The Underappreciate and Unresolved Problem of Teacher Retention

The New York Times recently profiled what’s going on in education in Baltimore.

(P.S.  As part of their analysis, they visited Green Street Academy, where my girlfriend and former roommate teach.)

A Mission to Transform Baltimore’s Beaten Schools

My thoughts:

It’s an interesting piece. I most people agree that Alonso has had a
very positive impact, with respect to what had gone on in the city prior
to his arrival. He’s ruffled a lot of feathers, but overall, he’s been
much more successful navigating the politics and gathering consensus for
the sweeping changes he makes than Michelle Rhee was in DC.

One thing that caught my eye was how they mentioned that old black
educators are getting pushed into retirement. I think the author missed
something there. I don’t think it’s just old black teachers that are
getting pushed into retirement, I think everyone is getting pushed into
retirement. The system has become very high-stakes, and there is
immense amount of pressure to perform. In my experience, teaching was a
60-100+ hour per week job, and I still wasn’t able to actually
accomplish all the work I was technically supposed to be doing.

As a result, there is massive teacher turnover in City schools. Teach
For America gets a bad rep as a program that produces teachers for two
years who then leave the district they were placed in to do something
else. This isn’t precisely true, because many TFA teachers stay for
several years beyond that, although I’m sure the vast majority leave
within five. But I think if you look at the population non-TFA teachers
within the same schools TFA places teachers, you would see almost the
same statistic. You’ve got a diminishing group of older veterans, a
constantly flowing group of new teachers, and not a whole lot of
classroom teachers in their 30’s and 40’s.

I think a fundamental problem with education is that the general public
has no idea how intense the job of K-12 teaching in a low-income,
high-pressure setting is. I have friends who have left teaching for law
school, business school, banking, engineering, and just about every
other job under the sun, and for 90% of them, it’s not because the money
wasn’t good enough in teaching in the city. With little exception, they
are happier and less stressed out after leaving teaching. Yet, to the
general public, teachers are a bunch of bums that couldn’t get real jobs
and have too much vacation time.

Unfortunately, this means that rather than building a solid, experienced
teacher corps, new teachers constantly have to be trained from scratch.
Many K-12 educators say that it takes about 5 years for a teacher to
really approach peak effectiveness, but few people reach that level in
inner city schools.

Yet, I don’t hear a lot of talk about the retention problem directly.
The closest people usually come to talk about retention issues is when
talking about compensation and the currently fashionable movement toward
of merit pay. And although on the face of it, paying teachers more
seems like a worthwhile idea, I don’t think it’s the answer. I think
it’s going to provide a moderate bump in recruitment, but that it will
make little to no difference in retention. I think this because of all
the people I know who left teaching, not one of them left because of the
pay. At least in Baltimore, teachers actually do get paid reasonably
well, compared to the cost of living. People leave because it’s just
too intense for the vast majority of even the elite group TFA recruits.

The current direction is to try to recruit, train, and retain a corps of
highly paid superhumans who can actually handle the job stress. I think
the real answer is to find ways to split the jobs of classroom teachers
and administrators so that they can be taken on by teams of normal
people, who can pool their talents together–even if it means they don’t
get as much. Until the expectations of the job become more reasonable,
poor retention is always going to be a major impediment to any
meaningful improvement in K-12 education.

Teach: Tony Danza

If you have the chance, check out the series Teach: Tony Danza on A&E.  To sum it up, last school year, Tony Danza decided to teach English at Northeast High School in Philly.  I’m not sure it’s quite comparable to the TFA experience–he only teaches one class period per day and he has a mentor teacher in his room at all times.  Also, his school is in the city, and I could be wrong, but Northeast appears to be a bit nicer than most where TFA teachers are placed.  But, generally, it does capture the experience.  He does all of his planning, and his mentor teacher simply observes.

It’s incredible that as much as Tony Danza must be used to performing for people, he’s actually quite awkward in the first couple of episodes in front of the children.  But it’s also really endearing to see how much Tony cares and how hard he tries.  He really goes out of his way to connect with the kids on a personal level, and he puts himself out there, even though he knows the kids think he’s foolish.  In a lot of ways, I wish I had been capable of lowering my guard while I was in the classroom.

