In its well-intentioned effort to create alternatives to public school dropout factories, the charter school sector has created teacher burnout factories. But, says the author, it doesn’t have to be this way.
A few years ago, the term “dropout factory” was everywhere: lamented by the leaders of the so-called school reform movement, attached to alarmist headlines, bandied about in my graduate school discussions, and featured most prominently in “Waiting for Superman.” Our schools were in a crisis, the film proclaimed; America had fallen behind. But, the so-called reformers told us, there was a solution: Charter management organizations (CMOs) — such as KIPP, Uncommon, Achievement First, and the Success Academies — offered polished curricula, smaller classes, a less-entrenched teaching staff, and a bureaucracy-free environment. Charters, they assured us, would be the antidote to the dropout disease that plagued urban schools.
When it was time to look for my first teaching job, I was wary of charter schools. I knew about the standard operating procedures at many CMOs, and during a few school visits, I had witnessed their no-excuses policies in action: coordinated chanting, mandates to SLANT (Sit up, Listen, Ask and Answer questions, Nod, and Track the speaker), silent hallways, and so on. I also knew their teachers lack some of the benefits common in unionized schools, and they’re routinely mandated to work Saturdays and summers.
But when I interviewed at Hyde Leadership Charter School in the Bronx, I fell in love. The principal was special. Rather than regurgitating pat lines about relentlessness or urgency, she wanted to talk about fundamental questions: “Why are people in poverty?” and “Why does a young white man from the suburbs want to teach in Hunts Point?” We had a vital, challenging discussion that persuaded me Hyde had a far more self-critical culture than the CMOs I had seen so far. Next, a group of 9th graders gave me a tour and interviewed me, without the supervision of a micromanaging adult. They spoke about their academic goals, of course, but they spent just as much time talking about their development as people. One student said she was on a committee designing the new high school that would soon be built down the street. They spoke like they were part of something precious that they had worked to cultivate, a thing that must be guarded from mediocrity, lest it dry up and its secret brilliant colors fade. I found, also, that the teachers in this tiny family of a school were friendly, reflective professionals who seemed utterly devoted to creating a place that would serve the community for the next 50 years. And, with genuine warmth, they invited me to shape the future with them. I was in my early 20s and incredibly idealistic. How could I resist?
I have stayed at Hyde Leadership Charter School because the administrators have continued to be trusting and supportive, the students welcoming and wonderful, and my colleagues ambitious and creative. But I am an anomaly. It has been just six years since I joined this grand experiment in Hunts Point, this potential antidote to the dropout factory, but virtually all of my fellow travelers from my first year have moved on. I am, at 30 years old, the wizened veteran teacher of the school.
Burning through teachers
Turnover wasn’t a serious problem in my first year. The school was growing and so was our exceedingly youthful staff. When a few teachers left midway through the year, I was disappointed but not alarmed — it was only natural that the school would be the wrong fit for some teachers. But when I returned in August 2013 to begin my second year, nearly half of the teaching staff had departed. Some left because of the demanding schedule; others because they thought students lacked discipline. One or two said they wanted a new professional challenge. Another one left to start a farm. Common to all of them, though, was the belief that working at our school was not a sustainable career option.
Around that time, the problem of teacher turnover in charter schools was becoming national news. In 2013, for example, the New York Times reported that teachers at Achievement First schools stayed for an average of only 2.3 years (Rich, 2013). During the 2012-13 school year, the KIPP network lost one-third of its teachers (Monahan, 2014) For all of its well-intentioned efforts to end student dropout factories, the school reform movement appeared to be creating burnout factories for teachers.
Hyde was an exceptional charter school in many ways, but this was one problem that it hadn’t escaped — and for students, I realized, the consequences were serious. Many of our seniors told me they had come to feel alienated in the school they had called home since 6th grade. “This has been an ongoing issue throughout the years,” said Leslie, who graduated in 2016. “All the teachers who taught me in middle school were no longer there, and by junior year only two or three teachers in the school knew me since freshman year,” which made it hard, for example, to obtain a college recommendation.
Another recent alumnus, Ishtiaq, said, “It was heartrending every time one of them said they would not teach in Hyde the following year. It was unfair to those underclassmen who looked forward to attending those classes in the future. It takes time to understand and trust someone; oftentimes, when I did have that trust or finally understood a teacher, they would soon leave.”
