What Attracts New Teachers to Schools?

I started thinking about this question when I found out that one my former professors is researching this exact question. New teachers are not exactly flocking to urban public schools, so rather than asking why new teachers are avoiding urban public schools, Manya Whitaker of Colorado College is flipping the question and instead asking what factors are important to new teachers when choosing a school. Her research will be far more telling than my anecdote, but for now all I can provide are the reasons I chose my current school and why I could see myself staying there for a long time.

1. The hiring process was rigorous

This might sound counter-intuitive, but it was one of the first things I noticed. There is definitely a sweet spot here, because making applicants jump through too many hoops could turn them away. However, in this case, every part of the hiring process felt necessary. This is tough, because some schools may be struggling to get enough applicants, in which case it is harder for them to be picky. But going through a rigorous process where I really felt like I had to earn the job offer made me feel more confident about the environment I was going into.

2. I knew I was going to be able to learn from several experienced teachers

I can't remember the exact number, but I want to say they told me the average years of experience teaching at the school at the time I applied was around eight. Our teacher retention percentage is always in the mid-90s with 93 percent returning this year. This is also tough, because in order to have experienced teachers, you have to be able to attract and retain teachers, which is what this post is all about. However, the point here is that once you can get a group of teachers to buy into your mission, it becomes a lot easier to get other teachers to jump on board. New teachers want to feel like they can learn from someone who has done the job for a while.

3. Expectations are high but reasonable

It was very clear to me from day one that my school expects a lot of out its staff members and its students, but I never felt pressure to perform. The message was that I had already earned the job through the rigorous hiring process. They already trusted me to do well. But they also said that so much of the first couple years of teaching is survival, and that I cannot expect to be great all the time right away. They encourage teachers to take a day off when things are becoming too overwhelming. Support comes from the administration, from coworkers, from parents, and from students.

All teachers have a professional learning community that they meet with every professional development day, but new teachers are encouraged to skip joining a PLC to work on written reflections to turn in instead. Thus, most of my PD days last year ended up being time to catch up on work and reflect on the year so far.

Additionally, there were not many tasks that were mandatory to complete that felt like they had no purpose. Some schools make it mandatory that new teachers turn in weekly lesson plans for accountability. Honestly, I would find that task disrespectful. If I am given the job, I know I am expected to prepare and complete the job to the best of my ability. I am supposed to reflect on the purpose of everything I put in a lesson. For me, this does not always end up on a written lesson plan. Having to turn in weekly lesson plans would just add to my stress and make me feel resentful towards whoever was asking me to complete the process. This is just an example of one thing new teachers are asked to do that end up doing more harm than good.

I should also note that this stance does come from a point of privilege. Many urban public schools are, for the lack of a better phrase, fighting from behind. They are trying to close an achievement gap that results in marginalized students being grossly under-served, which leaves less room for error. The pressure is on for them to get better results. Taking a day off could be damaging towards that goal. Letting an ineffective teacher into the classroom could do years worth of damage in a short amount of time. But, they have to take what they can get and hope they can make an effective teacher as the year goes on. This means turning in lesson plans with frequent observations and coaching. What I would argue is that teachers will burn out in this type of environment. So the question becomes: what option do schools have when the pressure is coming from every direction?

4. There are opportunities for pay raises

Even though most teachers certainly aren't in it for the money, more money is always nice. Earning a Master's degree results in a pay scale jump, as does earning a PhD. I'm sure this is the case with most schools, but the difference is my school recently made the PhD scale available to teachers who haven't completed a PhD program. Instead, after 6 years of teaching, we become eligible for they pay jump if we have completed a rigorous list of extra tasks. Earning it is not easy, but it is very possible. Having that carrot dangling encourages me to stick it out for a while, and if I were to get the raise, I would then know that going to any other school would result in a pay cut.

I should note that some schools have experimented paying teachers more to attract better candidates. There are also federal programs that allow for loan forgiveness for teachers who have worked in a low income school district for at least five years. I do not know about the effectiveness of these initiatives. I do know that at my school, the incentive is definitely appreciated.

5. The schools big goals are mostly aligned with my big goals

We have recently started talking more about innovation. How can we shake up our school's model to better prepare our students for a quickly changing world? I have some major issues with the current typical school model that I will discuss at length in another post. We believe we are doing a pretty good job as it is, but colleges complain about students not being prepared for college and bosses complain about students not being prepared for the work force. We are meeting the state objectives, so what is the problem? Well, apparently students can "meet the objectives" without gaining skills needed to function in life after K-12. We still believe that what we teach is important, so the question has become: how can we teach the objectives in an innovative way that will help students thrive once they graduate?

Again, though, we have this room to experiment because we don't have government officials knocking on the door telling us to do better or they will take over. There isn't as much pressure to produce better results right away. When that pressure exists, it becomes a "win at all costs" game. When that is the case, individual students suddenly turn into test scores. The game suddenly becomes about job security rather than student growth.

Having the freedom to innovate has been huge for me, but new teachers in some schools just do not have that freedom when there is so much on the line.

6. Most of my energy goes towards teaching and building relationships

At some schools, teachers don't feel like they get to teach. Rather, they are spending most of their energy disciplining students. At our school, most of the student body fits the mold of the dominant culture, which means that many of our students engage in behaviors that we would call "well behaved." Our parent community knows the process of creating a 504 plan or an IEP (individual plans that provide support for students with unique needs). I don't want to take credit away from my school, though, because the culture of our school took a lot of time, research, and hard work to develop. We outperform other schools that match our demographics, which shows that we have developed a model that works extremely well for most of our student body. While discipline issues are there, it doesn't feel like it's a major part of my job.

In my opinion, if schools are spending too much energy disciplining, then it's a school culture problem, not a student behavior problem. The punishments aren't adjusting the behavior. Rebuilding a culture is much easier said than done. The point here is that if teachers don't feel like they have time to actually teach, then they are more likely to burn out.

My school is certainly not perfect, and we have some big issues we need to work on. But overall, it's a supportive environment where I feel like I have the opportunity to become a better teacher every day. It's not easy to build a great school environment, but once the ball starts rolling, it becomes a hard place to leave behind.


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