And although Tony is extremely enthusiastic about education, you can see how hard teaching is for him.  He makes tons of rookie mistakes, and he’s really hard on himself, as all good teachers are.  He gets visibly worn down by the workload and frustrated by the red tape.  He gets bogged down with extraneous requests.  At one point, another teacher questions his commitment to teaching, asking if he just wanted to know what it’s like, or if he really wants to teach.  Tony clearly loves the idea of teaching, but he responds that he’s not sure if he could do another year.

I’ve said it a million times, but I think something is wrong with teaching as a profession.  Obviously, there’s no career that you can just walk into and be an expert.  But there are very few other professions where that’s exactly what is expected of you.  Our schools will never be able to retain talent as long as they keep chewing it up and spitting it out.  I don’t care how you incentivize it.

My hat is off to Tony Danza though.  The guy is almost 60, and I’m sure he’s got it made financially.  Yet, he volunteered for one of the toughest jobs in this country, and he does his best, with plenty of enthusiasm.  Check this show out, so far, it’s one of the best I’ve seen on TV in a while.

Some Historical Perspective

I went down to Georgia this past weekend for a family reunion that included a lot of family history.  Interestingly enough, much of it had connections to my experience teaching.  I’ve often felt that teaching must be harder now than it was in the past, because my experience was so brutal.  Well that might be true of the recent past, but there was a time not so long ago when things were far more difficult in many ways.

As part of our tour of the historical archives of a town in Georgia that is the historical home of much of my family, we learned about the school that blacks attended in the area from the end of slavery until the end of segregation.  School for blacks was held in a one room school house and education from 1st to 7th grade was provided simultaneously by a single teacher.  The only supplies provided to the school from the county were hand-me-down books and a single chair, for the teacher’s use.  Education ended at 7th grade, at which point, kids were big enough to go pick cotton.  There was no option for high school, let alone higher education.  And yet, some of my ancestors did manage to attend historically black colleges.

While the proprietor of the archive spoke, relatives of mine nodded their heads in affirmation and mentioned their own memories.  Obviously, all of this is old news to anyone who has ever taken a class on US history, but hearing about it from people who actually lived through those times made me really think about it.  Reflecting on the fact that there are still people alive today who were educated in these completely unequal conditions, it made me think, of course we’re still struggling with the education gap, you just can’t fix the effects of systematic discrimination overnight.  We learn a lot from our teachers, but we also take in a unquantifiable amount of information from our families and our societies.  How much of a disadvantage is it to a child to be raised by parents who never had the opportunity to go to high school at all, let alone a good high school or college?  How much is that disadvantage compounded when it’s the norm for an entire community?  We’re only a few generations past segregation.

I think that what makes education so difficult today is that we are finally starting to take the challenge of educating these urban kids seriously.  It has only been within the past 10 years that No Child Left Behind forced educational standards upon every school in the country.  Until then, kids were graduating from inner city schools, but it was a lot easier to pretend that they were actually getting an equal education.  I wonder how long it will take for the country to realize that “equal” will not be achieved until “separate” is done away with.  In the meantime, I think teachers face a different sort of difficulty than they did during segregation.  Then, there were no resources, but I doubt there was much in the way of standards and scrutiny either.  Now, teachers have a lot more resources, but also the pressure of working under a magnifying glass.

The Cycle Continues

As I am no longer a teacher, I will no longer be fueled by as many ideas or experiences, and, I imagine, my impressions of inner-city education will become decreasingly current.  So, I probably won’t be writing much more on here, besides the occasional commentary.  In a moment of boredom, I took a peak at, a website that provides blogs, and although it is for obvious reasons, it did strike to see on the front pages a whole new set of users with recent posts.  The changing of the guard has occurred.

Sadly, because I was packing for vacation, I missed the opportunity to go to the welcoming reception for the incoming 2010 Baltimore corps members a couple weeks back.  As much as I would have liked to be there to see what the next generation of TFA people looks like, I didn’t really feel all that bad missing out.  It’s weird, but just a handful of days after the end of the school year, a sort of separateness from TFA has settled not just on me, but on pretty much everyone I know from my corps.  People (including one of my roommates) have already relocated to other cities.  Just a year ago, we did our best to prepare the 2009 corps for what they would encounter in the placement process, Institute, and the first year of teaching.  Now most of us have left the picture, and they are the seasoned veterans (of one year!), carrying the mantle of the Baltimore Corps.  We taught them what it meant to be part of the B’more Hard Corps, just like the 2007 corps taught us.

