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How can we support good teachers and keep them in the profession?

Grace Rubenstein Senior producer at Edutopia

There's been a lot of buzz lately about teachers' unions blocking efforts to relieve bad teachers of their jobs, notably in a recent New York Times magazine cover story.

But while we tackle those concerns, let's not lose sight of an even deeper need that we urgently need to address.

50% of new teachers leave the profession within 5 years (I know that stat gets batted around a lot, but it's legit -- I've talked to the researcher who found it). Surveys have shown that it's not the low pay that sends them packing; it's the working conditions. Lack of support from colleagues and administrators. New mandates every year about what and how to teach. Standardized tests that don't gauge the real needs and abilities of their students.

I'd be willing to bet that there are more good teachers who bail out than there are bad teachers who stick around and can't be fired. And even more good teachers who stay but endure years of frustration and never get to reach their greatest potential amid all the constraints of the massive education bureaucracy. So how do we make schools the kind of places that good teachers want to stay? And where good teachers can thrive?

I believe this is one of the greatest -- if not the very greatest -- challenge we face in making our public schools successful. I'll throw out a few ideas to start:

- Invest in great training for principals and hold them to high standards of academic and social leadership. (Seriously, of all the factors I've seen that can make or break a school, I think the quality of the principal is the most important.)
- Build strong mentoring programs for new teachers and supportive collegial communities among teachers at each school.
- Develop better assessments that measure more sophisticated skills in more diverse ways (some of the federal Race to the Top money is meant to encourage this).

What do you think? How can we meet this challenge? Where should we start?

Comments (44)

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Special Education

Pay and...

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I know everyone says that pay is not an issue but if you have to put up with being told how and what to teach the balance is not there. Every job has it's negatives but many have compensations that make up for them.I've substituted in lots of schools and seen disgruntled teachers and new teachers and many of both that are just gliding through. Some of the older teachers are just waiting for retirement and aren't going to change anything. And the younger teachers learn from this; why do more? Just get along and accept the problems.So they might stick with it and or decide it's not worth it and quit because they are just not having any effect on their students or their school, which would at least justify the low pay.

My solution is that pay does matter. Let's double every teacher's salary right now and within five years schools will look a lot different. Doing this would mean that teachers would be paid as professionals on par with other professionals ( their salary would still be a lot lower than lawyers and doctors) But the expectations would be a lot higher for everyone working. No mre gliding through, no more lack of enthusiasm on the teachers part, or negative attitudes from teachers. Students would notice the difference too. And a whole different set of people would be recruited into teaching because they wouldn't have to justify themselves for not making good money or be asked why would they go into teaching, it doesn't pay.
Of course this is a wild dream that won't ever happen.

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The best way to support new teachers is to be available to them. We need to be open and supportive NOT judgemental. Over the years, I've been surprised by the number of new teachers who have said to me, "Nobody else says that this ever happened to them" and the number of veteran teachers who say,"Why should I help them? Nobody helped me when I started." This is why, after 22 years of teaching that I always help new teachers - offer ideas and lend an ear at the end of yet another frustrating day. It's so much harder now with the push for high scores and perfect bulletin boards - rather than on the child.

Intern at Edutopia, college student, aspiring Educator.

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A HUGE thank you to everyone who posted in this thread! There are some truly excellent ideas here. And congratulations to our contest winners: Mary Donnelly, Aaron Fowles, David Campbell, Brian Davis, Barbara Koski, and Danielle.

Make sure to visit our giveaway page each week to sign up to win more free education goods:

Librarian at the University of Wisconsin - Platteville

Create a positive climate

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I think there is a lot of fear in schools. Creating a climate where ideas can be freely discussed and supported, saying "yes" more than "no", and recognizing achievements on a almost daily basis, would go far.

Instructional Designer and Educational Reform Proponent

We're steering the ship on the wrong course...

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I think a LOT of the problem is the current educational climate created by all of the standards assessment. Now, I *do* think we need to assess progress, but I think the push to teach for outcomes is pulling American Education away from true learning--and is taking much of the 'fun' out of teaching.

Think back on when you were a child.. Who were your most loved teachers? Who made learning FUN? Whose class did you like going to in high school, and which classes were boooooring. I think MOST teachers go into the profession with visions of themselves being those dynamic, fun teachers that have a passion for their kids and the kids love them. You ALL know the kind of teacher I'm talking about.

When a teacher FIRST enters a classroom today.. Say, a Science teacher (U.S. students are getting further and further behind in science, BTW).. She comes in with great ideas for hands-on projects, and experiments, and discoveries which instill learning passion in children. She's excited about teaching, and hopes to be a 'great' teacher.

Welcome to the job--she's given a list of standards her kids MUST meet for the next testing cycle, and she has to drill-and-kill facts, vocabulary, concepts, etc. There's little time for excitement and fun because everyone has to be 'ready' for the test. (Am I wrong?)

