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Teachers from all walks of life are miserable or happy on the job for remarkably similar reasons, study finds

Teach For America recruits the tippy top of the best college graduates; some do go on to graduate or law school.
CC/Flickr/San Francisco Foghorn
Teach for America recruits the tippy top of the best college graduates; some do go on to graduate or law school.

One of the things that has long rankled critics of Teach for America, the headline-garnering young corps of non-traditional teachers who serve in poor schools, is the fact that once their initial commitment is up, TFA recruits leave the profession in droves. To their detractors, this makes TFA expensive and disruptive, and robs kids of teachers with gap-closing expertise the second they (the teachers) get their sea legs.

TFA and its boosters have long countered that churn is not necessarily a bad thing. TFA recruits the tippy top of the best college classes, and those alums who do go on to graduate or law school — followed presumably by world domination — make terrific ambassadors for education.

I’m only half kidding about that world domination: 18 percent of Harvard University’s 2009-2010 class applied to TFA. Indeed, one of the newest criticisms in the kit bag is that candidates for elite graduate and professional schools now see a TFA stint as a gilt application-padder.

But why not send them off to their JDs and their public administration Ph.D.s with a little firsthand knowledge of the nexus between poverty and literacy? How often did we hear candidate Mark Dayton talk about the year he spent teaching in New York City schools? But I digress.  

A newly released study by Phi Delta Kappan magazine (as in the teachers’ organization Phi Beta Kappa, which one would presume to be TFA-skeptical) has found that over the course of their first five years, TFA teachers do leave the profession in higher numbers.

Given that the recruits sign on for two-year stints, this arguably isn’t a terribly valuable comparison. And depending on which set of numbers you look at, it doesn’t actually prove TFA teachers quit at a higher rate. And I don’t actually think that’s the interesting debate here.

What I think is noteworthy is that TFA’s new teachers, two-thirds of whom join with the intention of leaving after two years, stay or quit for the same reasons as teachers credentialed the traditional way, i.e. at colleges of education, who intended to sign on for life.

11% of TFA recruits planned to stay
Also interesting, 11 percent of TFA recruits initially planned to make a career commitment to teaching. Many had some traditional teacher preparation before joining the program. The more preparation and training, the more likely they are to stay.

Republished in Education Week, the survey shows teachers from all walks of life to be miserable or happy on the job for remarkably similar reasons, and said job satisfaction to be the determining factor in whether a TFA grad, an Education Minnesota member or any other teacher stays on the job.

Can they be effective in the classroom? Does their school have a good climate and an instructional leader who enables success? And do they have influence over their working conditions? You know, pretty much the same potential for success the rest of us would like our workplaces to offer.

(I had a chance a couple of years ago to meet Richard Ingersoll, one of the pooh-bahs of teacher workplace quality scholarship. If you are invested in this debate, you really need to read his “Who Controls Teachers’ Work.”)

Kappan’s findings: 60 percent of TFA recruits continue as public-school teachers beyond their two-year commitment; 44 percent stay in the low-income schools where they were initially placed; by their fifth year, 15 percent are still there.

“The TFA teachers who stayed in teaching but changed schools reported that their decisions were significantly influenced by the working conditions in their initial school — the principal’s leadership, their teaching assignment, student discipline, and the school’s philosophy,” Kappan reported.

“These responses suggest that if hard-to-staff schools are to succeed in serving their low-income students, it won’t be because they receive a steady stream of well-educated, committed novice teachers, but because they become places where those individuals find they can succeed and, therefore, choose to stay.”

Other research has found that each year 15 percent of teachers switch schools or leave the profession. About 11 percent quit teaching by the end of their first year, 30 percent are gone in three years and more than 45 percent leave after five. In low-income urban and rural schools, the rates can be even higher, according to 1999-2000 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Twin Cities experience
Daniel Sellers is executive director of TFA Twin Cities, whose inaugural cohort of 40 teachers just finished their first two years. His attrition numbers look a lot like Kappan’s, and it is his firm conviction that the issues they illustrate are systemic, and not isolated to any particular school, type of school or school system.

Exactly half the first group has extended for a third year in the schools in which they were first placed. Four more, or 10 percent, are continuing to teach but in different schools.

Five have left, but are working in education-related capacities: two as TFA staff and one as the chief of staff of Tennessee’s new education commissioner. Seven have gone on to other things, while the remaining four — wait for it — are on their way to medical and law schools. 

Their experience, Sellers says, jibes with the study’s findings. “In the Twin Cities, principals have been enormously supportive,” he says. “Many have made a concerted effort to make it attractive for the TFA teachers to remain in their classrooms.”