And to extend that thread of moving on, the process doesn’t seem to be limited to corps members.  There’s also a constant shuffling amongst the regional staff.  Besides a couple people who become institutions for a few years at a time, most people are in and out.  This year, our executive director, who is a long time Baltimore institution, is moving on up to join the national leadership staff.
I guess it’s just the nature of things.  And of course I can’t fling blame around, because I’m making moves too.  It’s probably all just part of the overall trend in our society of rapid movement between jobs and careers.  Still, there’s something about all this churn that just seems too rapid, too frantic, and too brutal.  You approach the machine with good intentions, and it chews you up for two years and spits you out.  How many people have the stones to linger in a system like ours in Baltimore?  My girlfriend does, but most of us don’t.  Even of the people from my 2008 corps that decided to stay in education, most either change schools or they are proceeding tentatively, eying future prospects outside of the classroom.  Simply put, teaching is a difficult job and I don’t think it’s a job that nurtures new talent and rewards people for sticking around long enough to be really good at it.

Missing the reception was just symbolic of the fact that I’m no longer part of the current Baltimore Corps.  I’m one of the mostly nameless, faceless conglomerate of Alumni, that abstract group of people that supposedly went through the madness of teaching in Baltimore in some distant, irrelevant past.  One of my roommates had a close friend from high school end up in the 2009 corps.  I remember my roommate telling me last year that although he was excited about reconnecting with his friend, he had very mixed feelings.  He couldn’t shake the feeling that he wouldn’t wish upon his good friend the abuse he had endured during his first year of teaching.  In many ways, I feel similarly toward the 2010’s.

I would never say that the TFA experience is on par with serving in the military in wartime, but I think there are parallels.  I put any job where someone’s immediate survival is at stake on a tier of its own in terms of difficulty and stress.  But inner city teaching–and, by extension, the TFA experience–have to be near the top of that next tier.  At this very moment, the 2010’s are about a week into Institute, experiencing their first hours in front of real students.  It almost gives me chills to think about it.  There’s no way they can possibly imagine the highs and lows they are about to experience.  God bless them.

More thoughts

Inspired by my own writing, I’ve been thinking about my last post for a couple days now, and I want to continue that line of thought.  First of all, despite my criticisms, I am very proud of the progress my students made.  They may not be where they should be, but many of them come such a long way.  I’m so critical though because as far as they have come, it’s not nearly enough.  The children didn’t create the problems of their communities and schools, but unfortunately it’s up to them to make very mature decisions to break the cycle of poor education and poverty.  Although I believe people need to be responsible for themselves, I don’t believe the culture of non-achievement was created by inner-city residents alone.  The society outside the city has always played a major role.   The problems we fight now are the result of centuries of unequal treatment that persist even until today.

Even though I said the root of the problem is cultural, I think that the more fundamental issue that drives these cultural issues is concentrated poverty.  Most of my students, regardless of where they were born, live in areas that are overwhelmingly poor.  Behaviors and events that would be extremely exceptional in most communities are commonplace in places like Baltimore, because of concentrated poverty.  There’s is pretty obvious connection between poverty, low education, reduced opportunities, crime, and social dysfunction.  I believe the real first step to narrowing the achievement gap is to integrate the schools and communities.  The problem is, most Americans don’t want their kids exposed to the harsh realities of poverty, so I don’t know if I ever expect aggressive integration to occur.  The sad truth is that we all want help poor people, as long as they are “over there”, not actually living in our communities.

So, until people realize that we need a new round of integration, I think the next best strategy is to attack this negative culture that thrives and propagates in poor areas.  This is analogous to managing the symptoms of a disease when you can’t cure the root cause.  I don’t know if it’s a battle that can be won on a large scale, but it certainly needs to be fought.

What I’ve Learned About Education

Today is my final day at Hopkins, attending the last lecture of the last class I need to complete the requirements for my teaching certificate.  I’m forking over about $1600 for this class so I can get a piece of paper that I likely will never use.  But it seems like I should have something tangible to represent the amount of experience and formal education I accumulated these past two years.  Anyhow, my professor, who is awesome, is pretty lax about computer usage in her class, so I spent much of my class time composing this entry.

