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John was fresh-out-of-college and had never set foot in a city school before. Hired the day before the school year started, he missed out on the two-and-a-half weeks of training the charter organization had given the rest of us on what to expect at a turnaround school in Camden, NJ. John lasted less than a week.
I’d started the year as a history teacher, relieved to be without the responsibility of my own classroom and homeroom. But after five more teachers followed John out of the school building within the first month, I had both. When I left at the beginning of the next school year, seven more teachers were right behind me.
Turmoil and churn as a strategy
When a school loses teachers, by choice or by chance, students are cheated out of continuity, while the goals and objectives of the entire organization can be hindered. In charter schools, including the ones where I taught for six years, this problem is particularly pronounced. Teachers leave charters at significantly higher rates when compared to traditional public schools. Among urban charter schools, it’s not uncommon to see teachers turning over at a rate of 30, 40 or even 50% a year. I’ve witnessed first hand—and experienced—why this is such a problem, and what causes teachers to flee. But I’ve also seen for myself that there are charter schools and networks that don’t mind high levels of teacher turnover. Turmoil and churn work for organizations that are determined to control both the makeup and the mindset of their faculty.
To understand why teachers leave charter schools, you have to first look at what their teaching lives are like. When they start out, they work ten to twelve hours and day, then two more hours when they get home. Young and/or inexperienced in the classroom, they believe that they can save the world one child at a time. They drink the proverbial Kool-Aid offered to them by their charter organization. Whatever salary is offered, they accept, knowing that the extra work they do isn’t compensated. But life happens. Those once green teachers grow older, gaining skills, savvy and experience. They seek career advancement opportunities, better pay and a seat at the table. And major life changes—they get married, have kids of their own—demand more time for life outside of school. Some teachers get tired of putting in extra hours every day. Wearing “extra hats” starts to wear thin. They burn out from turbulent working conditions in concert with real issues beyond the appeal of caring adults. The appeal of working for an organization that demands time, labor and allegiance to the mission first (too often raising test scores), and the children second, begins to fade.
And so these teachers walk away, just in time to be replaced by a new crop of the young, idealistic teachers they once were. Charter school fans often point to teacher turnover as a net positive. Unlike traditional public schools with their union contracts, charters are flushing out the teachers who can’t hack it, and as long as the test scores are going up, who cares how long the teachers stay? But this weeding out process is designed to rid schools of more than just the incompetents. It’s also a way of eliminating teachers who no longer see eye to eye with the organization. As teachers become more confident, in their teaching and in themselves, they start to speak out against what’s wrong—sometimes at the expense of their employment.
I am not implying that it is the goal of charter schools to intentionally facilitate a mass exodus of teachers at the end of every school year. Yet I heard for myself charter school leaders say that they appreciate how the challenges of urban of education enable them to maintain just the right roster of faculty. At times these leaders expedited the weeding process by subjecting particular teachers to micromanagement and redundant observations. I also witnessed leaders lean on skilled and talented teachers, and teachers of color, requesting that they carry a bit more of the emotional and administrative workload, to "test" whether or not they could meet the demands of the organization.
Weeding out teachers to maintain control
The weeding process is all about maintaining control where there is none. It serves to remove "troublemakers": the folks who will hold the organization accountable. For charter leadership looking to maintain sovereignty of mission and mission implementation, teachers who are independent thinkers and teachers with lives outside of schools are as much of a detriment as those deemed incompetent. The teachers who remain either like the Kool-Aid or at the very least are still thirsty.
Teacher turnover is an effective tool for organizations that seek to shift accountability away from school leadership. High teacher attrition is an accountability loophole. Rather than rethink a mission that prizes drilling over teaching, or addressing why young teachers get burned out or why teachers of color walk away from the very communities they are so passionate about, some charter leaders will often put the blame on the leavers. "They couldn’t cut it," you’ll hear them say. They’ll insist to stakeholders that some teachers weren’t good enough, while others weren’t the right "fit" for the organizational mission and culture. The charter school’s organizational leadership and mission remain intact; anyone who is not fighting for "our kids" has been let go.
But where is the accountability for school and district level leaders who fail to hold onto the sorts of teachers they should be fighting to keep? Where is the accountability for organizations that cheat Black and Brown students who most need the presence of strong adults and seasoned professionals out of continuity and stability? When do leaders stop pointing fingers at "bad apples" and teachers who couldn’t cut it and turn themselves around for the wellbeing of the children these schools serve?
During my final year of teaching at a Camden, NJ charter school, I was told that my job responsibilities would be changing the next school year. Instead of teaching history or social studies in grades sixth through twelve as I’m certified to do, I was going to be teaching 3rd grade science. Rather than participate in a year of failure for all parties involved, I decided to leave. I guess that means I couldn’t cut it either.
Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally-funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. He spent 6 years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. He writes the Urban Education Mixtape Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @UrbanEdDJ.