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How to keep talented teachers from leaving

New teachers face high-pressure demands, with little support, such that more than half leave the profession within the first five years. These teachers need to see opportunities for career advancement, better compensation, and meaningful evaluation and professional development.

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To help new teachers deal with classroom strains, better preparation – including year-long experiences in real classrooms, integrated with university coursework – is powerfully effective. So is strong mentoring in the first couple of years of teaching. Good school leadership is also crucial. One teacher told us, “The teachers set the tone in the classroom, and a principal sets the tone in the building.”

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Most of all, as many observers have argued, those hoping to elevate the teaching profession need to identify opportunities for growth and distinction that will support a greater respect for teaching. One education policy expert told us, “If you’re a high achiever and you’re looking at the landscape of occupations, you know you might go really far if you go into law or business, or medicine. But, in teaching, what you see ahead of you is many years of doing the same thing.”

Both prospective teachers and society as a whole need to hear something different from the current debate over teaching performance. They need to hear and see the teaching profession and evaluation associated with rewarding, creative outcomes that extend beyond statistical benchmarks. They need more than a few feel-good stories about the internal satisfaction that comes from working with young people. They need to see a profession that allows educators to grapple with – and embrace – the most difficult ethical, scientific, and political questions the world has ever faced.

What’s more, people who might consider teaching need to see it as a profession whose members are valued and rewarded with both improved financial compensation and clear opportunities to advance without leaving the classroom. They need to see schools where professional development is meaningful and teacher evaluation is broad and useful. They need to see administrators who support teachers, establish a culture of respect and excellence, and lead effectively.

This kind of appeal, backed by real opportunities for intellectual and professional growth, could be attractive to the rising generation of highly educated young adults – those seeking careers that are personally rewarding and have an impact on society.

It is crucial that well-prepared, well-supported, professionally fulfilled teachers stay in education. Our future is their hands; it depends on their skill and their engagement. As former Harvard president Derek Bok wrote, “Education institutions [must] assume the responsibility to cultivate interests and supply the knowledge that will help young people make more enlightened choices about how to live their lives.” If our nation’s schools are truly to recruit and retain great teachers – across all fields – we need to renew this broad vision of their profession.

Eric Klinenberg is professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. Caitlin Zaloom is associate professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU.


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