Encourage great teachers to stay in the classroom

| Memphis Commercial Appeal | Brittany Clark

I have been teaching for nine years with Memphis City Schools. I love what I do, and I'm good at it. That may sound egotistical, but I have the data to back it up. It is not only my students' test scores that are strong; they are also writing on a college level, completing deep, inquiry-based research and tracking their own growth throughout the school year. For the last three years my value-added data has proven that my students have gained significantly above average growth (more than one year's worth) on state-mandated tests. My student feedback surveys and administrators' observations reinforce these facts.

So why am I often encouraged to leave the classroom?

TNTP, a nonprofit organization focused on teacher quality that was formerly known as The New Teacher Project, recently released a report titled “The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America's Urban Schools.” The report provides feedback on key strategies to help retain not just all teachers, but the top 20 percent of teachers in a district — whom the report dubs “irreplaceables” because it can take 11 new hires to find one teacher as effective. These teachers generate five to six more months of student learning each year than their less-successful counterparts.

I'm proud to be one of those teachers, and I truly believe that at the root of my success is my love of teaching and my love for my students.

But the report also points out that just 26 percent of teachers rated highly effective are given opportunities to lead within their schools, without leaving the classroom. I've seen this pattern. I'm frequently encouraged to move into school administration, instructional leadership and district-level teacher preparation. This sentiment comes not just from my peers, but also from school district leaders and administrators who actually encourage me to leave the classroom.

Although it is an honor to be regarded as competent and skilled enough to lead a school or teach teachers, I always wonder what would happen to my students if I left. Certainly there is a need for great leaders in our schools, but the bottom line is that students need great teachers, and statistics prove that there are not enough highly effective teachers.

Staying in the classroom is far from easy. Every year I have contemplated leaving, and every year I have been encouraged to do so. Usually as second-semester slouch sets in, I begin to wonder whether I can teach another year. Can I deal with the lack of autonomy and opportunities for leadership that are allotted to me as a classroom teacher? Can I fight the battle for rigor in my own classroom in a culture in which many other people accept less than the best? Can I ride that emotional roller coaster that comes with so many changes — most recently the introduction of the Common Core and new state-mandated tests — in a climate that doesn't always provide me with the professional development I need to better my craft?

So far, I've stuck with it. But considering that the single most important school-based factor in student achievement is the teacher, great teachers need to be offered leadership opportunities that do not remove us from the classroom — and we need to be fairly compensated for taking on those roles.

I have diligently sought out what opportunities are available to Memphis teachers, and truly believe that I have become a teacher leader. Some of those opportunities include serving as a mentor teacher with the Memphis Teacher Residency, where I support new teachers to be better practitioners; a two-year fellowship with Teach Plus, which allowed me to work with local and state leaders in education policy; and an Education Champions Fellowship. We need more opportunities like these: They can even be as simple as leading professional development and assisting administrators in changing school-based policy. The combination of opportunities for growth and recognition that increased compensation must come with increased responsibilities will allow more top teachers to remain in their classrooms.

I'm completely dedicated to the success of my students, but sometimes I question my choice to stay in the classroom, given the lack of growth opportunities. That indecisiveness might change if I had the support to grow and lead while still doing what I love: teaching. Instead of being recognized as effective and then encouraged to step out of the classroom, I want to be supported and elevated in ways that allow me to reach more students. That is the goal of a great teacher and clearly, that's irreplaceable.


Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

Learn More About TNTP