A Team Approach to Eliminating Teacher Shortages
During my tenure as our state Teacher of the Year, one of my duties was to help recruit teachers. Because I live in the impoverished Delta region of Mississippi, I took a special interest in encouraging new teachers to come to our area. Unfortunately, the combination of poor working and living conditions in many Delta towns makes attracting and keeping teachers very difficult. This frustrating experience left me wondering why so many of the districts that need high-quality teachers the most, seem to treat them the worst.
Such practices are sad anywhere, but especially here in the rural Delta, where there are never enough teachers to go around. Forty-eight of Mississippi’s 82 school districts are chronic critical teacher shortage areas. Critical shortage districts are those that have (depending on their size) 10 percent to 15 percent of teaching staff either uncertified or teaching outside their certified areas. The designation also applies to districts in which more than 30 percent of teachers are eligible to retire, indicating a dire need for new teachers.
Within this wider teacher shortage, recruiting and retaining a diverse teacher workforce remains a crucial challenge. In an article about their recent study on the minority teacher shortage, Richard Ingersoll and Henry May note that “minority teachers are employed in higher rates at schools serving disadvantaged students, but also depart at higher rates because these schools tend to be less desirable as workplaces.” More recently, a study of Boston Public School teachers by Travis Bristol found that the isolation of minority teachers in school settings influences retention. Black male teachers who were the only minority teachers on staff were more likely to want to leave their current school and more likely to cite challenges with colleagues as influential in their decision to leave.
As an African American mother and educator, I cried when one of my former students, an especially talented young Black male teacher in a school populated almost entirely by African American students, was needlessly driven from the profession despite a record of high student achievement. (Read more about his story on my Center for Teaching Quality blog). Although state and federal leaders stress the need for more minority teachers in our classrooms, such teachers clearly are not getting the support that they need to remain in the profession. And neither are the principals who play such a crucial role in providing support to teachers.
As John Papay mentioned in his post on this blog, principal leadership (or lack thereof) is a critical driver of teacher turnover. One principal I met bragged, “I like to throw my new teachers into deep water right from the start. Give ’em the worst we got. If they’re still standing at the end of the year, I know they’re worth keeping!” While some administrators really try their best to support teachers, this comment stayed with me because it reflected what I had seen and experienced as a new teacher.
As a member of Mississippi’s educator licensure commission for 10 years, I have watched our state, and especially the Delta, desperately attempt to address the shortages by becoming one of the largest users of alternative preparation programs (see a story about Mississippi’s investment in alternative providers). Although many of these temporary teachers sincerely want to help the children assigned to them, they often are horribly underprepared for the challenges of teaching in rural high-poverty areas, and most do not stay beyond their two-year commitment. An April 2013 Hechinger Report article explains that whether first-year teachers come through an alternate route or traditional preparation program, their main reasons for leaving are lack of support and low pay.
The situation of schools I observed in Mississippi holds true for schools across the nation. Issues such as poor working conditions and effective support for new teachers need to be addressed comprehensively before every student in the nation’s public schools can have high-quality instruction. Like many others (including the GTL Center), I believe an important part of the solution is to support more local residents to become teachers in their own schools, but we can’t just throw them into the existing dysfunctional organizations.
Consider a suggestion put forward by a group of us from the Teacher Leaders Network at the Center for Teaching Quality in our book, Teaching 2030: What We Must Do For Our Students and Our Public Schools…Now and In the Future (Teachers College Press, 2011), and echoed by many others:
"Consider how a team of six to eight teachers of varying expertise and experience (and with different career intentions) might work with 150–175 students over a number of years. Among the team might be several highly accomplished teachers who will supervise and work with a selection of novice teachers supported by teaching assistants, content specialists, virtual mentors, community experts, master networkers, along with capable volunteers. Instead of continuing to pursue the impossible dream of finding a single, seasoned expert teacher for each classroom in every school, [new] district-college-community compacts would focus on cultivating these close-knit teacher teams." (p.108).
Building such teams could mitigate the effects of poor top-down leadership, which can be potentially disastrous in a typical, hierarchal school organization. In an article about their study, Ingersoll and May note, “The strongest factors by far for [retaining] minority teachers were the level of collective faculty decision-making influence in the school and the degree of individual instructional autonomy held by teachers in their classroom.” Schools organized on more collaborative leadership models (such as those in Charlotte, North Carolina’s Project L.I.F.T.) share the responsibility for instructional leadership and student success, while creating more career pathways for existing and potential teacher leaders. Development of such teams in high-need rural schools like those here in the Delta would transform the teaching and learning experience for our children.
Now it’s your turn. We want to hear your thoughts.
- How can we ensure an adequate pool of teachers in poor, rural areas?
- How can teachers work in teams, combining novice teachers with highly accomplished expert teachers, to provide support for each other and promote student learning?
Renee A. Moore is an instructor of English at Mississippi Delta Community College, a National Board Certified Teacher, and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. A former high school English teacher, Moore was chosen as the 2001 State Teacher of the Year in Mississippi. She also writes a blog for the Center for Teaching Quality.