I’m going to get a little controversial today, but sometimes there’s a need to have unpleasant discussions.  I’ve tried to be careful in the phrasing I use, but I’m sure I have left room for things written here to be interpreted in ways that I don’t mean them.  If you think I could be more clear about what I mean to say and what I don’t mean to say, please let me know.

I truly believe that the problems of education in the inner-city are essentially cultural in nature, and that’s all it comes down to.   I say this because of the huge difference in performance between kids that were born and raised in Baltimore, kids that moved to Baltimore later in life, and foreign-born children who end up in Baltimore.  I firmly believe that kids in Baltimore have the same inherent intelligence as kids anywhere, excepting for the handful that suffer from lead poisoning (yeah, lead poisoning, in the 21st century, insane, right?), so something must explain the differences in achievement.

I have taught foreign students that have come to the US not speaking a lick of English and seen them make unbelievable progress.  I have also taught foreign students who have started out strong and then stalled.  Without exception, my foreign-born students have been extremely respectful and hard working upon arrival at the school, but they mature in different ways.  The difference seems to be in how much the student assimilated into the “Baltimore culture”.

Let me be clear about this, when I say “Baltimore culture”, I’m not talking about any kids in and of themselves, I’m talking about the beliefs and behaviors many of them exhibit.  Let me start by saying there are positive aspects of the Baltimore culture.  Chief in my mind is that most of my Baltimore students seem to be extremely gregarious and socially aware. But from my observations, regardless of race, the  negative aspects that describe the dominant Baltimore culture  are anti-intellectual, overly interested in attention to self,  negligent of long-term planning,  looking to slip by with minimal effort, disinterested in exceeding expectations, and demanding of instant gratification.  In many ways, I think the Baltimore culture imitates the culture of our society as a whole, just on steroids.  I’d sum it up by describing it as a culture of entitlement, to the extreme.  And it seems to be infectious.  When kids move in from outside the city, it seems like it’s usually only a matter of time before they start exhibiting those traits.

I strongly believe that there is nothing innate about those negative aspects of the culture;  they are taught and learned, just like algebra.  There are people who subscribe to these culture values everywhere, but in most places, the level that we see most of these behaviors would be considered extreme.  Here, it is the norm, and academic success and jail are the extremes.  I can try to explain to the kids that what goes on in Baltimore would be considered absurd where I grew up, but to kids who grew up only here, what they see is just reality.  The newcomers tend to fall in line either because they want to fit in or because it looks like fun.  The bravest of them choose to retain outsider values and remain on the fringe of the school social environment.  And to be fair, I do teach the occasional Baltimore-raised student that has managed through excellent parenting and good choices to remain out of the fray, but I can only think of a couple examples.

As educators, to me the only cures to this cultural issue are:

a) getting all kids out of this toxic environment (by busing or  boarding school)

b) diluting the environment by integrating the schools, or

c) changing the city’s culture, starting with the school building.

The first two options involve major taxpayer expense and force the successful schools to have to deal with low-income children (gasp!), so they are likely to never be implemented on a large scale.  The problem with the last option is that, for many of the kids, all the work we do in school to promote positve culture is systematically undone when dismissal bell rings, especially that last bell that starts summer break.  I see our original 6th graders, who were so sweet last year, exhibiting some horrible behaviors in the hallway as rising 8th graders.  It’s as though somewhere, they leave school to go somewhere to be trained to recite explicit song lyrics and curse at each other, with no regard for who is in earshot.  Of course, middle schoolers are crazy everywhere, but they are a special kind of crazy in the city.

Major change seems to be past the horizon for now, because frankly, to most Americans, what happens in the inner-city is out of sight, out of mind.  But that’s starting to change.  Thank goodness that awareness of the issues in education are finally starting to attract more and more notice from the general public.  Teach For America is now a household name.  People from outside education have heard of DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and former Chicago schools head/current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  Well-informed or not, pro or con, everyone has an opinion on No Child Left Behind.  Thinkers in education are continuing to plan the next big surge to close the achievement gap.  So far, there are lots of ideas, but few projects that have shown unqualified success.  In the end, there just isn’t going to be a silver bullet, and my belief is that the problem isn’t going to get solved without some major introspection and sacrifices on the part of every American.  I just don’t think at the end of the day that it’s possible to warehouse our poorest, least educated citizens in ghettos and provide them with quality education at the same time.  Separate-but-equal didn’t work after emancipation, and it’s not going to work now.  I hope that one day, people will get pissed enough, like they did in the mid-20th century, and there will finally be another civil rights movement.

