Sunday, October 25, 2015

Catch and Unintended Release: Utah's Challenge of Teacher Retention

Utah STOY's: Riddle '14, Beck '11,  Gallagher-Fishbaugh, '09,  VandenAkker, '12

Utah teachers are hard-working, innovative, and among the most dedicated professionals in the nation. Like many other states, however, Utah now finds itself facing a teacher shortage. While our economy continues to grow, our teacher pool is shrinking. It seems even though our administrators may make a strong cast, the best and brightest teachers are slipping from their grasp, released into the stream of alternate occupations.

Representative Carol Moss - former teacher
What is it then, that discourages our most capable teachers from continuing their careers in education? As our Utah policy makers prepare for the 2016 session, I am hopeful their legislative efforts are aimed at improving these critical issues for new teachers:

1 - Lack of Support - Our newest teachers are lucky to have a trained mentor on site; most schools have no comprehensive induction program which includes embedded professional learning opportunities. The 'nice' teacher down the hall who visits before or after school is often not an experienced mentor or coach. New teachers are left isolated, instructional performance plateaus, and teachers with the greatest potential leave out of frustration.

2- Large Class Size - Utah boasts the largest class size in the nation. In some schools even kindergarten classes are as high as 30, and many core classes in secondary schools endure enrollments of over 40. High numbers are especially challenging to new teachers in terms of classroom management, perhaps the most difficult instructional technique to master.  And like their seasoned colleagues, new teachers find it nearly impossible to give the average achieving students - those without special needs or exceptional abilities - the time and attention that would help them soar.

3- Few Teacher Leadership Positions - Ironically, teachers with the greatest abilities to impact student learning are drawn away from the classroom by the same interest that drew them there in the first place. Utah's schools have very few positions of distributed leadership, and many leave the classroom for positions of coaching, consulting, or curriculum leadership on a district level. The lack of formal hybrid mentoring positions in our schools often prohibits us from retaining strong teacher leaders who are eager to share pedagogical strategies with others while staying in the classroom.

4- Disproportionate Focus on Assessment - Heightened standards have shifted instructional focus to mastery of tested content. Novice teachers are often not prepared for the data analysis required to improve test scores. This increased accountability has also weakened emphasis of the arts, history, physical education, and character education. Many early educators leave the classroom disenchanted by the pressure of student test performance - tests that don't measure emotional growth, grit, perseverance, empathy, and other critical life skills.

5- Under Appreciated Role - Perhaps the most frustrating and yes, surprising reality for a new teacher is the lack of respect and voice given to educators in our state.  Many teachers I have mentored have expressed their disappointment in the attitudes of parents, policy makers, and community members. Layering expectations of paperwork, changing curriculum, behavioral challenges, and testing accountability are intensified by the seeming lack of support in a state whose economy is strengthened by the work these teachers do. Increasing pay is one obvious remedy, but pay alone will not keep new teachers in this profession.

Utah must develop structures that will attract, support, and retain excellent teachers!

Governor Gary Herbert
As a member of Governor Herbert's Education Excellence Commission, I am fortunate to discuss these issues each month with Utah's business leaders, policy makers, and education experts. I am encouraged by the Commission's work and the Governor's understanding that a strong education system has a great impact on Utah's economy. I am concerned, however, by the lack of teacher voice in the problem solving process.

As an awarded teacher leader with 28 years of experience in Utah's classrooms, I have two suggestions:

  • To Utah's teachers: Take the time to share your stories with your elected representatives. 
  • To Utah's Legislators, State Board members and State Office leaders:  As you focus your efforts on teacher retention, I ask you to carefully consider Governor Herbert's recent observation:       
"We need to listen to the teachers and give them the respect and appreciation they have earned."

Well said, Governor.

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