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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Retaining teachers isn't just about more money or class size. It is about professional support.

Main Sources of Workplace Stress for Teachers

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Teachers want better professional learning opportunities Source: American Federation of Teachers

Teachers can transform individual lives. Their unique combination of knowledge, skills, and artful support power students across our nation, and, in doing so, enable our collective success. Yet great numbers of teachers are leaving their chosen profession or switching out of their current position—nearly half a million teachers leave their jobs every year, and in high-poverty schools, it’s as much as one in five teachers. For the first time in almost a half-century, teachers with ten or fewer years of experience comprise over 50 percent of the teaching force.  Year-to-year staff stability of a school and its faculty cohesiveness has significant negative consequences for student learning.

What learners lose when teachers resign.

When teachers leave their positions, students lose the advantages of learning from those experienced educators as well as having a sense of continuity. An Association for Education Finance and Policy (AEFP) study tells us that teacher turnover has a significant and negative consequence on student achievement in both mathematics and language arts. Even after controlling for different indicators of teacher quality, especially in lower-performing schools. In addition, leave-taking negatively touches the students of “stayers”—those who remain in the same school from one year to the next, as well as students in the classrooms of new teachers. One possibility is that turnover results in poor collegiality or relational trust among faculty, or perhaps turnover results in loss of institutional knowledge among faculty that is critical to student success.

Why do teachers decide to leave?

 When teachers ask themselves “Should I stay or should I go?,” the question is not necessarily prompted by reasons we might expect such as salary or class-size concerns. Job-related stressors are a key reason for teacher departures. A 2015 American Federation of Teachers (AFT) survey of 30,000 teachers found that the principle factor for 71 percent of those surveyed was the “adoption of new initiatives without proper training or professional development.” In other words, teachers are longing for the support to do their very best and in turn, give students what they need to succeed.

Two solutions can staunch teacher attrition.

Albert Einstein said, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” The same sentiment can apply to teachers, lifelong learners who also need the right conditions to practice their art.
Schools that build supportive environments give teachers continuous opportunities to grow and learn, and provide the tools they need to do their job and become happy and successful in their work—and stay.

The major workplace stress that teachers cite can be relieved with Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and Professional Development (PD).

Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)

Teachers want to be in environments where they are going to be successful with students, where they’re getting help to do that, where they have good colleagues, where they’re working as a team. Teachers, especially those just entering the profession, are generally collaboratively oriented, and welcome the opportunity to team with their peers.

PLCs originated in the business sector as a way to give organizations a greater capacity to learn collectively. In education, a learning organization becomes a learning community that develops collaborative work cultures for teachers. These learning communities are based on two notions: 1) Knowledge lies in the day-to-day experience of teachers and is best understood through critical reflection with peers, which uncovers and examines best practices, and 2) Teachers engaged in PLCs will increase both their professional knowledge and their students’ achievement.

Professional learning communities can be school-based, district-based, cross-district, or national. PLCs can be formed in the way that works best for the particular school, and they usually change over time. They can work within formal settings and structures or can operate more loosely, and they engage in a wide range of activities. Typically, groups meet regularly for extended periods during the school year. In short, PLCs can “look” lots of ways, but they must include participants who share the following beliefs and behaviors:

  • Care deeply about learning
  • Feel free to take risks
  • Challenge each other and raising the expectations of everyone
  • Respect and value perspectives other than their own by seeking and valuing every member’s input
  • Intentionally seek to do better work
  • Aggressive in continually building capacity of each member to work smarter

Collective results of PLC studies suggest that they have a positive influence on both teaching practice and student achievement, and on greater job satisfaction.

Professional Development (PD)

 Implementation is the most difficult aspect of incorporating new approaches to teaching and learning. In case studies, even experienced teachers struggle with new instructional techniques. On average, 20 separate instances of practice are required before a teacher has mastered a new skill, and that number increases with the complexity of the skill.
Without support during this phase, it is highly unlikely that teachers will persevere with the newly learned strategy. When teachers are coached through the awkward phase of implementation, 95 percent can transfer the skill. Thus, for lasting and positive changes in teaching practice, PD should be job-embedded and ongoing. Studies show that effective professional development programs require anywhere from 50 to 80 hours of instruction, practice, and coaching before teachers arrive at mastery.

What does effective PD look like? The same iNACOL framework for blended learning competencies that apply to students can also apply to their teachers. As learning changes for students, the support given to teachers must also evolve, and reflect the blended, competency–based approaches that are proving effective when engaging students. To provide ongoing, relevant, job-embedded, and engaging professional development with the limited resources that most schools and districts have to work with, one solution is blended, competency-based learning for teachers—personalized professional development that provides the educator what they need, when they need it, and where they are able to access it.

A high quality, experienced teacher is priceless.

 If you look at countries that were once low-achieving, but are now both high-achieving and equitable in their student outcomes, you will find that they have invested in teacher preparation and development programs to accomplish those gains. Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, for example, not only invest in high-quality preparation, but also pay all of the costs for teachers to get that preparation. Furthermore, they are given a stipend while they are in training, so that they do not acquire debt to enter teaching or suffer from less preparation than they need. While we may not be able to provide this level of support here in the U.S., we can certainly learn from the measurably high yields of these types of professional development investments in teachers.

At DreamBox Learning, our mission is to change the way the world learns. That means providing student-driven, blended and competency-based learning to complement and support the work of teachers in the classroom. We believe that this model can unlock the learning potential of students. Because teachers are lifelong learners as well, they can benefit from the latest advances that are advancing their students. We extend the same approach to educators as students, with learner-centered PD that is focused on teachers’ individual needs, that helps construct knowledge and develop the skills to refine instructional practice through competency-based learning, and that transforms instructional practice to increase student achievement. We aim to help build teacher agency as we inspire a new generation of learners by helping them more deeply understand math strategies, and building confidence and competence in the subject matter.

Providing on-site, online, and on-demand options helps meet school and district budget needs, but more importantly, it provides the flexibility that teachers need to get the PD they want, and to help them understand the best practices that bring their own learning and that of their students to the next level.

This brings me to the importance of the use of technology and data-driven insights to support authentic personalized math learning. The analysis and ability to act on data is a necessary shift made possible by technology to assess the learning process itself, and not just the product of learning. Data that provides how a learner is constructing meaning, forming understanding, and making learning decisions in the very process of learning— in real time—is the basis of the revolution in ongoing formative assessment that raises student achievement.

Training, developing, and keeping great teachers is a hallmark of countries where students have gained success against their international peers. Establishing infrastructures that support higher achievement, lower stress, and greater job satisfaction should be a national priority so that when teachers are making decisions about their next professional step, the answer will be “I am here to stay.”

If you attending SXSWedu 2016, I invite you to join me and my fellow panelists for Cultivating Teacher Readiness in Next Gen Learning, Wednesday, March 9, 11 a.m. – 12 p.m. at the Hilton Austin Downtown, Salon G. My colleagues and I will discuss the key to transformation in a rapidly evolving digital learning landscape: teacher engagement and readiness, including PD and PLCs.