On the front line of education: Keeping excellent teachers

| Indianapolis Star | Ryan Rampetsreiter

“Your answer was good! I love how you said it in a complete sentence,” one of my fourth-graders tells her classmate. “I think you made a small mistake by rounding to the hundreds place. We were asked to round to the tens place. The correct answer would be 350.” She had perfectly corrected her friend.

“NAILED IT!” I yell.

“NAILED IT!” replies my entire class.

Four years ago I was staring at a computer screen in a cubicle. Today, I stare at 26 students: not afraid to make mistakes, ready to help their classmates, motivated to grow their brains, and surrounded by learners repeating unquestionably cheesy but fun chants. I know I'm where I belong.

But, as a fourth-grade teacher, I often feel that I am not enough. My family and friends have been supportive of my decision to teach, but nonetheless, the questions never stop: What's next for you? Are you considering school leadership? Do you think you will teach for a while? Still teaching?

My experience isn't uncommon. Nationwide, there seems to be a prevailing ideology that successful classroom teaching is the easy part, and any teacher worth his or her salt moves on to administration or something else outside of the four walls of a school building. The truth is, excellent teachers are highly sought after, and not just by schools. The Department of Education, Teach For America and other nonprofits, charter management organizations, district front offices, education consulting groups and others are all trying to fill positions with talent. They often recruit from schools for folks with on-the-ground knowledge and experience. And why not? Great teachers not only know what happens in a classroom, but they also tend to be organized, highly motivated, have top-notch communication skills, and usually have leadership experience — highly marketable skills for any position.

These non-teaching positions also come with the promise of expanding impact. Instead of impacting 25 students each day, work with these organizations trickles down to schools and impacts hordes of children. Whether sound logic or not, it's a bit more convincing when non-teaching educational positions pay more, have fewer stressors, and promise more room for future career growth than the typical classroom job.

Given all this, what can schools and districts do to keep great teachers in the classroom? “The Irreplaceables,” a recent paper from TNTP, a teacher quality nonprofit, looks at the teacher retention crisis, specifically through the lens of how to target retention efforts at highly effective teachers. The paper highlights several critical ideas for how to keep great teachers in the classroom, including providing leadership opportunities, improving teachers' working conditions, improving the status of teachers, and providing recognition for excellence.

Leadership opportunities have had a profound impact on my plans to continue teaching. Recently, more than 500 teachers from across the state joined State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett to talk about Common Core implementation. This is the kind of opportunity for teachers to take the lead in the changes happening in our profession that we need more of.

I've also had the opportunity to lead within my school as a mentor teacher. This year, while I remain with my class, I also work with other teachers and their students. When I observe teachers lead students to mastery using techniques I shared with them, I know my efforts are expanding outside of my classroom.

To sustain my motivation well into the future and ensure I remain in the classroom, however, my increasing responsibilities and my students' accomplishments must be tied to powerful, performance-based incentives. Salary structures for teachers that mirror some sales positions — a base salary with substantial, targeted bonuses — would present successful educators with financial rewards year after year, shifting the common practice of experience and degrees alone driving compensation.

After all, at age 27, I must consider my future. I want a family. My fiancé is a social worker. If the teacher career ladder and compensation structure don't change to allow teachers to grow based on our skills and accomplishments, then I'll have two choices: Become comfortable with my current standard of living, or find opportunities outside the classroom. While some might argue the choice is reasonable, I would ask what highly motivated, skilled, educated worker has ever said, “My current position in life and society is decent. I think I'll keep doing the same thing for 35 years.”

The more effective I become as a teacher, the more opportunities I seem to have elsewhere. When career path options outside of the classroom often pay more money and come with more prestigious titles, the message I hear is that these jobs are more valued in our society than teaching 9-year-olds to read, write and add. That shouldn't be the case.

We all tend to select the best options for ourselves; it's human nature. To retain irreplaceable teachers, schools must make staying in the classroom a teacher's best option. Opportunities outside the classroom will continue to win the educational world's top talent if schools and districts don't do more to recognize and provide individually tailored — and fairly compensated — opportunities for their best and brightest.

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