That effort boils down to three factors: extra professional development, leadership opportunities for the most effective, and recognition. On this last, Sellers is quick to clarify that he doesn’t so much mean attaguys as evidence that their teaching is effective — and its recognition by their principals and peers.

Some in leadership roles
In terms of leadership even at the entry level, some have been elected to the boards of the charters where they work (TFA has teachers in mainline public schools here, too) or taken on department leadership roles.

“We have to make them feel wanted,” said Sellers. “These are Millennials, after all.” Millennials being the current generation of young professionals who are less interested in hierarchy than in results. 

“First, they want to be effective,” says Sellers. “Second, once they move up the learning curve, what we see is not that they want help finding a job that pays more.” No, they want their effectiveness and mastery to be rewarded with progressive challenges.

Does that sound obvious? During the second year of Sellers’ own TFA stint, in North Carolina, he heard from numerous headhunters, but not from the struggling school where he taught. Ultimately, he chose to come back to his hometown to open TFA’s office here.

And after two years of helping that first cohort deliver, it bothers him not one whit that 10 percent is off to law and medical school: “Let me tell you, there are far easier ways to pad your résumé!”

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/05/2011 - 10:28 am.

    “…You know, pretty much the same potential for success the rest of us would like our workplaces to offer.” Indeed, I can’t say I found any surprises here, but thanks for the tip on Richard Ingersoll. I’ll get a copy of “Who Controls Teachers’ Work.”

    One of the attractions of the job, at least when I started, decades ago, was a degree of small-scale, day-to-day autonomy that simply didn’t exist in most other careers that I’d observed. That autonomy eroded over the course of my career, and apparently continues to do so in the years since I retired, but still strikes me as providing a greater degree of independence than many other lines of work. My summer job in a corporate office while an undergrad convincingly persuaded me that I didn’t want to spend my working life in that sort of environment, and frankly, nothing in my work experience after I retired from teaching suggested that the typical corporate environment had changed for the better in that regard. My son’s corporate experience here in Minnesota reinforced my longstanding bias against that kind of work environment.

    Now, about that report from the Minneapolis Foundation, and its relationship to education in Minneapolis…

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/05/2011 - 11:28 am.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we could offer the tippy-top\cream of the crop a salary commensurate with their educational investment without having to match it for jaded union hacks, watching the clock until they can retire?

  3. Submitted by Tom Miller on 10/05/2011 - 11:55 am.

    Young teachers would stay in the profession if it paid it paid as well as professional alternatives and, likely more importantly, teachers were respected as much as other professionals.

    The recent focus on Finland’s educational attainments highlights this approach. Finnish teachers are drawn from the top 1/3 of college graduates and they are comparably paid, due to the Finnish culture and nation taking the importance of teachers to heart, and giving teachers the respect they deserve.

    Selfish Americans disparage teachers, prefering to mindlessly repeat bites, rather than recognize that teachers shape the future generation, which in turn shapes the basis of national prosperity. If teachers remain under-paid and unrespected, is it certain that America will fail in its competition with the rest of the world.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/05/2011 - 01:00 pm.

    The three top reasons why people choose to leave their job are:

    1) Their relationship with their supervisor.
    2) Their relationship with their co-workers.
    3) Their interest in, or lack thereof, of the day-to-day tasks that make up the job.

    It doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re selling real estate or teaching kids, the phenomenon is the same.

  5. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 10/05/2011 - 03:25 pm.

    This illustrates one of the most costly things both academically and financially in schools. Teacher retention is a hell of a lot bigger problem than not being able to get rid of bad teachers (small percentage, and a myth anyway).

    If the reform movement focused on teacher retention there would be way more bang for the buck then this hell bent vendetta against teachers.

    Also, this story makes it seem like TFA is just a cool thing to put on the old bucket list before you move on to your big boy job, or one last hurrah like a study abroad or the peace corps. Look at me, I helped some underprivileged kids for a couple years.

    TFA may be a neat thing to pad someones resume, but underprivileged kids are not some faceless nameless stepping stool to your next adventure.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/05/2011 - 08:59 pm.

    “Young teachers would stay in the profession if it paid it paid as well as professional alternatives..”

    As soon as they take back the teaching Profession from the blue-collar, trade labor union, widget makers that stole it, they will have that option.

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/05/2011 - 09:26 pm.

    A large part of that is the lousy job market. The take-home point is that without reforms that make teaching a more attractive profession, we’re not going to see continued interest in the field from highly educated individuals.

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