I may be leaving teaching, but I’d like to think that I’m not running away.  I strongly believe that these kids deserve educational opportunities, regardless of what cultural issues exist.  As I move on to the next phase, I know I will find ways to remain strongly involved in the discussion of how to change education in our country and in the lives of kids on a day to day basis.

What I’ve Learned About Teaching

Tonight is the eve of the last day of school for me, it seems like a good time to reflect on what I have learned from these past two years.  I have learned a lot of lessons.  I could have done a better job of reviewing and reteaching.  Challenging the kids to do it right, and sending them back time and time again until they get it right worked.   I should have given the kids more opportunities to see unrelated problems at the same time so that they could learn how to differentiate, because on the final, a lot of kids applied incorrect methods because they didn’t properly recognize the type of the problem.

This semester, I broke things down to the very lowest level.  I taught them to deal with exponents by turning them into multiplication, and then I taught them all of the shortcut rules.  That way, even if they got confused on which rule to use, they could always fall back on their fundamental knowledge of what an exponent is, and solve the problem in a longer, but still valid way.  What I wasn’t able to fully teach them was how better to utilize formulas, heuristic methods to check answers, and how to derive the rules on their own, on the fly.  Most people don’t realize it, but these are the little tricks are basically all that separate those who are “good” at math from those who think they aren’t.

It really is sad in one sense that I won’t have the chance to do better.  It hurts to have all of this knowledge, earned with two years of blood, sweat and tears (well, sweat and tears, for sure), and know that I will never have the chance to use much of it.  But on the other hand, I have wanted out for so long now.  I am so tired of the daily feeling of being ignored.  I am tired of the frustration of knowning how much these kids learn on the rare occassions that they apply themselves, but 90% of the time being completely unable to get that to happen.

I have had the opportunity to teach brilliant kids, respectful kids, and hard-working kids.  Occassionally, I have had the pleasure of teaching children that fall into all three categories.  This semester, the simple difference between kids who performed and kids who didn’t came down to who listened.  I feel like I have honed my ability to teach a skill or a concept to a kid to the point where I was pretty successful, even with students who don’t have strong background knowledge.  But I can’t teach a kid who won’t listen.  As I’ve graded the final exam, which is basically a selection of math problems from each objective we went over, it’s so obvious who got what material.  I can actually see who listened, who actually did their homework, who was absent for an extended period of time, and who slept in class.    I just hoped the kids learned as much as I did.

Mission Accomplished

Bush on aircraft carrier

My work is far from over, but today was our last day of required attendance for the upper school students.  Consequently, any actual teaching I have to do is officially over!  But much like W, I’ve still got a bunch of loose ends to tie up, and then I’m going to leave the war for the next guy to fight.

I’m going to miss these kids and I’m going to feel a little guilty, but I promise I won’t be one of those people who runs screaming from the classroom, only to whine years later about how much I miss my children, boo hoo.

I did want to leave them with something tangible for the future, since I feel like my spoken words aren’t worth much to most of them.  I started by writing a 1-page letter to the Rising Juniors, to serve as kind of an epilogue to their experience with me.  Here it goes:

Dear Rising Junior,

I didn’t come to FAST to be the coolest teacher in the world.  I came here with only two goals.  My first goal was to show you that it is possible to always treat others with respect, even if they don’t act respectfully to you.  And my second goal was to share my knowledge with you so that you can have some of the same opportunities that I have had.  I am so proud of the progress that you have made since coming to high school.  But there is a long way to go still.

I want to leave you with some pieces of advice for the second half of your high school career.  First, work now and play later.  I was once a teenager, believe it or not.  I know it is fun to joke around in class.  I know it is not fun to be the only person who is being serious when everyone else looks like they are having fun.  But high school is short, and what you do here determines what opportunities you can choose from for the rest of your life.  Spend less time having fun in class and more time trying to learn from your teachers.  All your teachers work harder than you can imagine trying to prepare you for success.  Take advantage of this opportunity.

