Every four years, the National Center for Education Statistics researches teacher attrition and mobility across the United States. According to their latest estimate, based on data from 2013, approximately 16% of teachers either move schools (8%) or leave the teaching profession altogether (8%) each year. While the popular perception is that the majority of educators that leave the profession each year are retirees, they in fact make up less than one-third of this group (Learning Policy Institute, 2016). According to the Learning Policy Institute (2016), a majority of teachers decide to leave due to dissatisfaction with the profession including “teaching conditions, administrative support, collegial opportunities, and teacher input into decision making”.
In the age of social-media, where everything and anything is posted online for others to view, educators have begun making their dissatisfaction with the profession public through open resignation letters published on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The content of many of these open letters is simply heart-breaking:
“In this disturbing era of testing and data collection in public schools, I have seen my career transformed into a job that no longer fits my understanding of how children learn and what a teacher ought to do in the classroom” (Susan Sluyter, 2014)
“Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation, and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system of public education” (Gerald Conti, 2013)
“I can no longer be a part of a system that continues to do the exact opposite of what I am supposed to do as a teacher – I am supposed to help them think for themselves, help them find solutions to problems, help them become productive members of society. Instead, the emphasis on . . . high-stakes testing is creating a teach-to-the-test mentality for our teachers and stress and anxiety for our students” (Pauline Hawkins, 2014)
Current research from Michigan State University (Dunn, Deroo, and VanDerHeide, 2017) points to the fact that these public resignation letters contain much of the same motives and content: Educators post their letters online to gain a greater voice in the discussion of their profession and to express their dissatisfaction with their own and their students’ working and learning conditions.
These educators are not alone in their dissatisfaction with the current condition of the K-12 education system. According to the latest PDK (2016) survey of the nation’s attitudes toward public schools, just 25% of American’s give the nation’s schools a rating of either an “A” or “B”. While better than this rating, only 48% of the public believe their local, public school district deserves a rating of an “A” or “B” and 67% of parents believe that the school their oldest child attends deserves a rating of an “A” or “B”. Put another way, approximately 1/3 of parents with children that attend public schools, would give the school that their child attends a “C” or worse.
This dissatisfaction with and negative perception of the nation's public schools (along with other factors such as standardized testing being elevated as a way to evaluate student and educator performance (Richmond, 2013) has begun to affect the number of students that decide to pursue a career as a teacher while in college. Since 2009, teacher education enrollments have dropped by 35%, from 691,000 to 451,000 nationwide (Learning Policy Institute, 2016). To make matters worse, it is expected that K-12 student enrollment is projected to increase significantly nationwide, thus creating a greater demand for students to go into the teaching profession.
While these trends look rather uniform and clean when viewed at the national level, the picture becomes much more nuanced the closer you look. For example, while Oklahoma has been experiencing a “tremendous teacher shortage” (Camera, 2015), in other areas of the country 1,000’s of applicants apply for only a couple of teaching jobs (Merrow, 2015). In Michigan, while the K-12 student population is projected to decline by 6.3% by 2023 (NCES, 2015), the general population in Ottawa County (the fastest growing section of Michigan) is projected to increase by 12.7% by 2020 (Ottawa County, 2015). For areas of the country such as Oklahoma and Ottawa County that are looking to hire qualified teachers, the picture becomes even more complex when you begin to think about filling certain positions. While it may be relatively easy to find a candidate that is qualified to teach at the lower grades and has a English Language Arts background, candidates that are qualified to teach in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines or are bi-lingual are worth their weight in gold.
Creating a Culture of "Yes, and . . ."
As the competition for qualified and skilled educators heats up in certain districts and areas or our country, various strategic initiatives focussed on recruitment and retention are being implemented or suggested including increasing the compensation for teachers and support and mentoring for educators within their first years in the profession (Learning Policy Institute, 2016). While each of these initiatives will likely be necessary in order to attract and keep educators within the profession, there will also be increased pressure for individual districts and schools to differentiate themselves from others to make sure the best teachers come to and remain with them. A natural reaction to this might be to “bolt-on” additional programs and initiatives to what is already happening within the school or district (think STEM Programs, Early College Programming, International Baccalaureate Programs, etc.) in order to make it look more innovative and attractive.
While I am a huge proponent of many of these programs and initiatives, I believe that to stay competitive, schools and districts will need to stop worrying about what new program or initiative to bring in and start working to create a culture of “Yes, and . . .” within their environments. Each of the teachers mentioned previously that posted their resignation letters online did so because they felt they had a lack of voice in their profession. Within these public resignations it is clear that their view of teaching and learning and what is best for students conflicts with what they are expected to do within the classroom and school. From their point of view, there was not a way to resolve or reconcile this conflict, hence the need to resign.
What if the district and school that these teachers had worked in approached this conflict with an attitude of “Yes, and . . .”? Yes, we live in an era of increased accountability and standardized testing, and how can we still value and promote creativity and teacher autonomy? Yes, we want our students to demonstrate proficiency on a state assessment, and how can we help students learn to think for themselves and solve real-life, complex issues? While these issues are complex and to address them would require a great deal of planning and investigation, this is exactly how our best teachers want to be engaged by their district and school. By adopting a “Yes, and . . .” culture, districts and schools may be creating more work, but it will be the kind of work that will once again attract teachers to the profession and keep our best teachers engaged and satisfied.
About Jason Pasatta
I am passionate about learning, design, and the potential that we all possess. Currently I am the Director of Innovation Services for the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District in West Michigan, where I the lead the development of new and innovative educational programs, supports, and systems.