After sitting through 2 hours of a 4-hour school board meeting earlier this week, I feel compelled to offer some additional insight on the portion of that meeting that related to teacher recruitment and retention. As a side note, I’m a firm believer that if a meeting lasts over an hour, you need another meeting. Research has shown that people’s attention spans drop off dramatically after 30 minutes, so imagine the drop off after 4 hours. But I digress.

One of the biggest challenges facing Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) is teacher recruitment and retention. To be fair, it’s not just a local issue. Districts across the country are grappling with the same challenge. In my mind, that exacerbates the problem because it allows district leadership to shift blame elsewhere and not look at the role they play in the crisis. And I do believe it’s a crisis.

Chief Executive Officer of Human Resources Deborah Story gave a presentation at Tuesday’s meeting to the MNPS school board that I found quite interesting. She acknowledged last year’s shortcomings by saying “We didn’t see the growth that we’d like to have,” and that they’d have to work harder this year. She then proceeded to present a number of slides that illustrated data pulled from exit interviews with teachers who had left the district.

Before we get into those slides, it needs to be noted that only 17% of exiting teachers, up slightly from last year, participated in the exit surveys. Why is that, you ask? According to Ms. Story, a major reason was a fear of reprisal if they decided to return to the district at a later date. Wait… what you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?

Did I just hear the Head of HR acknowledge that there is a culture of fear at MNPS that keeps teachers from speaking their mind? But several board member have dismissed such claims over the years. Some board members have asserted that the culture of fear has dissipated over the last year. Yet, here you have the Head of HR saying that only 17% of teachers LEAVING the district responded to exit surveys with fear of reprisal being a leading reason given. Draw your own conclusions.

Moving on. Story produced a slide that compared the number of teachers leaving the district during the last two school years by their years of experience teaching. She noted that we had decreased the number of teachers exiting in their first and second years of teaching. She did acknowledge that by year three, there was a slight uptick, and that they were looking into it because they weren’t sure why those teachers left in slightly greater numbers than before.

Story then went on to praise the value of the new teacher academy and mentoring programs and the positive impacts they were having. Both are worthy of accolades, but let’s back things up for a second.

Take a look at teachers with 4 through 10 years of experience. We almost DOUBLED the amount of experienced teachers we lost from the year before. Yikes! That is pretty serious, and I bet that you’re thinking surely a board member or two questioned those numbers! Nope. They just moved on to the next slide.

More time was spent discussing the demise of transitional licensing than discussing why we saw this huge uptick in veteran teachers leaving the district. In my humble opinion, those numbers are another indication of a culture problem. Because if you go back a slide, district research showed that the vast majority of teachers leaving are heading to another district. So what you have is teachers who understand the requirements of the profession and have accepted them, but feel that another district would be a better place to practice their profession. Has anybody asked why?

To be fair, sometimes the reason for moving to another district can be as simple as a desire to cut down on commute time. But with that many educators making the move, coupled with the low exit interview participation due to fear of reprisal, I would be doing some digging. Though you can’t really dig into things if people don’t trust you. If I don’t trust you, it’s easier to take the path of least resistance than to give you meaningful answers. I realize that creates a bit of a Catch-22, but it is what it is.

At this point in the meeting, Dr. Joseph decided to speak about the threat of other districts poaching our teachers. He noted that at the beginning of the year, we lost 30 to 40 teachers to other districts, and it really hurt us. Other states have legislation to curb teacher poaching, and he felt like it might be something that Tennessee needs to explore. I guess nobody told him that Tennessee is a right-to-work state controlled by Republicans. Furthermore, MNPS has a bonus plan that pays teachers up to $6K if they join the district after August 11th. A plan that is designed to… wait for it… poach teachers from other districts.

I just keep going back to the elephant in the room: culture. We’ve all heard the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and it is absolutely true. If you don’t think the culture in MNPS is toxic, then you are not paying attention. Dr. Joseph himself has acknowledged such to me personally and even went as far to admit that he’d probably made it worse by bringing in so much outside leadership at the beginning. While I appreciate his candor, what is being done to fix things now?

I know, this is where people tell me that there has always been a culture problem at MNPS. Here’s my response: “I don’t care. The past should not be the sole justification for the present.” If it’s bad, it’s bad, regardless of who’s responsible for it. At some point, somebody has to own it and take steps to improve things. It drives me absolutely nuts when people shrug off a bad situation because it’s always been like that. As if a bad culture is an inherent part of the system.

If you watch the first 90 minutes of Tuesday’s board meeting, you’d be left with the impression that the district’s problems are minimal. In discussing this with a dear friend, she made the comment that she feels by and large, despite the deeper problems in the district, which she’s not discounting, there is incredible work being done. That kids are being engaged and teachers are closing their doors and doing transformational work behind them.

