We are halfway through the summer! How is that even possible? With the 2019-2020 school year looming closer, I have been wondering: are most public ed teachers looking forward to their return to the classroom or dreading it? In the case of accomplished, first-grade teacher, Michelle Maile, she is not coming back at all. Ms. Maile announced last month via Facebook, “I just closed the door to my beloved first-grade classroom, walked to the office and turned in my keys. No, it’s not just for the summer. I’m not coming back.” Her post went viral as tens of thousands of people connected with her feelings about public education.
In her resignation, Ms. Maile voiced what so many educators often do not – how incredibly difficult this work is. I get it. We get it. I was a classroom teacher and a guidance counselor, having dedicated the entirety of my career thus far to Title I schools nationwide because I’ve long felt compelled to reach underprivileged learners. Like her, I’m also a mother. With each year in public education, I feel more confident in my professional abilities, yet stretched more thinly by the challenges and demands of our field. Even as the expectations for teachers grow harder and harder to meet, I find myself still personally burdened with the deeper question, “Am I really making a difference?” Like so many other educators, this is the question that plays on repeat in my head.
Teacher Retention is a Problem (and a Costly One at That!)
Teacher retention is a problem; that is no surprise to most public educators. Yet, few realize just how costly of an issue it is. Shannon K. Buerk, CEO and founder of engage2learn (e2L), details this employment epidemic in Fixing the Leaky Pipeline: How to Retain Teachers Through Talent Transformation.
Did you know that every new hire costs a public school district anywhere from $5K – $20K?
Rather than addressing our national teacher shortage by supplying more teachers into the pipeline, what if we did something to retain those already in place, such as Ms. Maile? What if she (and all educators) felt more professionally supported?
Each point that Ms. Maile raised is valid and worthy of being addressed, but she had me at Class Size and Respect! I was once in her shoes. Yes, I, too, stepped away from the classroom for many of the same reasons. But after several, irreplaceable years at home with my three kiddos, I returned. And I hope others like Ms. Maile will too. Public education needs passionate teachers like her to use their talent and voice to help shape a better tomorrow. Visionary educators are what all of us wish for our own children. Hear me out:
What She Said!
1. Class Sizes are Too Big
Ms. Maile is 100% right: large class sizes continue to pervade public education. She is also correct that a cap of roughly 22-25 students per class should never be breached, especially with young learners, but it continues to happen in districts of all sizes. In fact, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) launched a study to evaluate the implications of smaller class size; their findings unanimously support Ms. Maile’s claims, and what all of us with classroom experience, know to be true:
- Small classes in the early grades generate substantial gains for students in a variety of academic disciplines.
- Students retain these gains in later years.
- Gains are greater for students who have traditionally been disadvantaged in education.
But that groundbreaking study was over a decade ago, and it was merely a follow-up from the STAR study of the 1980s, which proved smaller class sizes equate to nearly THREE MONTHS of additional schooling for primary students. So what gives?
The NEA Education Policy and Practice Department does recognize this shortcoming and has taken a firm stance on the class size legislation debate, recommending no more than 15 students per public education classroom and an even tighter ratio for students with exceptional needs. Presently, however, it is up to individual school districts and campuses to monitor and report their enrollment numbers, while states maintain their own authority to dictate class size.
So what is a classroom teacher or district leader to do?
For starters, get your voice heard where it matters. In Texas, public educators are engaging in #TxEdChat every Tuesday on social media for topics such as these and tagging their legislators. Others are discussing it amongst their Professional Learning Communities and ensuring it is on the agenda for monthly school board meetings. North Carolina is presently leading the charge for class size reduction through the recent passing of House Bill 90, which enacts class size reduction into law over the next three years for grades K -3! While this is just a start, Ms. Maile’s concerns are well-founded: class size needs to be addressed…and soon. It is up to us, the boots on the ground, to keep pounding that drum.
2. Teachers Do Not Feel Respected by Their Districts
Ms. Maile, if you happen to read this, I get you! No educator, especially a classroom teacher, should ever feel disrespected by the very people entrusting him or her with their community’s learners. Can you imagine if public education were run like a corporation – a corporation with nearly every employee being highly educated, both with earned degrees and contemporary pedagogy, that is? It’d easily be a Fortune 500 company!
In my experience, holding two Master’s level degrees and multiple certifications haven’t helped me stand out among my peers. Highly educated educators are simply the norm for our field, but it’s a tragedy that it doesn’t garner better trust from those in leadership positions.
The salary of an American teacher ranks sixth worldwide, behind such European countries as Switzerland, Germany, and Luxembourg where the average high school teacher is paid a whopping $79,129 annually. This one goes without saying: teachers are underpaid. Period. But I feel that Ms. Maile alludes to the fact that – for all of us in public education – our work is about more than just financial compensation. On top of our academic credentials, classroom teachers must be experts on their students and their preferred learning styles, social-emotional development, and family dynamics which encompass each learner’s unique needs.
As a military spouse, I have had the privilege of working across multiple states and in numerous school districts. That experience (along with the honor of being a part of e2L) has opened my eyes to the visionary leaders out there who are working tirelessly to ensure that this very thing – the feeling of disrespect that Ms. Maileexpressed – doesn’t happen to anyone…ever.
Take Mesquite ISD, for example. In 2015, they created a literacy framework with job-embedded coaching for all PK-2nd-grade teachers. They also instituted an optional professional learning program on par with a Master’s level education that rewards teachers financially for remaining in the classroom. In fact, some Mesquite ISD teachers now earn more than their campus administrators! Just two years after launching these teacher-focused initiatives, 95% of staff responded that the district supported their professional learning needs, and 89% felt the district had a culture that maximized human capital. You can learn more about Mesquite ISD’s program in Innovation and Coaching: The Keys to Successful Literacy and Life Ready Skills, but the result was more than student achievement alone; it was teacher happiness.
“This type of model results in teachers working harder, but they’re happier because they’re being treated as professionals. They’re being respected as people who are quite capable of taking students to great heights in their education,” said Dr. David Vroonland, Mesquite ISD Superintendent.
There is Hope…through Coaching!
Having worked with over 200 public school districts over the past seven years, e2L and it’s fearless leader, Shannon K. Buerk, understand that each community has its own set of unique challenges and opportunities. As their change management partner, we have had the honor of facilitating each community coming together in agreement for a local vision for their learners. Furthermore, those districts have implemented job-embedded coaching to ensure that local vision reaches every learner in every classroom by investing in the lifeblood of the public school district – you, the teachers.
Did you know that teacher coaching has the greatest effect on student achievement, more than nearly all other school initiatives including merit-based pay, professional development, data-driven instruction, and extending learning time, according to a recent study from Brown University? The implications are best described by Mrs. Buerk below:
“Leaders have increased teacher retention through effective coaching and innovative working conditions that provide autonomy, mastery, and purpose. They have invested in personalized coaching, which supports educators to work on their craft to mastery utilizing the most effective tool for professional growth: job-embedded coaching.”
I cannot help but wonder if Ms. Maile’s circumstances would’ve been different had she felt valued by her school district in this way. Sadly, her story is not unique, as quality teachers are walking away from public education in droves – their reasons becoming viral sensations because of the empathy they evoke from fellow educators, such as myself. Just last month, this Nashville Metro teacher shared hers with Good Morning America. It sounds familiar, right? So I pose to you: if the educational leaders on your campus and in your district invested in you, would you stay?
I just closed the door to my beloved first grade classroom, walked to the office and turned in my keys. No, it’s not…