Jason Dougal is the president and COO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit education research, advocacy and professional learning organization. Ann Borthwick is the learning systems architect at NCEE.
Teaching is the lifeblood of schooling. Right now, though, teachers are exhausted, stretched and stressed — too many are looking for the exit.
With the right strategy we can not only re-energize current teachers, but remake the profession into one that isn’t just a stepping stone to a “better” position in education. Instead, we can make teaching the best job in the district. Until we do, we will not make any meaningful progress toward improving learning for children at scale.
More than 800,000 educators quit last year. A recent poll shows more than half of remaining teachers are planning an early exit from the role.
Reasons for quitting include pay, but they’re also about respect, opportunity and support. In response to this mass exodus, districts are resorting to piecemeal responses that may ease the immediate pain but will certainly not address the underlying causes of what’s harming our educators.
Clark County School District, which includes Las Vegas, is looking for more than 800 teachers. If school leaders don’t want to constantly have the “help wanted” sign up, then let’s make teachers want to stay.
Reducing burnout and keeping our best teachers in the classroom will take more than a few additional early release days and 1-2% raises in salary. We need to remake the teaching profession so that it’s the role educators strive for.
Many of the current incentives in public education actually push teachers out of teaching. If you want to earn more money, you have to leave the classroom. If you want to impact more students, you have to leave the classroom. If you want to have more autonomy, authority and respect, you have to leave the classroom.
Until we stop pushing our best, most ambitious educators out of the classroom, we will continue to waste time and money.
In the United States, hundreds of thousands of teachers are quitting. But there are models around the world in which talented candidates are lining up wanting to be teachers. We need to learn from those models.
At the National Center on Education and the Economy, we’ve spent more than 30 years studying systems of public education that are outperforming our schools. That list of countries is growing. And so too is the number of jurisdictions that are supporting excellent teaching, including Singapore, Shanghai, Ontario, Estonia, Hong Kong and Finland. It is no coincidence.
We’re learning from those examples and making our own right here in the U.S. Districts we partner with, in states from California to Pennsylvania and Mississippi, are giving their teachers more time to plan and collaborate.
Teachers recently told the Education Week Research Center that more time for planning and collaboration is exactly what they need to improve. More school leaders need to listen.
What if our teachers had their course load reduced and that extra time was spent focused on peer observation and debriefing, lesson planning, and action research with their colleagues?
Providing time within the normal workday for preparation, collaboration and the exchange of ideas among colleagues is a hallmark of professional work in other fields. Why then do we expect teachers, whose work is no less intellectually challenging, to prepare lessons in isolation and with virtually no time allotted to do so? This is a recipe for burnout, and teacher surveys from the past year back that up.
When schools create the space to unleash the learning capacity of their teaching staff, they improve student outcomes and teacher satisfaction. Instead, American teachers feel disrespected. Rather than a marketing campaign to boost respect, we need to improve their work environment so that it commands respect.
School districts should also adopt an apprentice model like those used in the most prestigious hospitals, law firms or consulting companies. If leaders designed schools as professional work environments, novice teachers would have the time to plan lessons with their mentor teachers, then deliver those lessons under their mentor’s watch and later debrief what each of them saw.
Teachers should be leading and driving professional learning because experienced educators are the ones best equipped to support the growth of their peers. Some teachers are both great instructors of their students and great facilitators of their colleagues’ learning. Those teachers need to be afforded the opportunity and time to design and implement learning opportunities for the rest of the teaching staff. Their classrooms then become showcases for other teachers to observe and learn from.
With so many teachers currently eying the exit, we must change the trajectory.
We cannot continue with a dominant career path that makes principal or administrator the primary target. We should make being the best teacher in the school the aim and incentivize teachers to bring colleagues along through professional learning. We should incentivize mentoring younger colleagues and make it so that respect is earned through practice, not the passage of time. Those are the things that will drive teachers to stay in the classroom.
In the same way that the pandemic amplified the gaps in student outcomes that already existed, it also magnified the systemic failures to recruit, prepare, retain and support high quality teachers. We have the opportunity to change all of that, but we’ll need to act boldly and we need to act now.