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Crashing and Burning

How to get teachers to stay in the profession? Lynch School faculty have some ideas on that

01/31/13
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Lynch School of Education faculty members Audrey Friedman and Curt Dudley-Marling contributed to a book of essays - co-edited by Friedman - on the issue of teacher retention. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Kathleen Sullivan | Chronicle Staff

Published: Jan. 31, 2013

In the United States, few new teachers stay long enough to become old teachers. More than a third of them leave the profession within five years, according to the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, and the figures are particularly bad for urban schools: One in five new teachers exit after just one year, nearly half within five years.

Given this rate of attrition, what can veteran educators, who are committed to and passionate about teaching, offer in terms of hope and encouragement?

Lynch School of Education faculty members who have studied teacher retention point to several critical factors — high-stakes testing, on-site mentoring, and classroom management, along with variables such as human and materials resources — that determine whether a teacher will leave or stay.

“Teachers must know their students: how they think, what they think, how they learn, what brings them joy, what they need socially, academically, and emotionally to learn and succeed, and what is essential to develop a classroom community of care, respect, stewardship, and citizenship,” said Associate Professor Audrey Friedman, a 2009 Massachusetts Professor of the Year and co-editor of a book of essays titled Burned In: Fueling the Fire to Teach.

According to Thomas More Brennan Professor of Education Andy Hargreaves, a leading expert on the teaching profession and international educational systems and contributor to Burned In, “[Teachers] need to stay in the job beyond two to three years until they hit their stride and reach their very best years.”

In his new book, The Global Fourth Way: The Quest for Educational Excellence, Hargreaves and his Lynch School colleague Professor Dennis Shirley looked at educational systems in the US, Canada, England, Singapore and Finland for examples of successful learning and achievement. Hargreaves says international evidence shows that teachers need to have high dedication and great emotional empathy. Hargreaves’ own classroom teaching experience came in his homeland of England, in a very poor, mixed grade elementary school on the outskirts of Sheffield.

To be successful, Hargreaves said, teachers need to be “prepared through long training of a rigorous nature in universities with well-supported practice in schools. They need time in the school day to work with their colleagues to examine problems of practice together and talk about as well as plan for students they share in common. They need leadership that inspires them, conditions that support them, and administrations that demonstrably appreciate them.”

Another Burned In contributor, Professor Curt Dudley-Marling, said, “The greatest challenge in education today is addressing the failure of our schools to adequately serve the needs of students in poverty. To begin to tackle this problem we need teachers who are well prepared to teach in their subject areas, who have a commitment to social justice and who respect students and the communities from which they come.”

Dudley-Marling, a former elementary special education teacher in Ohio and Wisconsin who also taught third grade in the Toronto Public Schools, stressed that schools need to “treat teachers as thoughtful professionals” and allow them “to exercise the professional discretion needed to address the needs of all learners.”

Lynch School graduates, note the faculty members, best the national trends in both the general retention rate and the urban school retention rate.

“The students in our teacher preparation program are bright, caring and committed young people who have the intelligence, dispositions, and training to excel in our schools,” said Dudley-Marling.

Hargreaves concurs: Lynch School students, he said, demonstrate “great dedication, commitment to social justice, strong collaborative ethic, and a willingness to work hard and persevere...to make a difference and take a chance.”

Friedman — whose classroom experience includes teaching science and English in an alternative high school in Philadelphia and in South Hadley and Attleboro high schools in Massachusetts — added, “That [our Lynch School students] are knowledgeable in content and pedagogy is a given. That they understand the psychological and emotional needs of children, the various ways children learn and think, and the best ways to make the curriculum accessible to children is also a given.

“What is special about our students, however, is their sense of justice, their belief in the principle of care, and their genuine commitment to enhance the life chances of others.”