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.