Stopping the Revolving Door
Last semester I had the pleasure of
working with a truly gifted pre-service teacher. She knows her subject
(physics) inside and out, spent untold hours preparing for her classes,
and, in the words of my department chairman, is "a natural born teacher." A
visitor to her classroom could immediately sense her love of physics
and the joy she derives from sharing her knowledge with others. Equally
apparent were her students' involvement in and enjoyment of the learning
process. Therefore I didn't find it surprising when she received offers
from some of the Chicago area's top school districts. Needless to say,
I am very happy for her and the students she will teach. However, I
do have one concern: will she remain in the classroom?
According to the National Center for Education Statistics' Schools
and Staffing Survey, there is roughly a one in three chance that a
beginning K-12 teacher will leave the profession within three years;
39% leave teaching after five years. And of course, some new teachers
barely make it through the first semester. This
was the fate of Joseph Reynolds, an attorney who decided to leave law
for teaching. According to an op-ed piece he prepared for the March
27 issue of USA Today, Reynolds, like many of us, was attracted
to teaching by fond memories of teachers who had a profound and lasting
influence on him. So after 25 years as a successful lawyer, he chucked
it all to become a high school teacher. However, at the end of the
first semester he decided to return to his law practice.
Although low pay is often cited as a factor in a new teacher's decision
to leave the profession, it isn't the only reason for teacher turnover.
Money certainly didn't play a role in Reynolds's early departure. So
why did he leave the classroom?
In a recent report by Susan Moore Johnson, et al. in the Harvard Education
Letter- Research Online, the lack of support by colleagues and administration
is one of the principal reasons for early exodus. Frequently given
the most challenging assignments with very little assistance, beginning
teachers feel overwhelmed and adrift. More often than not, these neophytes
find that's there no where to turn for either succor or solace. With
the rewards for their efforts being frustration and a sense of failure,
it's no wonder that these recent inductees head for greener pastures.
Based on Reynolds's anecdotal evidence and the findings of Johnson
and other educational researchers, it seems clear that if our schools
are to keep good teachers they must find ways to address their needs.
One solution: our schools and professional education organizations
could get serious about implementing and supporting mentoring programs
through which the experience and wisdom of seasoned professionals can
be passed on to the next generation of teachers. A survey of the literature
addressing teacher retention reveals support for this point of view.
Perhaps the strongest statement I've encountered comes from the Southern
Regional Education Board. In their Reduce Your Losses: Help New
Teachers Become Veteran Teachers, they conclude: "Quality mentoring
and induction programs are the greatest tools that states can give
At first blush, it would seem that the new teacher is the only beneficiary
of the mentoring. However, according to Johnson, "both novices and
veterans benefit from frequent and meaningful interactions with colleagues.
Therefore, the benefits of these school-based efforts are not limited
to novice teacher induction, for they provide renewal for experienced
teachers and the foundation for school-wide improvement."
The support of mentoring programs for both new teachers and individuals
teaching outside their area of expertise must be a priority of stakeholders
in education at every level. We must become as concerned about retaining
teachers as we are about recruiting them. Then, and only then, will
we put a lock on what University of Pennsylvania's Richard Ingersoll
refers to as the "revolving door of teacher turnover."
Christopher Chiaverina, who has been a high school physics teacher
for 34 years, is currently serving as President of AAPT. This editorial,
which appeared as the President's Report in the Summer 2002 issue
of the AAPT Announcer, is reprinted by permission.