FEd Fall 2002 Newsletter - Stopping the Revolving Door

Fall 2002



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Stopping the Revolving Door

Christopher Chiaverina

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 new teachers."

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.