October 23, 2021

How to keep a new teacher?

State, local school districts beat the national average for retention

Photos by Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Shannon Dunbar teaches an earth science class Dec. 18 at Moravia High School.

Julia Lucisano is a senior at SUNY Cortland and she’s been busy lately.

The childhood/early childhood education major is substitute teaching at East Syracuse-Minoa School District in preparation for her future career as an elementary school teacher. Next year Lucisano plans to complete her master’s degree in literacy while she substitute teaches.

Teaching as a calling, she said, and she hopes the district that hires her would afford her flexibility to teach as she sees fit. If it does, she could see herself staying there for seven to 10 years, before certifying as a school administrator.

If Lucisano lasts this long at her first job she will outlast about half her peers.

Nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave the field within five years – a statistic which outpaces turnover in many other occupations and something districts are trying to address.

However, New York state and local districts are beating that rate, holding turnover rates of less than half the national average.

Lucisano has many ideas of what districts could do to keep her.

High turnover addressed

At Groton Central School District, teachers get coached individually for the first three years of their employment and professional development opportunities are also provided as an enticement to stay.

Even so, the district faced double-digit turnover rates in 2015-16 to 2016-17, the most recent years available in state Education Department data.

Superintendent Margo Martin said the district also had a number of retirements that year and she says the district is not alone in its plight.

“We, like most districts in Upstate New York, struggle to find applicants in the math and science areas,” she wrote recently. “This is due to a shortage of people going into the teaching fields in those disciplines.”

The turnover among new teachers is especially problematic, say educators.

A persisting problem

Richard Ingersoll, