2.6. The average number of years a teacher spends at my school. Most teachers stay either two or three years, and the ones who stay longer tend to move into administrative positions. There are the rockstars of course – the ones who are there for six or eight or ten years. But the majority come and go, and so the cycle begins, and so it ends.
I just found out this evening that a second teacher will be leaving our eighth grade team at the end of the semester. We’re a close group, a tight-knit family, and I’m not going to lie – it hurts. I don’t want to get into specifics but I will say that the teacher leaving our team at the end of the semester is moving up to high school, to replace a teacher who is leaving for other reasons. I had to hold myself back from getting too emotional about it when my principal called me.
This, this teacher churn, this lifestyle which is so difficult to turn into something sustainable…this is what it looks like. Constant coming and going. Unrest, unease, change. Our kids are going to be so upset. They love their teachers and they’re still at an age where they can’t really understand why teachers leave. I’m upset too. I feel like I’m losing a mentor – someone who’s been an anchor of stability, inspiration, and wisdom for me amidst a sea of endless change.
It should be noted that neither of the departing teachers are TFA teachers, so this isn’t some criticism of TFA or of school reform or anything like that. It’s just an observation. Some field notes, if you will. When teachers leave, they leave behind far more than just an empty classroom or a meeting without a leader. They leave a hole, an unexplainable gap, that just doesn’t mend easily.
One of my favorite episodes of The West Wing featured a ride on Air Force One and an epiphany from Toby, the Communications Director at the White House. He comes up with a TFA-like idea in which he wants to give low-income college students tuition breaks if they go back to their home communities and teach for two years. His Deputy Communications Director, Sam, argues the other side, pointing out the risks of teacher turnover among teachers who are only “in it” for a short amount of time. “Who cares?” Toby argues. “Do you care what your fourth-grade teacher did after you graduated from fifth grade?” I first watched this when I was in middle school and at first, agreed with Toby. Why should it matter what your teachers do after they’re done teaching you?
But here are some realities from where I work:
1. This year’s ninth-graders have had a first-year teacher every single year for ELA, starting when they were in sixth grade.
2. My current eighth grade team consists of two first-year teachers, two second-year teachers, and one third-year teacher.
3. The average age of a staff member at my school – including upper-level administrators – is 26.
4. My students have never been taught by someone older than 27.
5. There are 40 teachers at my school. Ten of them are new to the school this year (though to be fair, a few were already teachers and came from a different school system). Still. One-quarter.
I could go on.
It will be extraordinarily difficult to maintain strong culture, cohesion, and unity among this year’s eighth-graders next semester. The teacher leaving is the heart and soul of our team. On a professional level I have no idea how I’m going to handle things like discipline and administrative issues and the day-to-day workings of my job. On a personal level…I don’t really have words.
In an odd way, I feel like it’s come to be accepted at my school, this never-ending churn of fleeting tenure, the come-and-go, the onward-and-upward. The burnout I referenced in my last post undoubtedly contributes to it. Or maybe it’s the culture of youth (to quote that New York Times article from a while ago), or maybe the fact that Houston is sometimes a waystation on the way to bigger and brighter cities.
I have many more feelings on this but I’m scared to put them on here. So for now, I resign myself to another night of grading open-ended responses, and words from another mentor of mine when I was sad about leaving her/college/life as I knew it:
“I’m okay with goodbyes. I feel strongly that good people come to you at times in your life for reasons. And if and when you need them again…they’ll be there.”