Second, before you speak or act, stop and think.  Seriously, take a second to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.  You have been hurt before, so why would you do that to someone else?   Wouldn’t it be better to try to improve someone else’s life, rather than make their day worse?  Most of all, listen.  Knowledge is power, and the people—kids and adults—have so much to share with you, if you only take the time to listen.

This is your life.  It is not a practice.  You have to make the most of it now, because there are no do-overs.  If you really want something, it is never too late to work hard and earn it.  But nothing in this world is for free.  You don’t have to be perfect.  You are going to make mistakes.  But if you learn from them and try to do just a little bit better every day than the day before, you will go a long way.

I hope you realize that I want only the best for you.  I am hard on you because this world is hard, and I care enough to try and teach you what it takes to succeed.  Believe it or not, I know a lot about a lot of things.  I have had a lot of experiences that I don’t talk about in the classroom.  If you ever need any advice or help, please reach out to me.  I might be able to help more than you think, or at least I can point you in the right direction.

In addition, I spent three nights writing individual letters to every single student of mine.  At first, I was only going to write ones for specific kids, but then I got on a roll and finished a class.  And then, I just wanted to see the project through.  Some chunks are repeated for different kids, but every kid got something individual.  The full document weighs in at over 13,000 words.  It’s one of my more ambitious projects ever.  I distributed the letters after the kids took their finals.

I’ve got about 15 letters whose recipients never got them, because they either didn’t come to finals or they walked out early.  But that’s just how teaching goes, you can never really expect 100% return on your investment of effort.  Some of the kids really appreciated their letters, though.  One kid said he was going to keep it because it is really inspirational, and that made the whole project worthwhile.  Another one has already sent me an e-mail to stay in touch.

Also, as an activity to keep the kids busy after they finished their final, I had them write reflections.  I’m so glad I did.  I haven’t read all of them yet, so far they are really good.  It’s amazing how introspective the kids can be when they have the opportunity to do something without the influence of their peers. With no one for them to show off for, I feel like I got a rare glimpse at most of the kids without the fronts they usually put up to protect their delicate egos.

Even the most difficult kids, with whom I had the worst relationships, refrained from bashing me, and the compliments were really heartwarming.  Some of the kids didn’t hold back when talking about some of their issues or mistakes, which was really poignant.  It makes me feel like I actually made an impact, after all.  I think I’m going to have the whole set laminated and bound, and I’ll be sure to post some highlights.  If the children could be so insightful all the time, it would be so much more of a pleasure to work with them.  But I guess that’s why they are children…

Anyway, things have been quite eventful at FAST.  Expect a flurry of updates, I’ve got a couple more in the pipeline even as I write this.

Alumni Induction

It’s almost a bit surreal, but today I get inducted as an alumnus of Teach For America.  After all the ups and downs of the past two years, and all the times I wanted to quit, I feel going to Alumni Induction will represent one of the hardest-earned accomplishments of my life.  It definitely is, on a personal level, even though I feel more equivocal about what I have actually accomplished for my students.  Even on the worst days, the desire to finish what I started has been a huge motivation.  In any case, I couldn’t have made it without countless prayers and all the support of everyone.

Business As Usual

A week has passed since we have learned that our principal is leaving, and its almost as though after the long weekend, pretty much all the panic has subsided.  We still don’t know the whole story of why he’s leaving, where he’s going, or who is coming to replace him, but the hubris over fighting the change seems to have blown over.  Amazingly enough, the news seems to have never hit the mainstream population of students, because I have never heard a child even mention it, let alone engage me in a conversation that would put me in the awkward position of having to provide ambiguous answers.  I just hope it is addressed at some point, with only 5 real class days left of school, including finals.  It sure would be shame for the students to come back the first day of school next year, to be surprised that their principal has been replaced with some stranger.  I must say, I feel bad about the turnover these kids experience as far as the adults in their lives.  But who am I to talk, I’m jetting, myself.  Plus, as much as I care about the kids in an abstract way, the frustration of actually trying to teach them on a daily basis is something I simply cannot bear another year.