It doesn't take long for the teacher to feel like she can't teach like she knows the kids would love for her to teach. The kids are bored out of their gourds and only the auditory learners are really learning anything, so the scores go down in spite of the teacher doing her best with her assigned task. When the scores go down, she gets discouraged, and she feels frustrated and disenchanted because THIS is NOT the job she wanted or thought she'd have. Not only are the kids bored, she's kind of bored with all of the teaching to the test herself. Dynamic classrooms seem to be more and more difficult to find.

To retain great teachers, I believe we need to let our teachers teach with passion in the subjects they are passionate about, and we need to re-establish a love of learning in the classroom. We need to look for ways to engage all learners in the classroom--auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and tactile learners. By building dynamic learning environments, the kids will have fun learning, be engaged, and will actually learn MORE than they will drilling for the test. The teachers could have their creativity back, and teach really cool concepts that build a better foundation for lifetime learning. The kids would be more engaged, and everyone would be happier!.. AND, I bet we'd see revitalization in some of those teachers who have become jaded and are "poor" teachers.

I think we'd retain a lot more of our teachers if we let them do the job they wanted to do in the first place.. PASSIONATELY teach content with meaningful connections rather than worrying sooooo much about "the test"! Just my thoughts, For what they're worth. ;-)

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Response to S.L. Cook

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I'm with you: Passion is what it is all about when it comes to learning (and teaching!)

My worry with the current hyper-focus on the one shot, multiple-choice state test is that all the wonderful ways children are expressive, talented and intelligent (that cannot be measured quantitatively), aren't as valued as the results of these tests.

You wrote: "We need to look for ways to engage all learners in the classroom--auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and tactile learners."

And it got me thinking about a blog post we featured last month by Claus von Zastrow. He talks about engaging the various learners in dynamic ways, while still keeping an eye toward academic standards. It's called Do Standards Kill Creativity? You might find it an interesting read.

Thanks for contributing your thoughts and ideas to the discussion on school reform!


Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation

Retaining Good Teachers Requires an Investment

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Teachers can often reward themselves within the profession with the groups that support them. The problem is often that the school site, supervisor and the school system support changes and is not consistent. There are several reasons that good teachers leave. Lots of administrators don't want a star teacher, a well known expert in the classroom, nor a person of nationally known excellence. I am not sure why this is, but it causes all kinds of trouble.

Another thing is that many supervisory people may have a lack of depth in their content knowledge, or flexibility to allow teachers to gain
new ways of working through educationally affiliated groups such as the NSTA, the National Geographic, the NCSA , which would involve knowledge that is not common to administrators who have been in their position for some time. is about computational thinking and math.
I understand that there are people who only want to teach old math, but we have a new call , from the Gathering on the Convocation on the Gathering Storm to create change consistent with new ways of working.
Probably the NCLB standards fetter some of this difficulty.

Use of the participatory culture, requires a technology knowledge that is more than a one time hit, practice in using the various new ways of working in technology requires support and knowledge of the culture, not just technology connection. Being flexible, and open to new technologies requires understanding of simulation and modeling, games in education, computational thinking, and infusion of participatory culture in meaningful ways. I doubt that except for books, and experts on line , and some conferences.. people like Chris Dede, Milton Chen,
.. their ways of thinking require reflection and immersion,use, examination, and evaluation of learning in new ways.
Perhaps the TED that is the generic TED.. that is the TED events that don't just speak to the rich, ie they cost less than $6000 dollars for the event will help. Everyone talking about education should also include some of the people who teach or who have mentor or extensive
experience. Often reporters don't get it because they don't understand the learning landscape. Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Support for good teachers

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Support good teachers by empowering them as experts! In Finland teachers are treated as highly regarded professionals! This is one of the reasons their system works. Teachers in Finland make educational decisions not politicians. Deemed as experts, teachers would be free to make important decisions about what they teach and how they teach.
Support teachers by allowing collaboration and connection with other teachers. Authentic learning communities need to be fostered and supported in school districts. Teachers working together and collaborating with teachers in their own schools, across the country and worldwide is necessary in the 21st century. Let our expertise be shared!

Life Coach for Teachers

Small support groups within

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Small support groups within the school can be very helpful. Have defined ground rules. Teachers need to feel safe and respected. They need to be able to share their fears and their triumphs and learn from eachtoher. All adults and children in the school treat all others with respect and joy. It's contagious. Reach out to those hurting and provide loving support to them, staff and students.

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

to Julie

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Hi Julie,

Thank you for sharing. Your comment reminded me so much of a workshop that my district sent me to years and years ago. I think it was my second year in the classroom, and this lovely woman who'd been teaching in poor, public schools in the South for 30 plus years talked to us about the two most important elements of teaching: compassion and love. Some of my colleagues thought the day a little too touchy feely, but I absolutely was thrilled and rejuvenated by it!

Rebecca Alber


Small support groups within the school can be very helpful. Have defined ground rules. Teachers need to feel safe and respected. They need to be able to share their fears and their triumphs and learn from each other. All adults and children in the school treat all others with respect and joy. It's contagious. Reach out to those hurting and provide loving support to them, staff and students.

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