Teachers also found it challenging to build and maintain trusting relationships with each other. For example, because we could never seem to retain a 9th-grade English teacher, our English special education instructor had to establish a new teaching partnership in each of her first four years with us. As she told me:
Being able to coteach and coplan is a relationship that has to grow through a period of time, very similar to a marriage. There have been times when we had three new English teachers that I had to coteach with. That comes down to learning three different teaching styles, three different personalities, and three different sets of expectations. The worst part of it, though, is really the effect on students. It causes confusion and lack of motivation for the student while taking important time away from student-teacher, one-on-one time.
The head of our math department, who has worked at Hyde since 2008, saw her entire team turn over multiple times in those same four years. As she said to me:
Losing a math teacher is also a loss of the knowledge they gained throughout the year. Pretty consistently, we are bringing on young teachers (either first, second, or third year). As a school, we are working with them and helping them through their first few years of teaching and then losing the product of that effort. Students are also less likely to invest in teachers (and therefore the class) if they fear that teachers will leave them. I find that scores go down when students are not invested in the teachers.
Planning for the long term
In her book Inside Urban Charter Schools, Katherine Merseth (2009) notes that some of the most successful schools she has studied have had teacher retention committees, which are designed to keep track of staff morale, listen to teacher concerns, and advocate for reforms. That struck me as a promising model for Hyde: We could make working at our school a more sustainable career option for new teachers, supporting them as they hone their craft and become veterans.
Our retention committee came together quickly, with nearly 20 people attending our initial meetings, in spring 2014. A few months later, though, only eight of us remained. (Many members had quit because they were burned-out or unhappy, didn’t plan to return in the fall, and couldn’t stomach the irony of participating in such a committee.) For this core group, our first order of business was to conduct a schoolwide survey to learn what compelled some colleagues to stay and others to leave.
We found that the few teachers who had been at Hyde for at least four years, like me, chose to stay mainly because of the positive, respectful relationships with colleagues and because we enjoyed a level of autonomy rarely seen in public schools (whether charter or traditional district-run schools). Most striking, though, were the responses to the survey’s first two questions: “How long do you intend to work in schools?” and “How long do you see yourself remaining with us at Hyde?” Most said they planned to stay in this line of work for the rest of their lives, but they expected to stay at Hyde for no more than two years.
This meant that we employed over 100 young educators who were committed to a long career in teaching; they just couldn’t imagine a long career at Hyde. On the survey, teachers cited three main reasons why they were likely to leave:
- With every passing year, Hyde appeared to demand more and more of teachers’ time and effort, pushing them well past the point of exhaustion;
- While the salary was competitive with traditional district schools, the benefits were much worse; and
- There seemed to be no opportunities for teachers to grow into new roles at Hyde.
At first, the school’s new executive director seemed only mildly concerned. “Some turnover is healthy for any organization,” he pointed out. “Hyde demands more of teachers’ time than the average school, and that is explained to everyone in their interviews.” But he soon came to see the urgency of the problem: Most teachers waited until late July or August to notify us they wouldn’t be returning for the fall. Not long before the start of the new year, we had to rush to find replacements — the elementary school faculty had been hit hardest, along with the high school math and science departments, but we all faced last-minute teacher shortages.
In the fall, the executive director called upon each part of the school to set a specific retention goal for the year. The high school director was most ambitious, aiming for each of her five departments to lose no more than one teacher. Even though that would still mean some turnover, it seemed like a realistic plan.
To address the first out of three sources of teacher attrition — the time and effort demanded of Hyde’s teachers — we cut after-school Tuesday meetings to once per month, and we moved up student dismissal by one hour. The 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. hour became optional time for students instead of a mandatory study hall, which required teacher supervision but had proven ineffective. Together, these moves reduced teachers’ loads significantly (for example, I now had enough time to create and run an after-school club). After the high school piloted the new schedule for one year, it was extended to the elementary and middle levels.
Our health care and pension options have seen few improvements, but we instituted a “years of service” bonus (in addition to regular annual raises) for those who have been with us for five years or more. We created the Faculty Fellowship grant program, which enables the school to give teachers small grants (we were allotted $25,000 overall) to create an innovative program that would benefit the school. Not only is this meant to encourage creativity and collaboration (since applicants are required to work in teams of two or more), but it also lets staff know they have a meaningful opportunity to take on new professional challenges and be compensated for the effort. The inaugural group of fellows used their grants to start our own chapter of Girl Rising, to green every high school classroom, to bring athletics back to the elementary school through the Mighty Milers program, and to promote literacy by incentivizing high schoolers to read with a sibling in our K-8 system.