I certainly don’t disagree with that assertion. But, I would ask, at what cost? We celebrate all these feel good stories but we never ask to see the price tag. We never ask the cost to teachers’ health. We never ask the cost to their mental health. We never ask the cost to their family relationships. We never ask their financial cost. It has become expected that teachers will pay whatever cost it takes to produce quality learning opportunities for their students. They will do whatever it costs to ensure that every child has a shot at the best educational experience possible.

It’s very commendable of teachers to be willing to pick up the tab, but is it moral for us to just accept it and allow it? Many of us would bristle if, when out with a friend for a meal, they tried to pick up the tab. Yet we feel perfectly fine with allowing teachers to go into their pocket for classroom supplies. We have no problem expecting them to work on weekends for no pay because we’ve heaped so many responsibilities upon their plate. We don’t even feel compelled to make sure that they make enough money that, if they desired, they could afford to buy a house in the district where they work.

Instead we talk about alternative licensing, principal leadership programs, certifying teachers through the district, working with community groups, creating websites, and other ideas that may make a dent in the issue, but won’t touch the root. I’d argue that unless we get to the root, it’s akin to just throwing kindling on the fire. You may increase your numbers, but to utilize business speak, are you utilizing the right KPI’s – Key Performance Indicators?

Story talked a whole lot about teachers leaving the district. In my opinion, those numbers tell an incomplete story. If we are going to understand the full scope of the crisis, we also need to look at the number of teachers transferring within the district. Those numbers might give somebody a heart attack, but I believe you’d find that transferring schools is often a precursor to leaving the district. Those numbers may allow you to prevent further exodus from the district.

Towards the end of Story’s presentation, Board member Christiane Buggs asked, “What can we do for you?” Story responded that they needed two more recruiters at minimum. She went on to say that the current recruiters were drowning under the volume of the work and were highly stressed out. In her words,

“You can see it in their eyes that they are stressed out. If they get too stressed out, you start to lose people. Sharon and I have to spend a little bit of every day giving them some love.”

The irony in that statement is not lost on me. I wonder if we could get that statement on a T-shirt and present it to Dr. Joseph.

Categories: Uncategorized

18 replies

  1. I retired from MNPS last year. I was not offered the opportunity to take an exit survey. I wanted one. I didn’t get a chance to tell them why I was retiring when I still have many good years of work life left.

  2. I’m telling you, you need to follow what is was happening in MD….Howard County and Baltimore County. You need to be careful that Dallas Dance and Renee Foose aren’t somehow lurking in the shadows at MNPS. Exactly what happened here is happening in your backyard and the 3 of them were friendly when they were together here in MD. Create a hostile environment to create a teacher shortage and then let ed tech come in to save the day. If you don’t act soon and swift, you will have a hard time getting rid of the rotten meat when it really starts to stink.

  3. I have posted about this here a number of times. Sylvan Park Elementary has lost 16 teachers since Robin Elder was hired. (A Joseph hire) She single-handedly ran off one of the best group of academics. These teachers were a group of people that were completely invested in their school, the kids, their co-workers and the community. We also had a PTO that refused to get involved in what was happening. But pleas to MNPS by several parents did not change a thing. Narcisse ignored our attempts at having Elder trained or removed. Now we are left with the people that are stuck because they can’t leaver or will stay until they retire and a crop of brand-new teachers. Teachers who are completely unknown commodities. MNPS did this. They hired a principal who had never taught elementary school. She has no idea how to lead without belittlement, shame and fear. And those exit interviews you speak of… We asked for anonymous exit interviews so that the teachers could express themselves fully. Nope. We asked for a focus group with Narcisse with the teachers to voice their concerns. Nope. We asked Amy Frogge to intervene. Nope. (To be fair, Amy listened, but that went no where) The whole year this woman ran a muck and unchecked. I place the blame squarely on Joseph’s shoulders for bringing this woman into our school. She has ruined the culture and vibe of our sweet school.

  4. The numbers next year will not be any better. In my fourteen years of teaching for MNPS, I have never seen teachers this stressed. The district continues to pile new initiatives and policies upon us, but they take away the planning time needed to implement said initiatives. We are not treated like professionals nor are we compensated adequately. Something has to change or more veteran and new teachers will leave.

  5. Yes, the irony. Does anyone know what we teachers do? Does anyone care? Mental health, indeed.

  6. I totally agree with Kathleen. In my almost 20 years, I’ve never seen teachers so overworked and exhausted. You can’t get all the work done even working until 6 or 7 at night and going in on the weekends. Directive after directive gets piled on, while planning periods get taken away. To make matters worse, the initiatives and directives change almost yearly. What you are being told this year is a “mandate” will be thrown out next year. Because of this, it’s hard to embrace new initiatives. You know they won’t last. The mandates are demoralizing. You feel you have less and less control over your teaching day. You are always being told what to do. You think to yourself “I’m doing the best I can.” But more and more, you realize that your best is still not good enough.

