Training and Retaining Great Talent in America’s Teaching Ranks

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

In the last week of the year. All across this great land of ours, American Teachers were enjoying the reprieve from day-to-day tasks involved with educating America's youth.

Not many (okay, probably a lot really ARE…I'm probably the only slacker) were reading professional articles about enhancing classroom practice. Probably few were watching professional development videos. Even fewer were gathering around tables at a bistro with a steaming cup of coffee and discussing data-driven instruction.

Nope. We were watching Netflix. We were catching up (maybe) on chores around our homes. Many are working full time at their second jobs.

I was.

I was also playing catch-up on all the chores around my home, trying to spend a bit of time with my family, trying to spend some extra time with my dogs, clean out my closet, clear out some space in my dresser drawers, unclutter my desk at home … I even daydreamed about the possibility of catching a nap or two, though it never happened.

Through it all, though, I was a teacher on break. Except for a few strategically planned days for running errands or going to church, I seldom wore "real" clothing.

It was a pajama break for me! I know that amongst my teacher peers, I was not alone in my choice of apparel.

Running To Win

It is our one TRUE break from a months-long race.

We started this stretch with planning for the year. We had too many meetings to count.

We were busy getting plans ready.

We were previewing and planning with student goals in mind.

We were doing paperwork.

We were decorating our rooms.

Finally, the big day's arrival!

We hit the ground running on the first day.

The first day rolled into the weeks then months ahead.

By Thanksgiving, our tired brains and bodies have begun a Circadian powering down.

The crawl to Winter Break…

We hit the ground at the year's beginning, and we hit it HARD.

Our emotions range from enthusiastic anticipation in August to determination for achievement in September. In October, we're figuring out ways to push harder for goal achievement as the first nine weeks makes its presence known. By Thanksgiving, we are hopeful in our search for ways to surpass the boredom of routines our classes have had since Day One. By December, we are Just. Plain. Tired.

Our bodies need the rest. Our brains do too.

Many Happy Returns…Or Is There?

A few posts ago, I shared about a teacher friend who was iced out by other staff people in her building.

Eventually this very talented educator, with accolades and awards to her credit, was called before her school board.

With her attorney, she presented a behind-closed-doors statement indicating she was resigning her job with duress.

What the district failed to consider were all the still-to-come implications of firing or forcing out by stress and duress.

A probable lawsuit to come, this educator was not shocked when a relative of two colleagues was placed into her vacated position.

Instead of supporting a fellow teacher to success, another career in education is simply scrubbed from the school district. It's worth mentioning that this former teacher is also undergoing medical care for the stress experienced throughout the process.

With all that has been endured by my friend, there is no question that the local community has lost a wonderful school district employee.

I won't bore you with all the stories I've heard from others about teachers being "targeted." Instead, I will share with you first-hand accounts…situations I've seen with my own eyes.

Consider this: a kindergarten teacher who has been in the profession for now, nearly 30 years. Her young charges have typically been reading at the expected level by December.

If a student didn't show expected growth, this teacher was quick to seek out resources and the support necessary to begin interventions.

She knew what to do and she also knew that if she didn't know, someone around her did.

For eight months, this teacher-with nothing but positive rankings on all previous measures of teacher performance used by her school-was suddenly marked as "struggling."

No, the Reading program had not been changed. She was well familiar with the ins and outs of it all. She could be counted on to share tips and techniques with other teachers.

There really was no evidence-based reason why this teacher would endure the grief she endured.

Consider this: a teacher at the three-year service mark had previously served as a substitute teacher. She was then hired as a paraprofessional in the charter school.

Offered the Teaching position because of her excellence in working as a parapro, she knew she had opportunity for growth.

Without hesitation, she would ask for other teacher and administrators to randomly observe her then provide feedback.

The teacher felt this was a great strategy toward improvement.

Enter a new administrator whose daughter was in the teacher's class. The administrator's daughter was not quite as well behaved as the parent believed her child was.

Long story short, this teacher fought like a champion to keep her job.

No matter what other administrators said or did to change the outcome, The Powers That Be went with the recommendation made by this person.

Can anyone say Conflict of Interest??

Not In My Backyard!

Oh, please.

Since the dawn of Education, teachers have continually reminded us about one simple fact: THEY ARE HUMANS. Humans who screw up.

What about the teachers who were smoking pot behind the building at a sponsored event?

What about the teachers who go to school drunk and work while intoxicated?

What about the teachers who are engaging in inappropriate student contact?

Why aren't they getting fired at a faster rate than those who just want to do a good job and seek out support to be even better?

Why should the fact a teacher is seeking out support send a warning flare that maybe they are not good teachers?

I mean, for real, what kind of crap is THAT???

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The rest of us work hard. We strive to achieve. We work tirelessly, often to the point of sacrificing family time, so our students can find success.

We are hard-wired to learn.

How many times have you heard a teacher utter the phrase, "I'm a life-long learner"? It's an interview cliché but we just can't say it or hear it enough. After all, it's the truth.

The rest of us avoid posting anything questionable on our social media pages because our district's attorneys have warned us. We know that teachers are held to a higher social standard than any other profession.

We show up on time or early.

We leave at (but probably well after) our assigned or contracted time.

We are professional in our appearance.

We are professional in our behavior.

We are professional in our discourse with all stakeholders.

We love what we do and want to continually grow in our professions.

We are the ones who put ourselves on the front lines of the lives of others, ready to help break down the barriers between a student's desire to learn and their actual learning process…because that's what good teachers do.

So do NOT lump ALL of us into a category with the so-called "rotten apples" who do not live up to the ethics standards set in place by their states.

We just want to teach.

Let's Talk Plain English

Let's just cut the crap and get to the heart of the matter.

What is it going to take to keep the best talent? What's it going to take to draw people to the field of education?

What's it going to take to keep the brightest and best?

Train and retain…train and retain…train and retain…

Double-speak won't work.

It's no longer going to work to tell me I'm doing a great job but then make my school year miserable.

In any other field or industry, the crap teachers have had to put up with, in my opinion and observation, would not be tolerated.

In many cases, teachers have far more formal education under their belts than those in other careers-careers where they're making high five figures or low six figures.

Many of us can barely pay our student loan payments AND pay for housing. We live in a flex-state of the proverbial robbing Peter to pay Paul.

My friend Heather, a teacher, had a medical debt.

The debt had gone to collections.

When the agent called, Heather was clear that she wanted to pay the debt owed, but that it would have to be on a payment plan.

The payment would have to be very low. The creditor said that would be fine but they would have to go through the process of a repayment "wizard" program on the computer to calculate what Heather could truly afford.

Knowing what the outcome would be, Heather played along. After providing the information about her monthly expenses, the "wizard" returned a $0 per month payment.

The agent apologized and allowed Heather to set her payment. At $10 per month, which she pulled from the grocery budget, it took her 24 months to pay off the debt.

With a student loan payment of nearly $600 per month (yes, she consolidated), a car payment on a very used car, a rent payment for housing, and all the expenses a single mother of two would have, there's a negative balance every month.

"If it weren't for overdraft protection, I'd be in an even worse place."

She is considering filing bankruptcy. She knows that her student loan payments won't go away (they can't be included in the bankruptcy) and wonders if it will make a difference to file.

She has to have a home and a car. They will still need food, electricity, and water.

They do not have cable TV. They do not travel. "My life is a hamster wheel."

"I don't know how I have survived the school years I've been a ‘target' for some administrator to prove a point about some new initiative."

Heather's end-of-year performance scores have averaged in the proficient to outstanding range.

Yes. Let's spend time making the lives of the Heathers in our profession much more difficult. For sure the negativity will cause them to perform well.

Duh. No.

So what is the message?

Dignity. Coaching. Redirection. Support. Honest feedback driven by tangible evidence. Mentoring.

There. That wasn't so hard, was it?

I'll make it easier, neater, and tidier in case you want to share these thoughts with someone...

Take a Cue From Someone In the Trenches. They Might Know a Thing or Two

When one needs to know where to go, which direction to follow, which course to take, generally the best strategy is to ask someone who's been there, done that.

I posed the question to my teacher pals. Some have left the field. Some are thriving in the field. Some are contemplating saying, "All done now." The contributors are all very bright, engaged, intelligent people who are excited to share out.

What follows, fellow educators, is GOOD information for administrators to consider. Better still, dare I incite a movement where people who are interviewing for positions actually NEGOTIATE for some of these things (and get the promise in writing)!?

Why shouldn't professional educators have the same successful bargaining opportunities as people working in other professions??

  • Foster, encourage, and allow creative Teaching.
  • Consider pairing gifted teachers with publishers, product developers, etc. thereby allowing/encouraging teachers to profit from their innovative ideas which are proven to drive success in the classroom. Doing so benefits all parties involved.
  • Adapt a research/results-based mentoring program. Building relationships with staff helps to increase the retention rates of new staff because they feel supported.
  • "Administrators need to cease micromanaging of any sort. Teachers are professionals, most with graduate degrees. They are highly educated. Micromanaging is not only unnecessary but it is condescending and humiliating."
  • Education needs a complete overhaul of testing practices. Standardized tests should be kept OUT of K-8 schools. Not only is it a waste of Teaching and learning time but it adds so much stress to students and staff.
  • Special education classes are often forgotten about or "left out" (insert my snarky, "Mmmmhmmm" here) of many events. Quit that. It's illegal and not nice.
  • Be sure that special education teachers get the same amount of DUTY FREE prep time as general education teachers have.
  • Because of the paperwork load, special education teachers work weekends, nights, etc. to meet the deadlines. Provide substitute teachers on a weekly basis for two-to-eight hours so these expectations can be met during the work day.
  • Provide REAL solutions for students who bite, kick, punch, and otherwise INJURE teachers.Why should a teacher have to open a Worker's Comp claim-and keep it open all school year-to feel as though "they're covered" if something happens?
  • When sending a teacher to mandatory professional development during a designated school break time, additional compensation should be given. Additionally, expenses should be covered for attending including hotel rooms, gasoline, and a per diem for food.
  • Give teachers the gift of time. Administrators should randomly offer to be a guest teacher in the classroom for a few hours so the teacher can catch up on tasks, planning, etc. That single gesture can earn miles of gratitude and loyalty AND provide administrators with a clear indicator of classroom management and practices (when done more than once or twice).
  • Make sure to foster a professional and happy school culture. DO NOT foster the Mean Girl mindset in your building. The high school-type petty, gossipy, back-stabbing, and back-biting behaviors can NOT be tolerated. Administration can make that one simple change and very soon, a much better energy resides in the building.
  • Get to know each other at a bit more personal level by doing a few activities off campus and after hours. Go to dinner as a school team. Go to a local concert in the park with your families.
  • "Allow me to be a human. If I tell you my mother is ill, I'm going to be concerned. I want to know that I work where I am trusted to love my family AND be a professional. Do NOT begrudge me time off to care for sick family members, especially if it is banked and available to me. I don't want to feel any guilt for using what is given me to care for my family."
  • "Be a regular visitor to my classroom. I want you to know my kids. I want you to see me work. I want your genuine feedback. I want that feedback to be based on what you see."
  • "I want to have a weekly meeting with my administrator. I just want 10 to 15 minutes where we can discuss how things are going, so I can ask questions, so we can build a strong rapport. I know weekly may not work for them schedule-wise, and I know on occasion that a meeting may need to be rescheduled. I believe if we invest time in each other, we will be better partners in educating kids."

Next Steps

Far be it for me to tell administrators how to do their job, but having been in that position myself, I can offer assurances that incorporating one or two of these ideas/suggestions, your team will feel the swirl of a more positive energy in the building.

Working together is critical to educating children. We have lost sight of the fact that we are a stakeholder-driven profession. Parents, students, teachers, administrators, and the community are all invested in developing our young people.

So why, then, would administrators waste valuable time and energy committed to "targeting" someone in their building? Do people really think this strategy will make that person a better educator?

Maybe it's time to weed out the wheat from the chaff-yes, there are teachers who are not in the right profession. That's not the point of this post.

The point here is to understand the value added to moving forward as a unit. Staff development should be precisely THAT-time to develop your resources.

Think about it. Think about all the potential in the hallways of your school. Build up your people, don't tear them down.

My sweet friend Herta always says, "Together, we can." I love that. She's right.

Together, we can.

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