Keep Good Teachers Teaching

by Jeffrey Weld

If any issue could yield absolute consensus among school administrators, school board members, parents, students and indeed anyone interested in the quality of schools, it is to keep good teachers in the classroom.

By virtue of their excellence though, the best teachers often have options in administration or in private-sector fields. The result is an alarming rate of departure among exemplary educators for alternative careers outside the classroom.

One long-term study of 13,000 new teachers in Michigan revealed that only 56 percent were still teaching after six years. Moreover, by measure of National Teacher Exam scores, it was disproportionately the cream of the crop who had opted out.

The reasons good teachers leave the profession vary, but contrary to public perceptions, the decision seldom has to do with money. In a 1994 National Center for Educational Statistics survey of more than 11,000 former teachers, the leading reason for departures was a lack of control over how their school was run. A feeling of isolation from like-minded colleagues also was cited widely as were such factors as ineffectiveness of administrative disciplinary practices and general lack of administrative support. Only 10 percent considered poor salary as their No. 1 reason for dissatisfaction.

Research Opportunities

The findings of such studies can be used by school leaders to seek ways of curbing attrition among the best and brightest classroom professionals. The interventions to reverse the losses involve improving the professionalism of teaching by shifting influence and ownership of the learning environment to those in the trenches.

Task one is to empower the faculty as researchers into the nature of learning within their area of expertise. This means encouraging action research to build pedagogical knowledge specifically customized to a teacher’s own setting. The results of such research can be shared in a dynamic in-service setting led by teachers for their colleagues.

Compared to the traditional model of training—an outside expert delivering a monologue to reluctant and cynical attendees—action research conveys an expectation of professional growth and collegiality. Teachers who conduct research report a greater sense of fulfillment and satisfaction with their jobs.

Professional Networking

Isolation from a community of professional peers within one's own discipline is a particularly acute issue for teachers who represent the entire biology or foreign language department in a small school. But any educator interested in staying abreast in the content or pedagogy of their discipline and in intellectual discourse on these issues with like-minded colleagues, inevitably suffers a sense of isolation. A study conducted by the National Science Teachers Association in 1994 found more than 90 percent of science teachers feel isolated from professional peers.

Task two, then, is to take advantage of opportunities for teachers to share questions and answers regarding their disciplines with others in their fields. The unparalleled growth in communication resulting from Internet connections in schools now makes it easy to clear these barriers.

Professional organizations, such as Phi Delta Kappa, provide websites to inform and dialogue with teachers.

Moreover, subject-specific opportunities for Internet exchange are proliferating. In science, for example, forums exist that enable teachers to exchange labs, conduct interstate collaborations and participate in on-line seminars owing to electronic organizations like LabNet and Access Excellence. The only limit to the possibilities for teachers seeking an electronic venue of camaraderie is a matter of phone lines and modems.

The sorts of teachers these remedies seek to retain are just the kind of professionals sought after in business and industry: they're problem solvers and questioners of the status quo; they're imaginative and highly motivated. They are exactly the educators who need to be empowered for schools to grow with the high expectations of an education-focused society.

When teachers turn their reflective sights on the school milieu, that presents an opportunity for improvement. The role of the administrator therefore must become one of facilitator and leader, where the collective energy of an empowered professional faculty guides the school. Teachers who know their profession, who have influence on school policy, who are well informed and who turn ideas into realities for the improvement of the school find teaching to be a challenging and rewarding profession.

Jeffrey Weld, formerly a high school science teacher, is an instructor in the departments of education and science at Central College in Pella, Iowa, and a doctoral candidate in science education at University of Iowa, 450 VanAllen Hall, Iowa City, Iowa 52242. E-mail: