Young teachers: Talented, eager — and lost in the shuffle
Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, February 2, 2013 – Katrina Jacoway moved across the country in hopes of a stabler job market for teachers, but it wasn’t enough to guarantee her a spot in the classroom.
The Georgia native’s story is an example of the roller coaster many young teachers ride as they struggle to get established.
“You just don’t know,” Jacoway said of the ups and downs of her four years of teaching in three school districts in two states. “I always felt comfortable of my odds of being re-employed. I realize now how important it is to find the right district, the right fit.”
Nearly half of young teachers such as Jacoway leave the profession within five years because of low pay, job dissatisfaction and tight budgets, national data show. This upheaval strains school staff and can inhibit learning, especially among high-risk students.
It’s also expensive. National research estimates that teacher turnover costs U.S. schools as much as $4.9 billion a year. The economic downturn made the problem worse where tight state and local budgets forced administrators to lay off promising young teachers.
Jacoway started as a preschool instructor and soon decided she wanted a career as an educator. She earned her teaching license and taught a year at an Atlanta elementary school before budget cuts eliminated her position.
On the advice of a sister-in-law, she relocated to the Twin Cities in 2008 and went back to school to earn certification to teach special education. After 18 months at Edison High School in Minneapolis, her job again was cut.
Last summer, she was hired at Como Park High School in St. Paul. She hopes to finally put down some roots. The district has the strongest support program for first-year teachers Jacoway has experienced, and she says that will help her succeed.
“It genuinely feels like they want to help me become a better teacher,” she said. “That really makes a difference in how I approach the classroom and my lessons.”
Christine Osorio, executive director of curriculum, instruction and professional development for St. Paul Public Schools, said 11 mentor teachers on special assignment work closely with first-year teachers such as Jacoway. The mentoring program’s goals are to retain teachers and to ensure high-quality instruction in the classroom.
“We invest a lot in our new teachers, and we want to keep them,” Osorio said. “We also want to provide continuity in our classrooms and throughout the district.”
LOSING TOO MANY
Teachers’ departures force even small school districts to spend thousands of dollars on recruiting and training. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future estimates teacher turnover costs Chicago Public Schools $46 million a year.
Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies teacher supply and demand, said high turnover has created what he calls the “greening” of the profession.
“There is a ballooning of beginners,” Ingersoll said. “It has become a revolving door.”
It is unclear how having a growing number of inexperienced teachers in the classroom is affecting student achievement. This much is clear: Experience matters, especially in the early years.
“There certainly are a number of studies out there that show experience counts,” Ingersoll said.
High turnover has created the perception of a teacher shortage, Ingersoll said. While teachers in some subjects, like math and science, are in high demand, attrition plays a big role in the need.
“It’s not that we are producing too few — it’s that we lose too many,” he said.
New teachers’ reasons for leaving are consistent, Ingersoll said his research has found. They include low pay, poor working conditions and the lack of individual control.
“Giving teachers a voice in the school building, that is a management issue that can be changed without spending money,” he said.
Robust teacher induction programs like St. Paul’s have emerged as an effective way to train and keep promising young teachers. But these efforts also are vulnerable to financial shortfalls.
“We have a lot of research that mentoring and induction does make a difference,” Ingersoll said. “On the other hand, these things cost money and are often the first thing on the chopping block.”
Professional development and teacher-support programs across the metro have suffered during the economic downturn as administrators have been forced to cut spending.
Linda Madsen, superintendent of Forest Lake Area Schools, says the mentorship of new teachers is a priority in her district, but budget cuts have forced a nearly 75 percent reduction in staff dedicated to the effort.
“Through years of budget cuts, we have tried to maintain it the best we can,” Madsen said.
Some teacher-support programs work better than others.
In her first year as a Spanish teacher, Valene Beckman was assigned a mentor — a retired teacher who had never worked in her building. They had a hard time connecting.
