Last week, I spent some time postulating about whether teaching is a science or an art. Like many occupations, there is a lot of training and education that goes into becoming a teacher, and developing a philosophy based on your beliefs (in my case, that teaching is more of an art) is important to lasting long-term in this career and continuing to improve year to year.
However, long term is not a phrase used nearly as much anymore in education. Different studies show different results, but some numbers show that as many as 40% of all new teachers leave the profession within five years. Just think about that for a second. All these people work hard in college to answer the call of what they look at as a noble profession. And then they leave. Why?
There are three main reasons that are shown for this problem: money, guidance, and mobility. Many young teachers feel that they start at a salary that is difficult to live on and are not willing to wait to move up the ladder and/or improve their education to earn more money. I remember looking at my first check and thinking I was quite wealthy, especially compared to the hourly wage I was making at the grocery store in college. However, once I started paying for my rent, utilities, food, etc., there wasn’t much left.
That can be a tough pill to swallow for young college graduates. Many young folks think that when they walk out of college, they will be rolling in dough. I’m sure that teaching is like many other degrees in that respect though. Young doctors and lawyers also have to work long hours and aren’t making six-figure salaries right off the bat.
Guidance is key. As teachers, we have our own classrooms and are responsible for the young heads that appear there every day. However, this can become an isolated situation. Many teachers, rookies and experienced, find it hard to leave their rooms during the day, trying to catch up with all the planning and correcting. I know some that make a point of coming to the lounge at lunch no matter what. They need to get out.
But if you don’t get out, it’s hard to ask for help. And young teachers need a lot of help! There are so many situations that arise that your classes in college never prepared you for; even student teaching doesn’t expose you to everything. Over two decades in, and I still run into cases that I have never seen before. We all need help, but it’s too easy for young people to become discouraged, and many of them are reluctant to appear weak in asking for guidance.
We have a mentor program at NRHEG, but things probably need to go beyond that. After all, mentors have classrooms too and aren’t always available to meet at a moment’s notice. I look back at my early career, and my two principals, Mr. Cyr and Mr. Obermiller, always knew what was happening in my room. They were aware of the curriculum I was teaching and knew of problems that might arise. They would pop in occasionally just to make their presence known; I bet Mr. Cyr made an appearance at least once a week in my room. The kids noticed, and I knew that he would be there to help me with problems, sometimes before I even knew I had them!
The last area is mobility. And this is the area that affects us most at NRHEG. This is a more mobile generation, always looking for the perfect job. We’ve seen a lot of that here in recent times, with teachers staying for a year or two until they could find something “better.” Sometimes they want to be closer to home, and other times they’re looking for a different style of school than what we have here.
So how do you keep them here? I know that’s one of the priorities of our school board, retaining quality teachers. It’s very difficult in rural Minnesota. We’re an agricultural community by and large, and our towns don’t have a lot of built-in entertainment options. There are certainly nearby cities like Mankato, Owatonna, and Albert Lea, but sometimes young folks want instant access to everything they need.
NRHEG is not the only place in Minnesota that this is an issue. It’s all over in small towns. Let’s face it: if you come here without any connections, what will keep you here? I met my wife here; otherwise, who knows if I would have stayed. I know teachers who have left here for that very reason: no prospects. I’ve joked that we could set up a dating service, but that probably wouldn’t be funded by the state.
So what can we do? I don’t really know, honestly. Obviously, money can play a big role, and I foresee a future where school districts might have to negotiate with prospective teachers, just like pro sports do with free agents. Finding ways to entice teachers to stay is even more key. If principals could get out and about more, instead of being burdened with paperwork, they could provide that same guidance that I received early on. And then we have to be welcoming and socialize with these young folks, showing them how great our communities are and why they should stay with us.
Hopefully, schools can figure all this out. It’s scary when many schools have so many spots to fill each year, and it’s not just from retirements. I’ve seen some quality teachers leave here for varying reasons, and it would truly make our school the district of choice if we could find a way to stem that tide.
Word of the Week: This week’s word is mieny, which means a group of co-workers, as in, “The mieny of the new teacher took him out to the local golf course to expose him to a jewel of the community.” Impress your friends and confuse your enemies!