Keeping top teachers: Personal touch matters

| Charlotte Observer | Ann Doss Helms

ntil top teachers can earn six-figure salaries, it may be things like the electric pencil sharpener that keep them working in challenging schools.

The pencil sharpener, which a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools principal bought for a teacher, came to symbolize the district’s latest tactic for keeping great teachers: Big changes take time, so focus on the human touches that are often overlooked.

Superintendent Heath Morrison recently brought a national advocate in to talk to CMS principals about “The Irreplaceables,” a study that found school districts do a poor job of keeping the most effective teachers while letting too many ineffective ones stay.

Timothy Daly, president of the New York-based TNTP (originally The New Teacher Project), said his group would like to see top teachers making six-figure salaries by their sixth year, while low performers are offered severance packages to leave the profession. But he told the principals they can’t wait for that kind of change. They need to fight to keep their stars, he said, and sometimes the balance can be tipped by something as simple as telling a teacher you want them to stay.

That’s true, say Anna Smith and Tonya Reed, fourth-grade teachers at Albemarle Road Elementary, a high-poverty school on Charlotte’s east side.

At the end of last year, Smith was ready to apply for one of the westside Project LIFT schools, where philanthropists were offering five-figure recruiting bonuses for proven teachers who could succeed with children of poverty. Reed, who has four children, thought about seeking an assignment closer to her Huntersville home.

Both say Principal Leah Davis told them how important they are at Albemarle Road.

“All she said was, ‘I would hate to lose you; it would be a huge loss for me,’ ” said Smith, who decided not to apply for the move.

Davis and Ardrey Kell High Principal David Switzer say Daly’s talk reinforced what they already know about the importance of encouraging great teachers and being candid with those who are ineffective. And while the two schools are opposites in demographics – Ardrey Kell is a low-poverty school in the southern Ballantyne area – they share a struggle to keep top teachers.

“I hope that it spreads. I hope it’s not a fad,” Switzer said of the focus on “irreplaceable” teachers. “It will turn the morale issue around.”

CMS scrutinized

The New Teacher Project was created in 1997 to bring new, strong teachers into high-poverty urban schools. In partnership with CMS, it runs TEACH Charlotte, which recruits people in other fields and recent college graduates and trains them to lead classrooms in hard-to-fill schools and subjects.

The group eventually shortened its name and broadened its focus to look at policy issues. “The Irreplaceables,” released this summer, came about when the group questioned why it’s so hard for urban schools to keep great teachers. Student behavior, lack of parent involvement and undesirable locations are all real factors that discourage teachers, Daly said. But his researchers talked to top-rated teachers to find out if there were factors that might be easier to control.

The report describes practices dubbed “negligent retention,” which let top teachers slip away while bad ones stay.

The research was done in 2011 in four urban school districts, which TNTP didn’t identify. But leaders in CMS and New York City schools stepped up to say they were part of the research.

Morrison, who arrived in Charlotte shortly before the study was published, said he thinks it’s important to have all principals asking: “Am I doing things that contribute to my best talent walking out the door?”

More than money

When asked about her “irreplaceables,” Davis cited a three-person teacher team that worked together in third grade last year, then moved up with their kids to fourth grade this year. Smith, Reed and Andrea Bryant are not just good individually, Davis said, but as a team.

The academic and emotional support they give each other was one of the first things the trio mentioned when asked what keeps them working in a school where more than 90 percent of the students live in poverty. Each teacher focuses on a specialty – math, reading or science/social studies – and the children move between their classes. It’s a structure known as the family model, and it really feels like one, they say.

“These two women are why I’m here,” said Reed, who has taught for 13 years.

They say Davis also gives them opportunities to act as leaders. Smith loves to write grants and recruit volunteers for a school garden. All three went to Colorado to study strategies for teaching children of poverty.

Their loyalty to each other, their students and their principal are huge, all say. But money does matter.

They’ve seen rewards and raises vanish because of the recession. CMS added 45 minutes of class time with students without bumping up teacher pay. The women say they worry about their long-term financial prospects.

TNTP advocates for creating a salary structure that would let top classroom teachers earn $100,000 or more without having to switch careers or move into administration.

“I think it would keep a lot of good teachers,” says Bryant, whose husband sometimes says she should join him in banking.

Drama-free dismissals?

On the flip side, there’s the challenge of ineffective teachers.

Even in North Carolina, which bans collective bargaining, many principals say it’s hard to get rid of weak teachers who don’t commit blatant offenses.

The numbers back that up: In 2010-11, N.C. public schools employed about 96,650 teachers. Only 28 were dismissed, and 165 resigned in lieu of dismissal. Another 255 probationary teachers – those who don’t have tenure – didn’t get their contracts renewed.

In other words, about one in 200 was deemed bad enough to force out.

“The amount of documentation that is required is monumental,” says Davis. “The legal department has to say, ‘Yes, this person is going to have to go.’ ”

Davis thinks the best solution is denying tenure to teachers who haven’t proven themselves after four years. But TNTP argues there also have to be ways to push out the least- effective teachers regardless of experience. They’re bad for students and they sap energy from the good teachers, the report argues.

The Albemarle Road teachers agree. “You can’t have that weak link in the team,” said Bryant. “If you have someone who’s not as strong, it becomes sort of contagious.”

Reed said she can tell by students’ behavior and academic skills when they’ve had a bad teacher the year before.

Daly suggests the answer is severance packages, quietly offered to teachers who aren’t bad enough to fire or good enough to keep.

“If you do it with enough dignity, no one needs to know this is not the teacher’s choice,” he said. “We need to get far more of these transitions done, with far less drama and acrimony.”

The pencil sharpener

Of course, removing weak teachers only helps if better ones take their place. That’s why Daly told the CMS principals their first focus should be on keeping more “irreplaceables” in their classrooms: Create a better workplace. Give them good feedback. Recognize their success.

One principal talked about seeing a top teacher struggling with a hand-cranked pencil sharpener. The principal bought an electric one to replace it.

“That’s become our funny symbol” of the little things that show support, Davis said.

Switzer says he writes notes to tell his teachers when he’s noticed their good work.

“It’s not the big wham-bam fireworks,” Switzer said. “It’s the constant, consistent affirmation.”

Daly predicts it would take four years for a school district to do a “full-court press” to improve its retention and dismissal practices. He hopes CMS will do just that. Morrison is likely to unveil next steps as part of his 100-day plan for CMS.

For now, Daly hopes principals will talk to their best teachers at the end of first semester. That’s when teachers say they start thinking about their assignment for the next school year. And that’s when a few well-placed words can shape careers.

Two-thirds of the “irreplaceable” teachers in the TNTP study told researchers no one had ever asked them to stay.

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