Some do’s and don’ts on keeping teachers

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What Tolstoy found true of families may also be said of schools: The happy ones are all alike; every unhappy school is unhappy in its own way. At schools where teachers have a voice, moral support, quiet hallways and enough chalk, they tend to stay put. At schools where one or more of the elements of a well-functioning school are lacking, frustration mounts, eventually pushing some teachers out. Of those who leave, some will quit teaching altogether. Burroughs elementary in Brighton Park is among the Chicago public schools that keep their teachers. For the past two years, its average faculty turnover has been only 7 percent—half the district average. Teachers there credit parents, colleagues and the leadership of Principal Donald Richard Morris.

Morris became principal of Burroughs nine years ago, at the tender age of 31. He arrived with nine years of teaching experience but none as an administrator. “I was the youngest staff member,” he recalls. “You got those looks from people, ‘I’ve been teaching longer than you’ve been alive.'”

His approach to the job, however, won over even his elders. “Your job as an administrator is to be the ultimate resource for people who are in the classroom,” he explains. “Simply stated, you work for them—they don’t work for you.”

Not all faculties are so lucky.

At “Elementary X” on the South Side, administrators create tension among staff by favoring some and feuding with others, three new teachers report, asking that their names be withheld. School politics are complicated, and teachers don’t know whom to trust. “It’s scary,” says one. “You have to be careful who you talk to.” Of the three, two will not return and may leave teaching for good. Over the last two years, the school had an average teacher turnover rate of 25 percent.

At “Elementary Y” on the West Side, four teachers—two veterans and two newcomers—attribute the school’s 21 percent turnover rate to problems with student discipline, scarce supplies and, in some cases, large class size. The two veterans intend to remain until retirement. “I manage to block out many things,” says one. “And by the end of the year, I see progress, and that’s reward enough.”

Of the two new teachers, one will quit teaching, and the other is unsure how long she’ll last. Like Burroughs, both these schools are about 90 percent low-income and enroll some 500 students.

Comparing what teachers say about Burroughs, Elementary X and Elementary Y suggests how schools might lower their turnover rates.

new teachers the don’ts

“Lisa” was fresh from college when Elementary Y hired her to assist in an overcrowded classroom. The principal promised a regular position as soon as a new room opened up.

One morning a month later, the principal and another administrator appeared at her doorway, she recalls. “OK,” they said, “your classroom is opening up next door.”

“They took me into the room where I had 25 or 30 kids, no pencils, no paper, no preparation time. I didn’t get workbooks for reading until I’d had my own room for a whole month. They changed my class list about four times before I finally got my permanent class.”

By spring, she still lacked even basic supplies. “Asking for glue is a battle; they have nothing.”

Lisa had anticipated teaching only a few years before graduate school. Instead, her first year will be her last. “I’m not a born teacher. I realize I don’t have the patience.”

Her colleague “Amy” arrived at Elementary Y with a year’s experience at a private suburban school. In the city, she got a class full of struggling primary readers. “She was given all the children who were in danger of failing,” says “Bess,” a veteran teacher who mentored Amy. “She handled it beautifully, [but] I hope she doesn’t get that again. How long can she do that?”

Amy says she prefers city schools—”the kids need you more here.” But the year has drained her. Discipline problems and the scarcity of supplies were “the two biggest shockers,” she says. The gap between her students’ reading ability and their textbooks was another aggravation. “I have to teach from a 2nd-grade book, and they’re at a kindergarten level. They’re frustrated because they don’t understand.”

Lisa and Amy were paired with more senior teachers at their school as part of a district mentoring program. But the principal provided no time for the pairs to meet during the school day.

Amy arrives an hour before school to talk with Bess—”Just to have somebody to vent to, otherwise you’d explode.” Bess also helped orient her on the curriculum, lesson plans, attendance books and the like.

Amy may soon opt for a less stressful job in a school setting, such as a resource teacher. “I can see myself staying for a couple of years,” she says. “But when I think of myself here in 20 years, I just cringe.”

new teachers the do’s

Omar Gonzalez, a 6th- and 7th-grade bilingual teacher, says he emerged from his undergraduate teacher training with a lot left to learn. Burroughs didn’t let him flounder.

First off, he was paired with an experienced 6th-grade teacher. They met every week or so during a common planning period. She helped him navigate through paperwork and curriculum, and they collaborated on some student projects.

Assistant Principal Lawrence Gurga also leant a hand, modeling science lessons in the classroom and in the computer lab. Each week, he made sure that Gonzalez was stocked with supplies—from scales to string to seeds—for upcoming science lessons.

And once or twice a week, Gonzalez dropped in for a talk with the principal.

“With new teachers, you have to engage them in dialogue so you know they’re being reflective,” says Morris. “Otherwise they make the same mistakes year after year. Then after awhile you’re a 5th-year teacher but you’re still making first-year teacher mistakes.”

“What is working for you, what isn’t? Why do you think it’s not working?” he inquires. Morris also encourages experimentation. For instance, he suggested Gonzalez introduce students to “hands-on” projects in cooperative groups. “Take them outside and do a science lesson on the playground,” Morris told him. “Let me know how it goes.”

“It motivates you when people help you improve as a teacher,” Gonzalez notes. “It makes you happy to be working in a profession where people are willing to help you out.”

teacher collaboration the don’ts

At Elementary X, three teachers new to Chicago say they walked into a bizarre school climate. Administrators set teachers against each other by favoring some and ostracizing others, they say.

“Sarah,” a young upper grade teacher, explains that colleagues warned her against speaking too openly in front of teachers seen as the administration’s informants. At the same time, the new teachers are afraid to speak with anyone “not in good” with the administration.

“It gets to a point where you’re like, ‘Forget it, I don’t want to say anything,'” says Sarah. “You just go home and talk to your dog. Or to your mom, who works in a different school.”

Even when teachers have common prep time at Elementary X, they keep to themselves. “I think you’re expected to be in your room. It’s not meant for you to be sitting with your peers and talking,” she believes.

Elementary Y teachers report less tension but little teamwork. For one, those at the same grade level don’t have the same prep periods. Those who choose to collaborate must do so on their own time.

“We have to sneak it in at 8 in the morning,” explains “Jan,” a veteran primary teacher. “People who have kids to drop off at day care can’t get here that early.” As a result, “The [students] suffer because everyone isn’t on the same track.”

teacher collaboration the do’s

At Burroughs, teachers at the same level—primary, intermediate or upper—have one common planning period a week to discuss curriculum, teaching strategies and classroom materials. But collaboration is not confined to formal meetings.

“It can be in the cafeteria, in the hallway, after school, before school, during a prep period,” says Gonzalez. “When you have a good atmosphere, it’s easy to share ideas, and it’s easy to receive help.”

Communication at Burroughs is not perfect, however. Information doesn’t flow smoothly between the three levels, teachers say. And sometimes personal conflicts arise. “We’re family. In families, you have problems,” says kindergarten teacher Irma Francois. “We have our little battles, and we work them out.”

constructive criticism the don’ts

After a year of teaching, “Claire” of Elementary X is ready to call it quits. She left higher education administration to teach a primary grade and loves working with her students.

But she feels “constantly beat down” with criticism from administrators. “What is good?” she wants to ask them. “Tell me what is good.”

“Negative reinforcement doesn’t work all the time,” agrees “Gail”, a primary teacher who made a mid-life career change from business. “You’ve got to give some positive feedback. But from what I’ve seen, it’s continuously negative.”

“I’ve been in their position as a manager,” she adds. “I know what you should be doing [to] encourage people to grow. I don’t have to deal with it—not for less money and more stress.”

Gail is agonizing over whether to switch schools or accept a business position she was offered.

Claire feels too drained, her confidence too shaken, to continue teaching. “It has really rocked my foundation,” she says of the year. “I need to step away.”

constructive criticism the do’s

At Burroughs, teachers say Morris is up front but respectful. “He let’s you know when he’s pleased, and when he’s not pleased he’ll tell you directly,” says Paul Durkin, who teaches 3rd and 4th grade.

“If Mr. Morris has something to say to a teacher, he’ll walk up to their classroom and [talk] to them like they’re a real human being,” agrees Gurga, who says he has worked with principals who just left notes in teachers’ mailboxes.

Teachers hear positive feedback from Morris directly, too. “Just today, he said, ‘You’re going to be a phenomenal teacher,'” reports Irma Mora, who started mid-year. “I love that word, ‘phenomenal.’ That makes you want to work harder. It gives you confidence.”

student behavior the don’ts

At Elementary Y, teachers say they lack support on chronic discipline problems. Students sent to the office are quickly returned with no consequences; the school lacks in-school suspension; and two children who brought knives to school were never suspended, they say.

“The older teachers can brush it off and still maintain order,” says Bess. “But the younger teachers can’t.”

The teachers say a self-contained special education classroom is out of control. They worry about handling severe problems when those students are included in regular classrooms the coming year. “That might give me another push over the edge, out the door,” says Amy.

student behavior the do’s

Burroughs has few discipline problems to begin with. Where Elementary Y is set in a rough West Side neighborhood, and many children live in foster homes, Burroughs is surrounded by single- family homes in a poor, working-class neighborhood. Parents are mostly Mexican immigrants who instill a respect for teachers in their children, many at Burroughs say.

In addition, teachers work cooperatively to maintain discipline. “Everyone is on the same page,” says librarian Peggy Vizza. “Gum, candy—that’s a big deal here.” Teachers take responsibility for disciplining any child they see misbehaving, and so do aides and parents, she adds.

When a teacher has ongoing problems with a student, Morris meets with the teacher and parent. Susan Vale, an upper-grade science teacher new to the district, says one student continually disrespected her even after she spoke with his parent.

“Mr. Morris said, ‘If you want to suspend him from sports, you can.’ He went outside with me onto the practice field, and right there I suspended [the student] from sports until there was improvement.”

teacher input the don’ts

Last winter, Elementary X held a brainstorming session to work on the required School Improvement Plan.

Primary teachers met, took notes and handed them to administrators who were supervising. “As soon as you hand it to them, they’re reading it,” says Claire. “What did you guys put this down for? You can forget about this. We’re not changing this.”

The three teachers are especially troubled by a reading program that does not seem to work for all students. Teachers are not permitted to supplement the school-mandated programs with outside materials, they say.

“We all learn differently,” insists Gail. “This child may be brilliant if I have different resources, and I can utilize them. But I can’t. These are wonderful, beautiful children who have it tough enough as it is. I’m going to hold them back, retain them? I won’t be a part of that.”

Teachers at Elementary Y also say they have little input on curriculum or anything else. “If you ask a question in public, you get shot down and embarrassed to the point where you would never do that again,” says Jan.

“You kill any creativity or liveliness in a young person by coming to one of our meetings,” agrees Bess. “I’ve seen new people totally floored by [the principal’s] gruffness.”

“You want to encourage the younger people,” she continues, “but you tend to tell them, ‘You need to be in a place where you are valued.’ I tell them to go to the suburbs.”

teacher input the do’s

Morris encourages debate on curriculum, pedagogy and other school issues. “If you don’t have some tension, then it’s not worth talking about,” he insists. “There is no learning unless there is some tension. Then you know people are speaking with conviction.”

Last year, Burroughs held it’s first “Socratic seminars” to give faculty meetings more focus and teachers more input. Each targets an educational issue, such as whether students learn better in mixed-ability or same-ability groups. Teachers read about the issue in advance. During the discussion, each has to back up her or his opinion with a passage from the reading. And every teacher participates.

“He won’t move on until everyone has given an opinion,” Vizza says of Morris.

The School Improvement Plan is handled in a similarly democratic way, teachers say. A committee of teachers drafts the plan, and the entire faculty critiques it point by point.

“Answers are not given from the top with no questions asked,” notes 5th-grade teacher Margaret McCaffray. “Instead, we’re the ones who find the answers. Then it’s ownership—you feel part of the school. You own the philosophy of the school, you own the test scores, you own the achievement of the students. It’s part of you.”