Where Are the Veteran Charter School Teachers?

This post was originally published on Pass the Chalk.

Growing up, suppertime was my student teaching. I learned what an IEP* was as an 8-year-old, delved into differentiated instruction** as a middle-schooler, and by high school, knew what a manifestation meeting*** was.

This jargon, and endless knowledge, came from my mom. She’s a career teacher. Years before I even knew what Teach For America was, she provided me with (often unsolicited) guidance about education.

What I wouldn’t do to have her at my school today. I’m at my second charter school in one year (my first laid me off), and in both schools, I see very few educators with anywhere near the 15 years of teaching experience that my mom has. With these years comes the type of knowledge that only time can provide.

I think it’s a problem in education in general, but I initially noticed the trend in Minnesota, where I live. At the previous school where I taught, only 3 of the 15 teachers had more than five years of experience. For a new teacher, this definitely makes it harder to find tried-and-true advice, and studies have shown that mentor teachers help with retention. In my current school, the number and proportion of veteran teachers appear to be similar to my last one.

In addition to my experience, I’ve seen fellow teachers in both Minneapolis Public Schools and charters grapple with this issue.

One friend teaches at a charter that has gone through approximately one new teacher a week. When the science teacher quit, they found a long-term sub. When the long-term sub quit, the position went unfilled. In his first year, he’s climbing the seniority ladder at a sickening speed.

Another corps member, a high school science teacher, had to begin teaching middle school science on top of her full-time roster after staffing shifts.

From the various research I’ve read from across the country, including papers from Vanderbilt,  Stanford, and the Center on Reinventing Public Education, the turnover in charters appears to be more than just an issue of serving low-income students or learners in urban areas. Questions of job security and compensation are relevant as well.

Looking at the unique demands of many charters and their salary and benefits compared with a unionized charter or district school, I’m not surprised there are so few “lifers” at charters in my area. The much higher year-to-year costs of salary and benefits for veteran teachers (who understandably desire higher compensation, tend to have more health-insurance needs than a twenty-something, and more often have families to support) compared to beginners give charters less incentive to hire a veteran. Or perhaps they’re just not applying.

After all, as a veteran teacher in many charter schools, you work longer hours, get paid less, and have less job security than in other school settings. I’m no stranger to the pros and cons of a unionized school; my mom has seen inept teachers bring down student scores for years without penalty. But, in the interest of stability and structure for students, there has to be a compromise that puts students first and provides a sustainable career for educators.

Right now, I see what seems to be a revolving door for educators promising to transform students’ lives. Well-intended as they may be, true transformation happens when those best-suited to teach have a sustainable pathway to stay in the classroom. There are some great ideas and schools tackling this issue, giving teachers the cultural support, flexibility, and opportunities they need and deserve. I hope we can learn from them and make charter schools a place to forge a career.

*Individualized Education Program, which outlines the learning objectives and program for a child who has been found with a disability.

**Matching what and how an individual student learns, and how the student demonstrates that learning, with that student’s level of preparation and preferred mode of learning.

***A meeting that occurs when a student with an IEP is subject to a disciplinary action that will change that student’s placement.  The meeting’s aim is to determine if the charges are a manifestation of the student’s disability or a direct result of the school’s failure to provide services to the student as outlined in the IEP.

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