When I returned at the start of the 2016-17 school year, I found that only one high school staff member had decided to leave. That’s great progress, but it hardly means that we’ve figured it all out. For instance, while the fellowship program can galvanize staff members to take on new challenges and improve our school, it also makes their lives busier, which is no solution to the burnout problem. Also, since we haven’t been able to increase the fellowship budget, we have to choose between renewing existing projects or starting over again, giving more people the chance to apply.
Lessons from and for the field
Charter school leaders across the country have begun to realize how damaging it is to their schools to lose great teachers year after year. Turnover reduces morale among staff and students, it can stymie any progress toward closing the achievement gap, and it is prohibitively expensive, too (Phillips, 2015).
When interviewed for the 2013 New York Times article on teacher attrition in the charter sector, leaders of the YES Prep network blithely dismissed the issue, explaining that they were comfortable with having most of their staff leave within three years (Rich, 2013). The negative reaction to their comments served as a public relations wake-up call, to put it mildly. Since then, to their credit, they’ve acted to encourage teachers to “commit to five” years or more in the classroom by giving them more autonomy over work hours, granting veteran teachers individual professional development budgets, and creating “a new pay structure that will reward teachers in their third and fourth years with salaries comparable to those of 10-year veterans in a traditional school” (Sawchuk, 2015). KIPP now offers onsite daycare at many of its locations, and Success Academy offers teachers two “doctor days” per year, allowing them to schedule appointments without having to take sick leave or personal days (Neason, 2015).
These improvements are promising, but the fractured state of the charter movement could make it hard to offer sustainable career opportunities at scale. Independent, mom-and-pop style charters, like Hyde, are unlikely to be able to raise the necessary funds to create a pension system or even provide competitive bonuses. Further, while CMOs may be wary of hemorrhaging talent, they remain popular enough that they can count on a steady supply of rookie teachers to replace those who decide to move on. While they may have sufficient resources to overhaul and improve worker benefits, they are under little pressure to do so.
Dropout factories are real (though not as common as “Waiting for Superman” would have you believe), and charter schools sometimes provide successful alternatives. However, burnout factories are real, too, as I am reminded every time I hear a student ask a favorite teacher, “You’re not coming back next year, are you?” It is disheartening to see some of the best minds of my generation enter a charter school full of ambition only to swear off teaching after just a year or two. Even more disheartening is realizing that, out of the 20 teachers who started their careers with me at Hyde in 2010, only three of us are still there.
I am hopeful charter schools will find ways to stop burning through teachers, but at the same time, I know that much of the sector has yet to be convinced that high teacher attrition is a serious problem. Until most charter leaders acknowledge that it is and until they begin to confront that problem honestly and aggressively, they will continue to send our best and brightest teachers the pernicious message that a career in the classroom is undesirable and unsustainable.
Merseth, K. (2009). Inside urban charter schools: Promising practices and strategies in five high-performing schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Monahan, R. (2014, November 11). Charter schools try to retain teachers with mom-friendly policies. KIPP Newsletter. www.kipp.org/news/the-atlantic-charter-schools-try-to-retain-teachers-with-mom-friendly-policies
Neason, A. (2015, April 27). Charter schools’ latest innovation: Keeping teachers happy. Slate. www.slate.com/blogs/schooled/2015/04/27/charter_schools_and_churn_and_burn_how_they_re_trying_to_hold_on_to_teachers.html
Phillips, O. (2015, March 30). Revolving door of teachers costs schools billions every year. NPRed. www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/03/30/395322012/the-hidden-costs-of-teacher-turnover
Rich, M. (2013, August 26). At charter schools, short careers by choice. New York Times. www.nytimes.com/2013/08/27/education/at-charter-schools-short-careers-by-choice.html
Sawchuk, S. (2015, June 2). Charters look to change perceptions on teacher turnover. Education Week. www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/06/03/charters-look-to-change-perceptions-on-teacher.html
Originally published in May 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (8), 26-30. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.