“The first year I felt like I could never, ever take a day off.”
“I felt very isolated.”
“It doesn’t matter if you were a new teacher: If you had a bad evaluation, you were out.”
These are just some of the challenges new teachers described from their first years in the classroom, together with long hours, physical and emotional stress, and not enough school-organized mentorship and support. Aware that nearly half of new teachers leave the profession, AFT leaders met with several of the union’s own new teacher members for two days in mid-January to brainstorm with them and with top researchers in the field to determine what supports the newbies need to stay.
It’s essential work. “We have far, far more beginners in the profession,” said Richard Ingersoll, a leading professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania: More than half of the teachers in the United States now have just one to three years’ experience. And this group also has the highest attrition with 40 to 50 percent leaving within five years.
How do we persuade them to stay? Researchers echo what the teachers themselves say: They need better pre-service training, supportive principals, ongoing professional development opportunities, collaborative school cultures and mentoring. In nations with high-performing education systems—like Finland and Singapore—new teachers get coaching, reduced teaching loads and at least two years of student teaching, said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute. These are the same things that could attract more people to enter the profession, including people of color, who research shows are underrepresented in the classroom.
The union role
Unions are already playing a key role in new teacher retention. There are orientation programs and teacher-led behavior management classes from the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, funded by the AFT’s Teacher Leaders program; peer assistance and support programs from Southern California’s ABC Federation of Teachers; and professional development and teacher leader programs from the Corpus Christi AFT in Texas. Raphael Bonhomme, a fourth-year elementary school teacher in Washington, D.C., has found the teacher-led professional development courses at the Washington Teachers’ Union to be very helpful; he’s also met experienced teachers he knows he can trust at the sessions, which are funded by the AFT. Bree Gallicchio, a fourth-year elementary school teacher in Albuquerque, N.M., appreciated the supplies and classroom materials the Albuquerque Teachers Federation provided at the beginning of the year.
But there is so much more to do. These programs are not universally available, and the teachers need more planning time, on-time resources, in-time hiring, more and better induction programs, mentors, better leave opportunities and more. At her Los Angeles school, special education teacher Cindy Monzon gets just 10 minutes at the beginning and the end of the day for planning; time is so tight that her colleagues use their sick days so they can leave their classrooms and conduct one-on-one student testing. Gallicchio, the Albuquerque teacher, remembers working 12-hour days and weekends during her first year of teaching. A mentor, support group or additional training about classroom setup and lesson planning could have made her more efficient.
The group also talked about attracting and retaining teachers of color, who significantly raise success levels for students of color and play an important role in preparing all students for a global work environment. Despite these positive impacts, just 6.6 percent of teachers in the U.S. are black; 7.6 percent are Latino and 82 percent are white, said Travis Bristol, a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley. Turnover among black male teachers is especially high.
A call for respect
A little respect would go a long way in retaining teachers of all backgrounds. Corinne Lyons, a middle school language arts teacher in Detroit, compared teachers to doctors: Both are highly credentialed and trained, yet teachers get very little respect in her community. “We are professionals who actually know what we’re doing,” she says.
“These precepts should be a no-brainer,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten, but in the current climate against public schools, both respect and resources for teachers are still missing.
“The narrative of the bad teacher is not fully gone,” said John Papay, a professor of education and economics at Brown University. But evidence shows that teachers’ success—or failure— is closely tied to the context of the school in which they teach, rather than their natural talent or drive. It also shows that a supportive environment makes for better teachers. “Perhaps on the ground this seems obvious,” he said, “but the policy conversation has been very different.”
Weingarten also called for “a national strategy for investment” in teachers, one that would include teacher preparation and retention efforts so that some of the ideas the teachers and researchers floated could be realized. And she offered hope for the future, both for young teachers, and for the profession writ large: “You come to teaching at a time of great possibility,” she told the young AFT members, making it clear that the union would take their feedback and work to make the AFT even more supportive moving forward.