Let's face it. Those veterans from lower-needs schools are not going to be as successful at a higher-need school necessarily. I won't say it's a harder job, but it is a different one. The skill sets don't entirely overlap. Moreover, contrary to popular belief, academic expectations in the classroom are higher at high-needs schools. This can be a big shift in thinking and not an easy one.
Nor is the constant turnover of staff, even highly-trained and motivated staff, positive for the high-needs school. Relationships matter and they aren't built on a Peace Corps-style stay.
And the thing is, some of us do stay. It strikes me that figuring out why the people who stay choose to do so. One could assume that we're all lousy teachers; one would be wrong. I am regularly approached for teaching jobs in which I have not expressed interest at lower-needs schools. Like many of my fellow stayers, I'm highly trained and actively seek opportunities for professional development (and the funding to go: New York in three days!). Identifying the factors that make someone likely to stay and creating the conditions that those teachers want seems like a worthy field of study.
Anyway, some characteristics that I have noted in the stayers:
- We are not out to save anyone. We are not saints or saviors, and those of us who are white are not the Great White Hope. This attitude supports sustainable time commitments and building real relationships with families.
- We really like to teach. If you really like to teach, you don't leave after two years. You just don't. If you really like to teach, you enjoy getting better at it. If you really like to teach, it feels sustainable to you.
- We are good at teaching. Teaching may be art and craft, but some people just have an intuitive feel for it. If teaching comes naturally, then refining the craft is pleasurable and not hideously time-consuming.
- We know what we need in our classrooms. I know I can teach successfully while children roll around the rug, but that the sound of fingers tapping the inside of a desk will drive me out of my mind. I know that I can't effectively manage detailed line order and seating charts, but that I can teach children how to self-regulate in transitions and encourage the classroom community that enables children to pick their own seats in ways that are equitable and diverse.
- We know that children need different things. The teachers who have fidgets, allow controlled walkabouts, understand that needing the bathroom happens and that sometimes you want to be by yourself are the teachers who stay. They're more flexible and more open to teaching self-regulation as opposed to mandating order.
- We believe families are doing their best and seek their input on their children. If you assume you teach the offspring of incompetent and careless people, it's very hard to feel good about your work (or build relationships). If you think you know everything about a child after that child has spent a few weeks in your room, you have the temperament for investment banking but not education.
- We build relationships. I rarely if ever call a child's home (I hate the telephone - I will text, but generally only for informative/praise reasons. Discipline at school is my job unless I need input on strategies that work at home). I am introverted and shy and this can come off as standoffish, so I really have to work at being welcoming. But I do it. I have a good memory and collect data about family relationships. I live in the neighborhood, shop locally, and take the bus. These thing matter.
- We demand work-life balance, even when that means we can't do it all. I am capable of maintaining organized files...if I put in ten hours a week at filing. I run a couple of school events and lead at least one committee a year. I could do more, but I'd have to give up things that make me feel happy and well. I teach better when I am happy and well. I can manage these tradeoffs.
- We believe social-emotional development is important and academic.
- We really and truly believe every child in their class is smart and they believe all children can do well and feel good about it.
So, what do these stayers want? I think the biggest thing is smaller class sizes. The smaller the class, the easier it is to build those relationships, really know each kid, determine the learning background condition each student needs to excel, and so on. So I believe that if we really and truly believe in equity, not equality, we'd be reducing class sizes at high-needs schools. There are other things, too, but this strikes me as the biggest.