastic teachers remain engaged in their careers by continuously improving their teaching practices, my goals were different. Developing one specific skill-set didn’t feel like enough to sustain me throughout my career. I adored my students and the daily work, but needed new challenges. I began to research other jobs.

It turns out that I was not alone in my dissatisfaction. According to “The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America’s Urban Schools,” a recent report from the nonprofit group TNTP, many of my most effective colleagues are leaving the profession. These teachers, whose students make several more months of progress each year than students with average teachers, are the ones we should work hardest to keep. Instead, teachers with records of excellent student outcomes and consistently engaging classrooms are leaving at about the same rate as low-performing teachers. Students, especially those in the low-income areas, need us to do better.

I almost left teaching. Ultimately, I didn’t—because just as I was considering an exit, I stumbled upon several opportunities that provided the new experiences I sought, without taking me out of the classroom.

At the time, a few Boston schools were recruiting cohorts of “teacher-leaders” to lead school turnaround efforts. Rather than leave the profession, I was hired as a Turnaround Teacher Team (T3) teacher-leader. Teaching science classes is still the most joyful aspect of my day, but developing the skills to mentor adults and facilitate school change is refreshing and satisfying. My teacher-leader colleagues are an impressive cohort. Their hybrid roles allow them to teach and lead at the same time, so that students benefit directly from their expertise.

Additionally, my recommitment to classroom teaching has been supported by opportunities to get involved with education policy. Countless teachers have moved out of their schools into policy roles because they want to positively influence children’s lives on a larger scale. But through the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship and America Achieves Fellowship for Teachers and Principals, I have had opportunities to engage with policymakers, while relying upon expertise from my daily work with students. We speak with local, state and national policymakers to provide feedback about what works in our schools and classrooms.

Not until the rigorous application processes for these leadership opportunities did I realize that I was also seeking recognition for my accomplishments in the classroom. Past administrators patted me on the back, but now my practice has earned me expanded responsibility. I have to perform well as a classroom teacher, not just to serve my students, but also because their continued success secures my credibility as a policy advocate and leader. Teacher leadership based on demonstrated merit gives effective teachers the opportunities we need to stay engaged in the classroom. And being paid for these extra responsibilities matters, too: Together, my added roles earn me a boost in pay equivalent to three steps on my district’s salary scale.

Leadership opportunities have transformed my notion of what it means to be a teacher. Fortunately, my profession is not the same as when my parents were teachers a generation ago. If it were, I would no longer be teaching.

I am lucky to live in a city that fosters educational innovation, and work in a school whose principal values shared leadership. Career pathways like this are an option in a handful of schools in scattered districts around the country. What about the many “irreplaceable” teachers who haven’t stumbled upon such opportunities? More importantly, what about their students?

So many excellent teachers I know have left teaching. But the ones with access to hybrid leadership-teaching roles are continuing in the classroom. It’s no mystery: Districts must make career pathways—with performance-based, compensated, differentiated roles—the norm to keep classrooms full of the teachers our students need most.

Erin Dukeshire teaches science at Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Roxbury, Mass. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

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