Mar 22

Retaining our Top Teachers

March 22, 2016
Stephen Williams - STEM Director
People for People Charter School

Five years ago, I accepted an offer to serve the students, families, and community of Philadelphia as a teacher with Teach For America.  As I rode into Philadelphia for my first day of summer institute, I was excited, motivated and determined to make this city my new home.  While I never intended to teach longer than two years, two weeks into my placement I knew I wanted to stay at Germantown High School forever. 

That first year of teaching was hard, but it was also incredibly rewarding. Hearing my students talk about their dreams and ambitions for themselves and their friends – recognizing the same adventurous spirit in them that I had when I agreed to come to Philadelphia – confirmed my calling as an educator.  I poured everything I had into my instruction, because I understood the gravity of the task before me. Every day, my students’ success depended on my ability to clearly communicate complex concepts and draw out untapped potential.

As the Geometry teacher, I always made it my goal to ensure that as many students as possible were placed in Honors Algebra 2 the following year. Why was it crucial for them to get into Honors Algebra 2? Because I knew that the very best math teachers in the building, Dr. Ogajo and Mr. Wright, taught this course.  I knew that being in a class with one of these teachers would enable my students to take another step closer to their dreams.  These gentlemen inspired their students, held them to high standards, and led them to think critically about math and the world around them.

Unfortunately, teachers like Dr. Ogajo and Mr. Wright were not the norm at Germantown. For this reason, and a host of other contributing factors, Germantown was shut down at the end of my second year, part of 28 school closures that would bring the district closer to balancing a budget.

I was fortunate enough to find another position at a public charter school in Philadelphia, and after a few years of serving as the STEM Director, I applied and was accepted to PhillyPLUS. As a PLUS Resident, I have learned a lot about quality instruction, observation and feedback, and culturally-responsive leadership. However, one of my biggest takeaways from PLUS is the importance of recruiting, training, and retaining great teachers. As Jim Collins says in Good to Great “Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.”

As a school leader, my focus is less on retaining all teachers, and more on retaining the right teachers. TNTP’s report, The Irreplaceables, reveals the disturbing reality that our top-performing teachers and the lowest-performing teachers are leaving schools at strikingly similar rates. Maybe even more troubling is the fact that when a low-achieving, urban school loses an Irreplaceable teacher, it typically takes 11 hires to find just one teacher of comparable quality.

Retaining high-performers and counseling out low-performers is known as “smart retention” in academia – but for practitioners, we know this as the simple reality that the right people make all the difference.

While budget constraints within our schools may limit the financial incentives we can offer high-performing teachers, PLUS has taught us about a number of low-cost strategies that school leaders can employ to increase the retention of their Irreplaceable teachers. Things like providing teachers with regular feedback, publicly recognizing outstanding performance, identifying growth opportunities, and making teachers aware of additional resources for their classrooms. By retaining our top teachers, we can ensure that more and more students have access to teachers like Dr. Ogajo and Mr. Wright.

Our students deserve a great instructor in front of them who inspires them to achieve their dreams. The role of a teacher is a weighty responsibility, and as a school leader, it’s imperative that I recognize this reality. If we want to provide our students with the education they deserve, great teaching cannot be the exception to the rule.

As I begin my journey as a school leader, I will continue to invest my time and resources in getting the right people on the bus. By doing so, we can ensure that student success is not a matter of chance.