A record number of Philadelphia teachers fronting classrooms this fall will be either new to the district, the school or to the profession, writes Nicole Gillespie of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation. It is difficult to say which factors specifically have led to many experienced instructors fleeing the profession in the past several years, but between attrition, layoffs, retirement and public-to-charter conversions, it’s no wonder that the rate of turnover for urban schools has been on the rise.
In some ways, the situation facing the city’s schools and its teachers isn’t unique. Recent survey found that teacher morale around the country is at its lowest in more than two decades, with teachers citing deterioration in working conditions, public opinion, and the feeling that the public holds them solely responsible for the issues plaguing the American education system as the reasons why they’ve been souring on their profession.
Philadelphia’s newly hired superintendent, William R. Hite Jr., may be able to steer Philadelphia in a new direction by working with teachers instead of against them. We should all applaud his efforts so far to learn about and heal the system. Because Hite is a former teacher and principal, I am hopeful that he will remember just how much of an impact teachers have on student learning; particularly the kind of impact that standardized tests cannot measure very well. If we want our schools to be a place where meaningful learning occurs, the classroom must be a place where both teachers and students can thrive.
One of the missions supported by Knowles to improve the quality of science and technology teachers in particular is starting them off on their careers with a comprehensive five-year fellowship that includes extensive material support and an opportunity for mentorship and continuous feedback. Philadelphia’s George Washington High School currently employs one teacher who’s currently in the year three of her fellowship, Kelsey Johnson, and the impact of her presence at the school has already been felt. Johnson, who teaches physical and environmental science, has created an Advanced Placement-level course in the subject at GW and constantly works to engage her students in the subject matter via field trips and experimentation.
Kelsey is exactly the kind of teacher Philadelphia’s students need and deserve. So we need to ask: How can Philadelphia sustain and retain teachers like Kelsey?
Great teachers like Kelsey don’t just happen. Like all professionals, teachers develop when they have ongoing opportunities to learn, have access to resources and expertise and the time and support to reflect on and improve their practice.
The efforts to expand and grow an excellent STEM teacher corps shouldn’t be something that’s limited to Philadelphia, but nationwide it seems like more states and districts are inclined to give up rather than put forth the necessary work and funding, says Gillespie. Earlier this year, in an attempt to save money for fiscally struggling schools, California Governor Jerry Brown proposed doing away with the requirement that the state’s students take a second year of science as part of their high school graduation requirements. While the impulse is understandable — especially in a state as financially pinched as California — throwing up hands in frustration is hardly a solution that will contribute much to the production of a STEM-trained workforce that California, and the country, will need in the future.
KSTF wants to see more investment in the support and development of new teachers, an inspired recruiting high-achieving graduates into the field and improve the conditions and sustainability of beginning teachers’ work in order to retain them in the profession.