You may have heard that 70-80% of new restaurants fail within the first year. As it turns out, that often cited statistic is exaggerated: the actual figure is 17%, according to Forbes. It turns out the chance of success is higher for starting a restaurant than starting as a teacher.
17%-46% of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years of teaching, according to The Atlantic. This year in my school, a first-year teacher left for fall break and never returned, citing the difficulty of the job and lack of support.
How long will this exodus of teachers continue before we fix the problems with real solutions? Are we even acknowledging the right problems?
A lack of a common body of knowledge and skills is a problem in our teaching profession, especially in Arizona, due to lowering standards of teacher certification. SB1042, which was signed into law last year, allows people with “expertise in content matter” but without formal teacher education to gain regular teaching credentials. The idea behind it was to eliminate the “red tape” and barriers to all the people who wanted to teach but didn’t have teaching certificates. It made me wonder where all the people who wanted to be teachers have been since we opened the floodgates in Arizona.
I heard a story from the administrator of a large high school in the valley. Like almost every school in the state, his school was searching for a quality teacher to fill a science vacancy at the beginning of the school year. He was cautiously optimistic to find a real gem on paper with numerous advanced degrees. He seemed excited to teach high school, was extremely charismatic, and had even taught at the university level and so was not wholly without experience for someone on an emergency teaching certificate. Clearly, the man was a content expert and probably a genius to boot.
Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that this man “couldn’t teach his way out of a wet sack.” He exhibited no classroom management, had established no procedures, or written lesson plans, and had given no grades or progress reports. He didn’t teach the curriculum, and therefore his students were unprepared for the AP test.
With a dedicated mentor and the will to reflect on learning experiences and make changes, there could have been hope for this person and his future students. A lack of pedagogical knowledge can be overcome with time, experience, and reflection.
But this man didn’t have that potential. He didn’t like kids…he called them names, made fun of them and belittled their academic capabilities and prospects in life.
In the end, that gem on paper lasted one semester. As he parted, he stated, “It was so much harder than I thought it would be.” The impact on the school community was significant. Other teachers had to scramble to absorb his classes, administrators had to field parent complaints, and the students were not prepared to take AP test. Luckily, arrangements were made for students to take the class again beyond their current class load. No matter what mix of pedagogy and content you bring to the classroom, the number one rule of teaching is, you must like kids.
I wish that was the only story I’ve heard along those lines, but it is not. Stories with similar themes are rampant through our schools today. Can students wait for us to figure this out? Dr. David Berliner recently reminded me that the first mission of any profession is to do no harm. Teacher churn is harmful to students. Imagine the lack of continuity and a coherent education for students who have different substitutes daily or are farmed out to other already-overcrowded classrooms. Imagine the loss of community. Students feeling a sense of belonging has never been more important in our schools as suicide rates rise among young people. A sad link here is that suicide rates are on the rise for populations of color, the very same populations with the highest rates of teacher churn. It is always the high-needs districts that jump the fastest to hire the newest teachers. When that happens, students who need the most will suffer by losing access to high-quality teachers.
Churn is expensive. According to EdWeek, it can cost up to $21,000 to replace a new teacher, due to costs associated with recruiting, hiring, and training of the replacement teacher and the loss of investment in professional development of the leaving teacher. For many districts, the cost of churn can be more than millions of dollars annually.
But we’re still not acknowledging the right problems. We’re still advancing half-baked solutions. Recently passed out of committee is HB2036, which states that time spent substitute teaching counts toward any classroom teaching requirement for standard teaching certification. Now, I know many amazing substitute teachers. I’m lucky enough to be teaching with two right now on my team, filling vacancies since we couldn’t find qualified 5th-grade teachers. This is a different issue. This isn’t about degrading alternative teaching certification programs either. This bill will allow people to substitute teach instead of student teaching, leaving themselves without the guidance or supervision of a qualified teaching expert and mentor. In other words, foregoing learning how to teach students and how to manage a classroom. We should not dismiss the importance of student teaching and beginning teacher mentoring programs.
In Arizona, we have almost double the number of certified teachers than are currently teaching. This isn’t an issue of having enough qualified teachers. It’s that qualified teachers no longer want to teach in Arizona. What problems should we be addressing to retain teachers in our field?