Stay Teaching… Less Likely in Oakland than Elsewhere in the US?

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.


Educators: How Will Wilson’s 5-Year Plan Affect Teaching Policy in Oakland Schools?

Superintendent Wilson released his updated plan, “A Pathway to Excellence, 2015-2020”, at the last OUSD School Board meeting. The plan focuses on three primary areas: Effective Talent Programs, an Accountable School District, and Quality Community Schools.

Wilson writes, “Someday, somewhere in America, a school district and a city will fulfill its obligation to its children. Why not now? Why not Oakland?”

To watch the video of Wilson unveiling his plan at the school board meeting, click here.

To read Wilson’s gripping reflections on the recent events in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York, and their implications for our work here in Oakland, click here.

What are your reactions to the plan and what implications do you think Wilson’s plan might have on teaching policy and practice in Oakland schools? Is this the plan that will move Oakland from a community with great potential to one that has exceeded it?

We’d love to hear from you!

Thinking Beyond Bad Teachers

Bad teachers are having their moment in the sun this summer. The message from the mainstream media right now is that teachers are the problem.

Whoopie Goldberg is a talk show host and opinionator on teacher tenure, also known as due process, who wants bad teachers fired.

Vergara v. California declares that students’ rights to an equitable education are being violated by “teacher tenure” guarantees. It is being appealed by the California Teachers Association.

Students from Fremont and Castlemont High Schools in deep East Oakland have filed a suit in Alameda County Superior Court saying that “students have been denied equal access to teaching time compared with students who attend schools in more well-to-do neighborhoods.” These students have suffered through round after round of ineffective substitutes.

We are a society that is obsessed with bad teachers. Even Cameron Diaz has staked her claim in the discourse, playing a drunk and horny teacher who wants to quit the profession to marry rich.

A more accurate, if not way more boring, version of the movie would be called Good Teacher. It would star me, the opening shot focused on my hand whacking my alarm at 6:00am, suiting up with a sensible pair of clogs so I can facilitate play during recess. All day, I am transitioning kindergarteners with autism from one 20 minute academic session to another, literally singing and dancing as I go. Then the camera would pan to me laminating individualized folder activities for 12 students, cutting out the materials that I bought myself while sitting on my sofa. I’d be wearing a fetching sweater set and an increasingly strong eye glass prescription as I finish writing an IEP late into the night – late being 9:00pm. My bedtime, like a young child’s, is 9:30. And Justin Timberlake never kisses me good night or pays my bills.

While this makes for bad cinema, it makes for good teaching. And there is a lot more good teaching going on than the media presents. Making good teachers feel eclipsed by bad-teacher-hysteria isn’t going to close the achievement gap.

Cartoon - Good T

There is no doubt that students in high-need school districts are being denied access to excellent educations. But bad teachers aren’t the root cause. Racism and classism are.

Segregation along the lines of race and class is thriving the the American public education system. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, schools across the country, and in the Bay Area, are desegregated in legislation only. Segregation widens the achievement gap.

If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, then we need to shift our priorities from firing bad teachers, to hiring and retaining talented teachers and desegregating schools.

We need to learn a lesson from Finland, the going gold standard of education: we need to make the standards for admittance to schools of education very high, train teachers incredibly well, support teachers in the beginning of their careers, pay teachers like professionals, accept teachers’ assessments like we would a prescription from a doctor, and make teaching a job to brag about at a cocktail party.

We need to remember Brown v. Board: “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children… A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.

This is not an excuse, this is the truth: we are a nation that enslaved African-Americans 245 years. It is not a coincidence that African-American males continue to suffer the most in the public education system. The bad teacher discourse is a distraction from the reality that our political and social systems are hurting, not just our education system.

There are optimistic examples of revolutionary work to close the achievement gap that transcends the bad teacher discourse and includes acknowledging teachers who serve students tirelessly. The Harlem Children’s Zone commits to not only to academic excellence, but also to wrap around services that break patterns of poverty. Oakland Unified School District’s Office of African-American Male Achievement is doing work to coach young men outside of the classroom and is getting positive national attention.

We need to turn our attention to both cultivating and retaining a robust teaching force as we fight poverty and segregation. We need to spend time and money on preventative efforts like pre-natal care, public pre-school, and health care to close the achievement gap. We need to stop mythologizing the bad teacher and start supporting all teachers to be the best they can for their students.


Ten Reasons to Stay Teaching in Oakland


Summer is coming to an end, and the teacher nightmares are beginning. You know, the terrifying dreams where you have nothing planned or prepared for class and you’ve forgotten everything you know about being with students?

With the endless Sturm und Drang that comes with the start of a new year, it’s a great time to remind ourselves of all the reasons we stay teaching in Oakland.

I posed the question to my teacher friends around Oakland: With all the challenges and frustrations, why do YOU stay teaching in Oakland? Here’s what they said.

I appreciate the community I teach in. I’ve built strong bonds with many families and feel loyal and committed to the community. I know that I could teach somewhere else, but I truly feel passionate about giving students stability and consistency (like so many suburban schools have) by returning to the same school.     -Candice F. (15 years teaching)

It is one of those places…where the powers invest little because they expect little. My hope is to teach people skills they can use to create their own solutions to meet their needs.     -Ron M. (16 years teaching)

I stay teaching in Oakland for many reasons. I think my social conscience and my need to support the community and those in need is the main reason. I feel anger at the way society treats our children and feel I can help them navigate a really [screwed] up system.    -Stan L. (31 years teaching)

I have an opportunity to teach students one of the most important skills in life: reading.                -Devon M. (5 years teaching)

Like all Oakland teachers, I stay for the role I have the privilege to play in the lives of Oakland students – young people who are too often born into a reality they don’t deserve and who want to create a new reality of their own choosing. I stay for the privilege of working with incredibly talented, passionate, and supportive educators who inspire me to push through the challenges of this work. I stay for the excellent professional development I have received through programs like EDDA and the Teacher Leader Collaborative. I stay because Oakland kids are “hella” funny! I stay because in Oakland, there is no limit to how much I can grow and learn as a professional in this field.     -Lisa R. (5 years teaching)

The youth I serve are incredibly powerful, yet in a system that is inequitable, one that does not fully see them. I stay because I have a commitment to be an educator who uses my knowledge of the system to teach my students to know and access the tools they need, and to create a classroom that teaches the relevance of those tools while my students also experience the power of their stories and voices. The goal is that they experience their value, are self-empowered and equipped to use their voices for change.     -Maha N. (5 years teaching)

The kids are magical, and I get to create ambitious curriculum on their behalf. It’s not always easy, but it is always rewarding.     -Carlos C. (25 years teaching)

I stay teaching in Oakland for purely selfish reasons: I love my job! Working with Oakland students is both thoroughly fulfilling AND completely fun. It is a pleasure to take kids on a thrilling learning journey to a magical place of new knowledge.     -Christi C. (13 years teaching)

I love my co-workers and students. It never occurred to me to look for a new school or district because I feel at home in my position.     -Shelley G. (1 year teaching)

I stay teaching in Oakland because it it where good teachers are needed most. I never have to wonder if there’s someplace I would be helping out more. I’m from Oakland, so I’m not just “giving back”, I’m relating. Their issues are my issues.     -Marva M. (21 years teaching)

For these reasons, and so many more, we stay teaching in Oakland.

Why do YOU stay?