A few weeks ago, I received some of the hardest professional news I have ever received in my 12-year teaching career. I have been away from my school this year completing a fellowship program in Washington, D.C., and I’ve tried to stay connected to my colleagues at home about the day-to-day highs and lows of the school year. I’ve received many long emails detailing frustrations and celebrating accomplishments, but none have had a deeper impact than a simple, two-word text message, “He’s leaving.”
“He” is a long-time teaching colleague, and the “leaving” is to take a new professional direction at the end of this school year. As anyone in teaching knows, leaving isn’t exactly unheard of in this profession. A recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that nearly 20 percent of new teachers leave the profession within four years, and this isn’t the first time I have had a colleague leave. However, no other departure has made an impact on me like this one.
My strong reaction to my colleague’s decision is the result of what I know about the individual teacher and school community combined with what I now know about teacher retention nationally. I have worked with this teacher for nearly a decade. We have shared lesson ideas, lunches and even classroom space. I have frequently turned to him as a thought partner to tackle the really tough issues in education, and he is one of the finest educators I have ever seen in the classroom.
He makes history come alive and challenges students to use thorny, hard fought lessons from the past to make sense of their present and chart their future. He also happens to be an African-American male, a group of professionals that we have far too few of in our schools even as research is showing their unique positive impact on student achievement. As an athletic coach, I have seen my colleague teach young men how to grow up; what to expect from themselves and how to treat others. In short, he meets my highest standard—he is exactly the type of teacher I want for my daughters every year.
What Are We Doing to Stop Teachers From Leaving
The reasons great teachers leave the profession has received a lot of attention in recent years, in part due to such a steady stream of publicly shared resignations that they have become a focus of academic study.
What this research reveals is consistent with my anecdotal experience, showing that the resignations “have little to do with the reasons most frequently touted by education reformers, such as pay or student behavior. Rather, teachers are leaving largely because oppressive policies and practices are affecting their working conditions and beliefs about themselves and education.”
Now, granted, I know this is just one study of just one communications device, and I know there are other factors to consider. I’ve read through studies about why teachers leave the profession with great interest, but the resignation of my colleague has hit me so hard that I’ve found myself focused more on what we are doing to stop the exodus of talent from the profession.
We are certainly trying something, as evidenced by the more than $2 billion dollars we spend as a nation on costs related to teacher turnover. It is possible to look at these efforts and think we are “doing the best we can,” but this situation hits home in a unique way for me because we’re talking about a great teacher, in my school, who I know makes a difference for students.
This is why I have decided that the mindset of, “I’m doing the best I can” is something I have to remove from my professional practice, and I would argue stakeholders across our education system should do the same. I understand, “I’m doing the best I can.” There have been other moments in my teaching career where I have found myself saying it when I have felt like I have given my absolute all to a task and the final results, while imperfect, seemed beyond my control. While, “I did the best I could,” never changed the outcome, it did give a measure of peace about hard realities.
However, my colleague’s resignation makes me realize that it is dangerous to settle for “doing the best I could,” because, in this instance that measure of peace came at the cost of outcomes that are far from optimal for students.
As a society—with dramatic teacher shortages in key areas across the country and reduced applications for teacher preparation—we can’t afford to adopt any mindset that gives us even a measure of peace about the loss of a great teacher. There are simply too many places in this country where teachers lack the supports they need to grow and thrive and stay.
So as a teacher, if a student is struggling in my class, I am committing to refuse falling into the peaceful lull of “doing the best I can.” I hope my school system leaders begin to realize that if our best teachers are leaving the profession that they must reject settling for “doing their best” and reach for new ways to keep great talent. And if broader policies are getting in the way of or failing to deliver what every student needs—an intellectually challenged and challenging teacher—then policymakers and other education stakeholders must break out of their ideological silos and refuse to accept, “Oh well, we did the best the we could,” as an answer.
Maya Angelou once shared this advice: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” We all “know better” when we look at the trends around teacher retention. Now, we must do better.