“Mentorship programs can be good, but not if there is a to-do list so big that it stresses you out, and not if your mentor cannot relate to what you teach,” she said.
Like Jacoway, Beckman experienced employment uncertainties early in her career. She worked in four districts in four years before settling in Forest Lake. During that time, she found her co-workers to be her best resource.
“They never judged because they knew exactly what I was going through, and most of the time they had gone through it, too,” she said.
The team approach to teacher support has become an increasingly popular way of training teachers not just in their first years, but throughout their careers.
Nancy Allen-Mastro, superintendent in West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan schools, said her district is overhauling professional development to focus on a teacher’s entire career.
“If they stop growing, that’s when we begin to see teachers lose their edge,” Allen-Mastro said. The district will focus on individual support and small teams along with building- and district-level development.
“It a teacher is part of a network early on, they’ll know what it takes to become the teacher they want to be.”
Allen-Mastro believes that if teachers see a defined career track that includes support, they will be more likely to stick it out.
“I think we lose as many as we do because teachers work hard, but they don’t have the proper support and they feel like they are alone,” she said. “Teachers who work in isolation are not as effective as those who are part of a team.”
SO DOES A VOICE
For every young teacher struggling to hang onto a job, there’s one like Eric Nelson, who’s unsure whether he wants to stay in the classroom. Last year, he almost left teaching, but he decided to give it one more year.
“Not many things get me thinking about teaching 10 or 20 years from now and not feeling complacent,” he said.
Since Nelson started at North Lakes Academy Charter School in Forest Lake four years ago, his salary has been stagnant. He was picked to serve on the charter school’s governing board, but despite his leadership role he has a hard time seeing a long-term career in teaching.
“Everything I read about why teachers leave I can relate to,” Nelson said. “I think one of the reasons I come back is because my small school lets me have a voice.”
In order to get more young teachers to stay with the profession, Nelson says, they have to think they can make a difference. Constant testing and top-down mandates kill that sense of purpose, he said.
“I don’t know that more money is the answer, but a culture of empowerment and making school relevant,” he said. “In the long run, I feel there is potential. I don’t think I’d still be teaching if I hadn’t found it.”
SO DOES FUNDING
Statewide, about 30 percent of Minnesota’s teachers leave the profession within their first five years, according to a 2011 survey by the Minnesota Department of Education. That number is lower than the national rate but still means hundreds leave each year.
Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, is no stranger to teacher turnover. He spent his first three years as an educator working in three districts because of budget cuts.
“It’s tough. You have to be committed to get in there,” Dooher said. “It’s a drain on morale.”
The leader of the state’s largest union is hopeful that talk at the Capitol to increase and stabilize education funding will help solve the retention problem.
In the short term, an influx of cash could help districts replace some of the positions and programs they were forced to cut in recent years, he said. “If there is a more predictable and sustainable funding system, it could help to get rid of some of this ebb and flow.”
The long-term remedy, he said, is to return respect to the profession.
For that, Dooher is looking to the new teacher evaluation system developed by lawmakers, union members and administrators. The system of coaching and evaluations will help teachers improve and show their value, he said.
The system is an answer to a growing demand nationwide that teachers be held more accountable for student outcomes.
“When I’m talking about this with members, I’m telling them, ‘This is taking charge of your profession,’ ” Dooher said.
But in order for teacher evaluations to make a difference, he says, lawmakers must fully fund them.
“We support this law, and it is important to do. In states where it wasn’t funded it fell apart,” he said. “This evaluation thing could really lift up the profession and our students, or it could be a huge unfunded mandate that crushes our schools.”
For young teachers such as Jacoway, stepped-up retention efforts are a welcome change to the uncertainty they now face.
“It can feel uncomfortable not knowing for sure whether you will be back at school, especially if it’s a school that you like,” Jacoway said. “As a new teacher, you just want to be effective and have a positive impact on the students you teach, and in the end you hope that it is recognized by the district and principals.”