At the beginning of every school year, a new batch of fresh-faced teachers are handed the keys to a new classroom in Northampton County. They are provided with a two-week, comprehensive orientation that includes professional development, information on the mentoring program and an intensive teacher induction program to help them transition to the school system, and the Eastern Shore.
Over the next few years, however, a substantial number of those teachers will leave Northampton or the profession altogether — only to be replaced with another batch of more young teachers. This is not just a Northampton phenomenon. Currently in the US, over 400,000 teachers leave the profession each year. Rural areas, and areas of higher poverty levels are disproportionately affected; teachers leave poorer districts at a higher rate than from affluent districts.
This revolving door of teacher turnover costs school districts upwards of $2.2 billion a year—these expenses are incurred for recruiting teachers, extensive resources and time spent orienting and mentoring teachers, significant amounts of administrator and staff time used in supporting teachers.
This turnover destabilizes learning communities, decreases staff morale, and directly impacts student learning. This high rate of turnover results in low-income, minority students sometimes being taught by the least experienced teachers. In poor, rural communities, the needs that teachers have to be responsive to on behalf of the children can add to the stress and burden of the job.
Retention has been a major concern for the county. Last fall, Northampton’s School Board Teacher Retention Committee (TRC), which was comprised of School Board members, School Administration staff and teachers presented a report which attempted to shine a light on why teachers decide to leave Northampton County Schools.
The core of the effort revolved around overall student achievement—if teacher retention can be improved in Northampton, then student achievement should also improve.
Why do teachers leave?
A review of nationwide research which was discussed in the report found that some of the major reasons teachers are leaving include:
-Teacher induction programs are insufficient.
-Mentoring, Induction, Professional Development
Greater overall support is needed, including:
-Increased support and respect from Administrators
-Additional support from Parents and Community
-Collaborative environment from Colleagues
-Goals, Future Plans, and Personal Fulfillment
-Self Image and Goals are different in five years
Why do teachers stay on?
The report noted that research found that in most cases, an effective principal can completely offset teacher turnover in disadvantaged schools. Teachers who viewed their school’s leader positively were less likely to leave. Teachers were more likely to remain where they consider their principal trusting and supportive, a knowledgeable instructional leader, and an efficient manager. School administration is overall the strongest predictor of decisions to transfer or leave teaching between novice and experienced teachers. The report noted data that shows that working conditions matter most, including leadership, collegial relationships and a culture characterized by mutual trust, respect and openness.
Note: These findings are supported by a 2012 report by The Gates Foundation which surveyed more than 10,000 public school teachers to find out what factors were important in retaining good teachers. 68 percent said that supportive leadership was “absolutely essential.” Only 34 percent said the same about higher salaries.
Other factors found in the research included:
African American teachers are more likely to stay in schools serving African American students.
Teachers stay when they have the ability to build and sustain strong work environments.
Salary and work hours matter to teachers, however working conditions that are considered more important than marginal improvements to pay.
NCPS survey results
Two surveys have been conducted. One in 2016 and one in 2017. The initial survey showed teachers indicated that what they found positive about working here included high levels of collegial support and the geographic location/natural beauty of the Eastern Shore.
They were neutral about the overall Division Administrative Support. In most cases administration was considered supportive and fair, with adequate mentoring.
Areas that were found lacking included salaries and compensation, discipline consistency, administrative management style, engagement appropriate for professionals, collaborative decision making appropriate for professionals as well as responsiveness to teachers’ concerns. Where the geographic location was noted as a positive, it still has some negative aspects, such access to services and amenities.
The 2016 report honed in on several issues that need to be addressed. Mainly teacher compensation, fidelity code of conduct, Administrative Management Style, and community concerns – helping teachers transition to the Eastern Shore, such as helping them find housing.
Note: The authors appear to be aware of the ambiguity of the findings. While the survey states salaries are not the most important aspect of the job, it is also one of the main reasons why teachers leave not just the area, but the profession in general.
The 2017 survey results showed continued high levels of collegial support and a positive view of the geographic location. In addition, it showed improvement in the teacher induction program and teacher mentoring. Helping teachers transition to the Eastern Shore also improved.
The goals that the district identified for the 20016/17 school year included the development of action plans that would address the focus areas (fidelity to the Code of Conduct; create atmosphere of mutual trust and respect (division and building levels; clearly communicate/provide resources and provides timely feedback).
The 2017 TRC report compared 2017 findings to 2016 findings. At the June 8 School Board Work Session the committee recommended that district review this year’s outcomes, revise plans as needed incorporating the principles of Continuous Improvement.
The committee also recommended that the survey be distributed once again in the February/March time frame, where findings will be reported to the School Board.
The School Board will discuss and consider for approval of these recommendations of the TRC at the August 10th meeting.
In a conversation with Superintendent Eddie Lawrence, he reiterated that retention is a major problem for the county, “It is a big problem for us. But, there’s more than one reason…we can’t say it’s just the salaries, or the area…it is multi-faceted…different factors account for teachers leaving,” Lawrence said.
The Mirror asked Mr. Lawrence what percentage of teachers will be leaving the school system. The estimate this year is close to 13%. A report from the Learning Policy Institute (A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand, and Shortages in the U.S and Minority Teacher Recruitment, Employment, and Retention: 1987 to 2013) indicates that nationally, almost 9% of teachers leave schools each year.
“Rural areas are the hardest hit,” said Lawrence. “In areas like this, where you find generational poverty…this population presents different challenges. For young teachers, they may not be ready…or able to adapt right away. Part of our induction process tries to address this…we have found from talking to other districts that have hired our teachers, we have been very effective in preparing our new teachers for these challenges…we work hard getting them acclimated to the school system, but also to the Eastern Shore.”
In Northampton, teacher acquisition and retention are related. According Lawrence, the school system has been very effective in recruiting recent graduates from states like Pennsylvania that require three years of experience before a teacher can work there. Northampton has in a sense become a training ground for many of these young teachers. However, once they have two or three years under their belt, they leave after finding jobs closer to home.
The Mirror asked Lawrence, “if the current percentage of teachers leaving is not just a temporary trend, but is the current reality of how things are, does the school system need to adjust the way it does business?” Mr. Lawrence could not answer that question, but he did say that there are things that could help alleviate some of the pressure being put on rural school systems like Northampton.
Lawrence contends that, based on the latest Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) study, the state is severely underfunding K-12; data indicates the shortfall is near one billion dollars. According to Lawrence, more funding would allow the school system to attain the extra staff and services needed to address issues and gaps created by teacher retention challenges.
The Local Composite Index, which determines how much a locality is able to pay, can be problematic. Critics argue that it does not necessarily measure students’ educational needs, but instead, effectively suppresses the state’s funding obligation. In Northampton’s case, increased development, home values and tourism based income around Cape Charles makes the county appear more affluent than it actually is, raising our LCI score. “We’re still a rural school system,” said Lawrence. “With all the problems and challenges that go along with it.”
Lawrence told the Mirror that, despite some of the challenges we face, one of our major assets is the community, “The community here in Northampton has always been very supportive of our young teachers. During our orientations, they will bring in lunch and dinner. They help them find housing and introduce them to many of the benefits of living on the Shore.”
Regardless of why teachers stay or leave, the revolving door of teacher turnover is a problem that affects students and entire school systems. Strategies (higher pay, making the profession more respected, etc.) may help, however retention issues may just be a long-term trend as more and more millennials enter the workforce (soon to make up 50% of the workforce), and are more than willing to pick up and try living in new places as they advance their careers. The dilemma facing school systems is how much effort do you put into trying get someone to stay who may leave no matter what, versus finding new and better strategies for dealing with the reality of a 10 to 15% turnover rate.
The Cape Charles Mirror would like to thank School Board Members Nancy Proto and Jo Ann Molera for the time and help they provided as we worked through some of the data used in this story.