For years, reporters and pundits have cited the same statistic: 50 percent of American teachers leave the classroom within their first five years of teaching. A recent study conducted by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington, DC, think tank, calls into question this statistic. According to the CAP analysis, just 30 percent of teachers nationwide leave within the first five years. When I read this, I thought: Great news!
My optimism about teacher retention was tempered, however, when I learned this OUSD-specific number: 75 percent of teachers who joined OUSD in 2007 left the district within five years, according to preliminary data from OUSD’s Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment program. It makes me wonder, just what is driving this massive disparity between teacher retention across the country and in Oakland? To be fair, some of the OUSD teachers are probably leaving Oakland for other districts, so this isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing where our teachers go when they leave: the district does not appear to survey exiting teachers. Regardless I think it’s pretty clear that Oakland has a teacher retention problem, relative to other districts.
I think I can guess what most of you are thinking about these numbers: Oakland is a tough place to work. Our kids experience trauma outside the classroom that can lead to challenging behaviors in the classroom. We teachers are paid less than many of our local counterparts. Teachers need opportunities for advancement to stay in their schools.
I agree that these factors likely influence teacher retention in Oakland. I also think there is a major factor that isn’t being talked about as much: new teacher support. As a teacher who is in my first year of teaching in Oakland and my third year of teaching overall, I can tell you that the amount and quality of support I’ve received in my first few years of teaching has played a huge role in keeping me in the classroom. I can also tell you that when support has been lacking, it has significantly increased the likelihood that I will burn out quickly.
I have been lucky to work at a school in Los Angeles and at Think College Now Elementary here in Oakland, both of which are schools that prioritize giving new teachers additional support: through invaluable observations and feedback, through modeling by excellent teachers, and through high-quality professional learning opportunities. But there’s only so much a school with limited resources can do.
When I came to Oakland, I was expected to teach several subjects in ways that were completely new to me: reader’s workshop, writer’s workshop, a different math curriculum, a different phonics curriculum, and a different approach to guided reading. I was lucky that my school sent me to a training on the new math curriculum during the short time period between when teachers come back to work and when school starts. But I had to start teaching all the other curricula with no formal training. That, plus being in new school environment where so many things were different from my previous school, was a recipe for misery. I felt l like a failure for at least two months. And feeling like a failure is not conducive to teacher retention.
I worry that when teachers get off to a rough start like I did—whether it’s their first of teaching overall or their first year in Oakland—they start burning out immediately. And when burnout starts right way, and is combined with the other challenges Oakland teachers face, it contributes to dismal teacher attrition numbers like those seen in OUSD for the 2007 cohort.
So what do you think about these attrition statistics? Do you think better new teacher support is a key lever here, or are other factors more important? Share your comments below.