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How Do We Keep the Teachers We Need?

January 21, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

“It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever have done.” It’s a message I got before I started teaching. While I don’t rule out the possibility that something in the future could be tougher, there’s no question that the two years I was in the classroom fit the bill. During that first year, I remember talking with a friend going through his own first year of teaching. We agreed that, while we’d both understood that “hardest thing” message intellectually, the reality of how hard wasn’t conceivable until we were actually doing it.

The difficulty of the first few years of teaching is the closest thing to a constant in the world of education you can find. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about district, charter, or private schools. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking traditional certification or Teach For America. The first year in particular is just plain difficult.

That’s a big part of why we struggle to retain our newer teachers. The first five years bleed out 40-50% of teachers. Nearly one in ten don’t make it through the first year at all. Those rates get even higher when looking specifically at teachers of color.

It’s not just the difficulty, of course. There are plenty of other difficult jobs out there. Pulling together observations from a few different sources, it seems there are three major areas that need attention: pay, respect, and support.

I start with pay because it is the simplest to understand. For requiring a four-year degree, significant emotional investment, constant decision-making, and as much time beyond the contract day as most teachers put in, teachers just don’t make enough. If you assumed teaching was as stressful as, say, rocket science and only required teachers to put in the time listed on their contracts, the $35,672 national average ($34,025 in Minnesota) for a starting teacher salary in 2011-12 might not seem such a low-ball. Factoring in the realities of teaching, however, and it becomes clear that the pay is too low.

Nor is salary just about compensation. Salary is one way our society signals respect, and low pay is just one way that teachers feel disrespected. Indeed, the biggest gains from an increase in salary probably wouldn’t be because of its incentivizing value, but rather because it would signal greater respect for the job.

Federal, state, and local decisions that signal a distrust of teachers or attempt to “teacher-proof” education aren’t helping, either. Most people have a limited tolerance for going to work in an environment where, increasingly, the policy environment is one of suspicion and blame. This doesn’t mean that teachers should be excused from responsibility, but rather that they should be respected as professionals to help in the design and implementation of, for example, their own evaluation systems.

Finally, schools can do more to support new teachers. Mentor programs (especially those with trained mentors given the time to support their mentees) and increased support from administrators are both paths to increasing teacher retention. They help offset the inevitable disillusionment that sets in during the first couple months of teaching. Schools that are better at empowering teachers in site decision-making and more effective at addressing student behavior also see better retention.

When considering teachers of color, these factors often matter even more intensely, as does a fourth: cultural awareness in the school environment. A recent article by Amanda Machado hits on some of these points very clearly. When she writes, “Without a financial incentive for a career in social service, it can seem more socially acceptable to only pursue this kind of work temporarily: a short stint of self-sacrifice to prove our altruism, before moving on to something more financially ambitious,” she covers the importance of pay and respect. Similarly, when she writes, “a lack of cultural awareness from coworkers can make people of color not feel included in their work environments, and ultimately leave,” she illustrates the need for more explicit attention to culture within education.

We cannot rely on young people putting in a superheroic effort for a few years before abandoning teaching. Hard-earned wisdom matters. Institutional knowledge matters. Viewing current ideas in relation to past experiments matters. Maintaining a balance between veterans and new blood should be part of our long-term education strategy, which means getting serious about the pay, respect, and support teachers deserve. Working to improve cultural awareness will not only benefit teachers of color, but will help all of our schools better meet the needs of their students.

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  • Rob says:

    January 21, 2014 at 10:38 am

    Administrators and principals are increasingly being fired and upbraided for not firing enough teachers, so they are in response just arbitrarily firing teachers before tenure for no particular reason other than personal animus.  This is not only counter-productive in the educational context, but also puts additional burdens on the surviving teachers, who must mentor and teach the new replacement teachers.  This is costly both in terms of actual money and in forgone educational achievement.  When the replacements are the untrained TFAers it’s even worse.

  • MALCOLM says:

    January 27, 2014 at 9:22 am



    MALCOLM <>((:-)

  • Sherry says:

    January 27, 2014 at 10:15 am

    As a teacher, I want to add that teaching is not all about the compensation. Teaching is indeed difficult but also is a career of getting satisfaction from doing a great job and guiding students in their learning endeavors. Teaching is caring and guiding students from where they are at the beginning through gaining knowledge and the ability to think and analyze. Good teaching is about differentiating instruction so all students can learn. Classes have students with different ability levels, and the teacher’s job is moving them forward. The days of teaching to students in the middle are over. Majors from other college-degree fields start out with similar starting salaries, In fact, humanities majors start off with lower salaries than teachers. Because teachers teach for 9 months of the year, their starting salaries are usually approximately 25% less. Any job can be disillusioning, and teaching is no exception. As a former K-12 teacher and now a university professor, I have derived a great deal of satisfaction from teaching at all levels, including teaching in an inner-city school.

  • Mike Downing says:

    January 27, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    Business differentiates employees by results. Business rewards & promotes the high achievers who produce results.Our education system can do the same to retain the best teachers and get rid of the poor teachers. The one and only obstacle to do what is right is the teacher unions…

  • Joanne S says:

    January 28, 2014 at 11:45 am

    “Business differentiates employees by results. Business rewards & promotes the high achievers who produce results.”

    Mike, and this little model has successfully eliminated all the slackers and nincompoops from every company where you’ve worked? I’ll bet the dude in the next cube over is inept. I’m so tired of seeing this business myth trotted out as the “cure” for education. Doesn’t work for business. Isn’t the way business works.

  • Mike Downing says:

    January 28, 2014 at 5:50 pm

    Joanne S: I am happy to tell you that this was indeed the case at 3M during my 32 year career. Were there a few exceptions? Of course there were but it was 100X better that our education system due to Ed MN. You live in an alternate universe to think otherwise.

  • says:

    April 18, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    We need any Teacher who’s willing to spend their Life, Teaching other’s how to be the best,at whatever they do! My son is one of those People!  And i’m very Proud to be his Father! Thank you for All your help!!!