By Jane Mayer and Jesse Soza, Ed.D.
Teacher turnover in the United States is a silent epidemic — one that is eroding the core of our schools. Every year, over 1 million teachers enter and exit our classrooms, and in Los Angeles alone, 40-50% will leave the profession entirely within five years. This creates unstable school environments — ones that are more difficult for administrators to manage and in which students are less likely to thrive, emotionally and academically (Teoh & Coggins, 2013*).
Regularly each spring, students, especially in our underserved urban communities, start asking their bright and passionate teachers, “Miss, are you coming back?” Every teacher who has left the classroom dreads that question — and the real heartbreak is that most teachers leave not because they hate teaching, but because they are so frustrated by systemic challenges that they feel they have no other choice.
Kara Reeves, a teacher in Memphis, details the reasons one of the reasons she left the classroom—norms on campus that are not created or desired by the teachers (and most likely event schools themselves): “As a test administrator, I was now responsible for reporting my teachers if they did not follow those guidelines. The stress and worry of that prospect was just too much for me. I had become an enforcer of a practice I didn’t even believe in. I couldn’t do this to my teachers, so I left the position after two years and went back to the classroom.” She eventually burned out, exhausted by trying to work within a system in which she had no agency.
Giving teachers agency (power) to create norms (i.e. guidelines, governing principles, structures, etc.) is a strong influencing factor for teacher retention. A norm is any condition of a school site that governs the expected behavior of either teachers or students. For example, a norm might be that when a student cusses, the teacher is required to carry out a specific response (e.g. a red form for suspension). Another example would be that a teacher is required to turn in three grades per week regardless of the topic or pace of the current unit.
If the school norms support how a teacher is attempting to carry out his or her job, that norm is meaningful and contributes to both teacher satisfaction and student engagement. However, when there are too many norms on a school campus that prevent the teacher from carrying out his or her job (because of ineffectiveness or uselessness), the teacher begins to perceive a sense of normlessness which prevents him or her from doing the work he/she so passionately wants to do (Senge, 1993).
A 13-year veteran teacher from an underperforming public school in Oakland, where The Teaching Well is attempting to reverse the local 70% turnover rate highlights a standard teacher response to norms: “… [Leadership is] just pushing too much at once… I can’t get anything done because [they’re] pushing for this thing to start and this thing to start and this thing to start. I haven’t even trained my little third-graders to take out what folder at what time of the day because we’re rushing through everything so fast… I feel like the people who are planning these timelines have never even been in the class; they don’t get it.”
Like the teacher above, when educators begin to feel like this, they may isolate, burn-out or act in direct violation of school culture in an attempt to maintain a perceived best environment for them and their students. As a result, they either isolate completely from their school community and work in a silo in their rooms, which cuts them off from collaboration and social support (Templin, 1988). Acting in defiance of norms which with they disagree, they run the risk of reprimand for not following rules. Both of these actions lead them closer and closer to burn out.
The following are several concrete ways to reverse feelings of normlessness on campus and prevent teacher turnover: