Reversing the Teacher Dropout Problem

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Retain more of your staff by understanding their needs and helping them succeed.

By Jon Andes

Each year, about a half million teachers are hired. School systems spend significant amounts of resources, in both time and money, to recruit, hire, and induct new teachers. Despite this expenditure, up to half of all new teachers will become “dropouts” within their first five years. For school systems nationwide, the costs of new teacher dropouts are substantial– estimated at $2.2 billion per year. For students, this teacher turnover impacts the quality of instruction they receive. Since a major proportion of new teachers are assigned to high-poverty schools, the negative impact on poor children is continuous.

Solving the teacher dropout phenomenon is a precursor to ensuring the success of all students. To address the challenges presented by teacher dropout, we, as instructional leaders, need to understand the unique qualities and needs of new, millennial-generation teachers; discover the general reasons given by new teachers for leaving the profession; and explore the strategies that instructional leaders can take to prevent this from happening.

Who Are These Teachers?

In general, members of the millennial generation have three common characteristics that will impact their career as teachers. First, they are digital natives, who constantly use technology to communicate and to access information. This generation sees access to high-speed Internet and devices as a given. Second, they are team oriented and seek to solve problems by working collaboratively. Since birth, members of this generation have been encouraged to be part of a team—in play groups, sports teams, summer camps, and arts programs. Finally, they seek tangible achievements and feedback, having been the recipients of trophies, medals, and even participation ribbons.

Why Do They Leave?

When researchers survey new teachers who have left the profession, three major reasons are commonly given for dropping out. First, they cite a lack of resources, including technology and classroom materials, and the time to plan and complete the many tasks associated with teaching. Second, these teachers identify a feeling of isolation as a reason for leaving, specifically, a lack of time and the freedom to work together as professionals to address and solve instructional challenges. Finally, they identify a lack of support by school-building leadership as a reason for leaving.

What Can You Do to Help?

The obvious solution to addressing the dilemma of new teacher dropouts is to make sure that the right person is hired. Assuring the right person is hired may reduce attrition, but it may not be enough to retain the best and the brightest millennials. By understanding the unique characteristics of this generation and the reasons cited for leaving the teaching profession, instructional leaders can identify and implement strategies to retain these new teachers.

First, providing needed resources is critical. The millennial generation of new teachers expects that the tools of teaching—including technology—will be available in the classroom to optimize their instructional practice. In terms of time constraints, school leaders can ease these by eliminating or reducing administrative duties such as bus or playground duty, providing new teachers with common planning time, and reducing class size. Additionally, school leaders can make a conscious effort to carefully choose which students to assign to new teachers, for the purpose of setting up the novice for a successful first-year experience.

Second, to combat a feeling of isolation, the instructional leader can assign the right mentor and place the new teacher on a collaborative team. Veteran teachers are often selected as mentors for new teachers but this may not always be the best choice. In addition to assigning the right mentor, the instructional leader needs to provide time during the school day for the new teacher and a mentor to plan and work together.

Third, to demonstrate support for new teachers, the building principal must make an effort to connect with them. This might include actions such as scheduling a regular bimonthly time to meet with new teachers and mentors to discuss needs, informally meet with new teachers for an after-school snack and chat, make informal visits to the classroom to acknowledge instructional success, and use e-mails to reach out to new teachers with positive messages. Most important, new teachers need to believe that an instructional leader is listening to them and is committed to enabling their success.

As instructional leaders, we must remember that the success of a student directly depends on the person who is teaching him or her. As a nation, we cannot afford the cost of constantly recruiting, hiring, and training new teachers. The cost is too high in terms of both money spent and loss of student learning time. The purpose of the hiring process is to replace ourselves with a generation of educators who are prepared and capable to meet the challenges that the post-millennial generation will bring to the classroom.

Jon Andes is a professor of practice at Salisbury State University in Maryland. He was superintendent of the Worcester County Public Schools in Maryland from 1996 through 2012.

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