Schools need real solutions to support and keep the best teachers

November 11, 2015

By Paul Evert Asjes

My first year of teaching was a near disaster. I was given the Common Core Standards and told to teach math to one special education class, teach ELL to one class with many beginners, and teach one general education class. I was assigned a mentor (a wonderful educator who I am now friends with), but that first year we barely had time to meet because I was running around trying to find paper and a working copier. As far as everyone at my school was concerned—including the students—I was a flight risk. They had seen teachers walk out, and many barely make it through the first year only to flee to teach high school or move on get their masters, or to teach at a charter school.

The sad truth of teacher burnout was depicted in a recent report from Families for Excellent Schools. The best teachers often avoid the schools where their skills are needed the most, or use them as a stepping stone, which perpetuates a cyclical achievement gap where the best schools get even better. Students whose schools are struggling are left even further behind.

Identifying data around this problem is a critical first step, but we then must work to identify and adopt specific solutions. It is difficult to teach in schools that are dealing with the challenges of concentrated poverty, and for that reason we need to incentivize strong teachers to move to and stay in these schools. Everyone can agree that when the lowest performing schools have the least qualified teachers, the problem of student achievement is only going to get worse – so how can we counteract this effect, and get the best teachers where they’re needed most?

For starters, teachers need to know that across their district, they’ll find coherent discipline and school climate support systems. Given the choice, nearly all educators would rather work in a place with a positive school environment, and with funding for appropriate, dedicated specialists so that educators don't have to be both counselor and classroom teacher. Creating a consistent support system is a step school districts can take today that will have far-reaching implications for attracting and keeping the best teachers.

Once a developing school has hired promising teachers, a robust professional development system is essential to strengthen classroom leadership and instruction. My school is partnering with the New Teacher Center to provide full-time mentorship for non-tenured teachers, especially those in their first year. This research-based model allowed me to develop my skills through my first three years, and models like this need to be a part of any effort to keep quality teachers at demanding schools.

We need to improve evaluation and testing, and teachers who do not teach a subject with a state exam should not be held accountable for the results of subjects they don’t teach. This would encourage more teachers to feel comfortable moving to or staying in these schools. In addition, we should decrease the significance that testing has on the teacher evaluation system to a more reasonable percentage, and consider other opportunities to ease the testing burden on struggling schools.

I’ve had jobs in retail that included bonuses for hard to staff shifts and stores. So why can’t school districts experiment with the same system? As advocates for our students, we cannot be shy about fighting for changes to the teacher pay structure. Bonuses for working in hard-to-staff schools are becoming more common around the country, and research indicates that this kind of financial incentive is a cost-effective way to bring better educators into schools where their impact will be strongest. There is no shame in seeking to be paid properly for difficult – albeit deeply rewarding – work.

All educators need to believe that we can make a difference in the lives of our students, and we all want to feel that we have an impact. But simple satisfaction in a job well done is not enough to attract and keep the best teachers at our high-need schools. Our students deserve teachers with the skill, expertise, and energy to be effective in a difficult environment, and that means schools need to be supportive environments. Direct spending, professional development, and an evaluation system that is designed to help teachers improve can make sure that we’re ending a dangerous cycle of disparate achievement. Our kids deserve more than just research – they deserve results.

Paul Evert Asjes teaches seventh grade math at I.S. 217 in the Bronx.

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