School districts need to stop losing ‘irreplaceable’ teachers

| CNN | Robert Jeffers

I recently attended a screening of a PBS documentary about the future of California State Parks, featuring several of my students at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles. When the applause died down, the host convened a Q&A session that included a former student of mine, now a rising senior at Williams College. Facing an intimidating crowd, this student spoke with eloquence and insight about Dorsey High School, about parks and about the important people that set him on his trajectory to success. Then he embarrassed me. He credited me – by name, and by pointing!

It takes a lot to make a successful teacher: Hard work, a generous support network and faith from colleagues and administrators all play a role. I’ve been lucky to have those things, and have seen some professional success — success that’s evident in my student growth data, their college acceptances and the outstanding hands-on projects they’ve completed.

My students have published a book of original food writing and artwork, completed award-winning films, established an on-campus recycling program recognized as one of the best in Los Angeles County and planted more than 60 trees around our inner-city campus. I’m proud of what we’ve done together.

But I would never call myself “irreplaceable.” That’s a word that has been tossed around a lot since TNTP, a teacher quality nonprofit, used it to describe top teachers in a new report, “The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America’s Urban Schools.”

As my former student pointed out, and as TNTP’s report suggests, motivated and highly effective teachers are not easily replaced. In fact, according to TNTP’s research, when top-performing teachers leave their schools, as few as one in 11 possible replacements will be of similar quality.

Our education system is not taking the necessary steps to keep these vital educators in the classroom.

Every year I’ve been at Dorsey High School, I’ve seen great teachers leave: They lose their jobs to reductions in force, they’re “displaced” and assigned to a new school, or they elect to leave the profession altogether. The result is an interruption of the network of colleagues and mentor relationships that we’ve built over the course of the school year, and an erosion of institutional and cultural knowledge essential to running a successful school.

I’ve witnessed teachers with some of the highest “value-added” ratings in the district and teachers who had the ability to marshal $50,000 a year in outside funding for a single school club leave the classroom. When these “irreplaceables” leave, their skills, programs and networks (among colleagues, students, parents and outside organizations) can take years to rebuild — and that’s if the school is lucky enough to replace them with teachers of comparable quality.

The situation is challenging, but not hopeless. TNTP's report suggests that if administrators want to keep high-quality teachers in their schools, providing deliberate recognition and concrete opportunities for career development will go a long way.

As a campus teacher leader, those are things I’ve been lucky to experience: I’ve been given leadership opportunities on campus, such as English Department Chair and Small Learning Community Lead Teacher, and through outside organizations like Teach Plus. Furthermore, I’ve received formal recognitions like Teacher of the Year from LAUSD and Los Angeles County. But in a system like ours, with more than 80,000 teachers, it takes work to recognize every excellent teacher out there.

Recognizing excellence in the teaching profession means acknowledging teachers as leaders, and giving us the autonomy and respect needed to act as change agents in our classrooms, our schools and across our profession. Professional leadership opportunities promote the sharing of “best practices” among teachers – on campus, in the district and beyond – that address how teachers achieved specific successes, and they encourage replication of successes in different contexts.

Most of my fellow teachers want to know, for example, how a colleague in the next building over can have three times more parents at an open house night than any other teacher. Opportunities for teacher leadership also acknowledge that great teachers are the best resource out there to improve education.

Most great teachers I know will never earn Teacher of the Year awards, there are just too few official awards to go around. In reality, most of the reward we get comes from our students. But while I hope every deserving teacher can experience a student calling him or her out as irreplaceable, it’s essential that school districts and leaders find ways to do the same.

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