  7. What is the process for the exit interview? Why is it optional??? At least make it anonymous.

  8. I was not offered an exit survey. I do not know anyone who has been. Usually the problem is the administration. All the central office has to do is look at the number of teachers leaving a particular school compared to how many left under the previous administration. Easy, peasy, but not done.

  9. The exit interviews came via email. My friend got his automatically, but I had to email HR and ask for it. So there was some sort of flaw in the distribution for sure. I worked in Metro for 10 years. I left, not because I was unhappy with Pearl Cohn or MNPS, but to be closer to family and simplify our lives. There’s only so long I could handle a 45+ commute each day, skyrocketing preschool costs, and steadily increasing crime/gun violence that is quite literally killing off my students (these, by the way, are Nashville problems, not MNPS problems). So we moved to Knoxville. 3 other teachers who left my school moved out of state to be closer to family. Another left teaching all together to get an MBA (which is fine. Teaching isn’t for everyone. There were no amount of supports that were going to make teaching his thing.). Only one teacher left for another school (charter school). My school has a high turnover rate, but it is not a result of culture. It is a result of the fact that teaching kids who are 5-6 grade levels behind is exhausting. Teaching kids who are in a constant state of trauma outside school is exhausting. Giving all of yourself to make kids feel loved, respected, engaged, encouraged is exhausting. My principal gave staff every single support imaginable to help us fend off that exhaustion. The culture of Pearl is why so many do return to do such soul-stripping, but vital work in our community. The culture of a school is what truly matters. Metro doesn’t really create that culture, building-level admin does. I’m sure someone will argue that the director sets the tone and his staff members roll out the initiatives that have so many teachers stressed. But we had the same amount of initiatives when I worked in Williamson County, and Robertson County, and now Knox County. The difference is the majority of the kids in those counties came to my classroom with all of their basic social, emotional, survival needs met. Literally all I had to do was teach them English. Of course that’s less stressful. Of course you’re happier as human being in that situation. But you can’t just jump to the conclusion that someone’s desire to have a lower-stress life with some sort balance is Metro’s fault. If you want to point fingers, you have to look at the bigger issues that are at play: generational poverty, cost of living, gun violence, access to quality mental health.

    • Thank you for giving another side of the coin. I do agree that the bigger issues you outlined do need to be addressed and I attempt to shine a greater light on them at every opportunity. I do believe that the issues you outline are present to some degree in every school system, and that’s a big problem, but I also believe that that inherent disfunction allows for people to paint a picture that high stress levels are just business as usual. The level of stress is not the same in all districts and the number and anecdotes paint a picture of MNPS having a much more toxic culture in years past. Again, everybody’s experience is different and I very much appreciate you sharing yours. Thank you.

  10. I have a friend who left MNPS. Her exit interview was sent one day, then her email was cutoff the next where she was unable to access. Thankfully, she wanted them to know why she left, so she called and asked for the link.

  11. Recruiters are stressed out? Really? Put them in a classroom and lets see how stressed out they are! Their stress level doesn’t touch that of a great teacher but we as teachers don’t have the option to go to the board and ask for more positions to help with our stress.
    Thanks for your beautiful post. Very informative but stressful as well!

  12. I switched to another district this past summer. I was part of focus groups that asked about how MNPS could retain more teachers a few years back. I was not offered an exit survey, but I will gladly tell anyone at the Board why I left after 9 years. But, like the focus groups, it would likely be a waste of my time, based on my experiences with MNPS and the details of this article. I now make essentially the same money, with less stress in a positive school culture where students are held accountable and teachers are supported. I could go on, but it’s beating a dead horse.

  13. First and second year teachers right out of college will do ALMOST ANYTHING to get a job and keep it. By year three they begin wondering WHY they even want the job…

  14. What was most frustrating is that the board takes hours to do their happy-business items at the beginning, then the room clears out, and after 40 minutes of back and forth to educate board members on what licenses the state gives out yada yada there really wasn’t any substantive discussion about the culture change needed to keep people. Only Speering and to a lesser degree Gentry had the poise and directness to understand and question the “plans” that were being spun in the name of filling the pipelines. This coming after 8pm. Someone needs to be setting real priorities. I did not get that from the many of the people at the top from this segment of the evening. At that rate, don’t expect any big changes in this situation anytime soon, and don’t be surprised if the quoted % departure hovers at the same place in the meantime. As Former said above, eventually good people with sanity will take their party elsewhere even for a modest pay cut because the system isn’t healing itself fast enough. Op-ed columns won’t be enough.


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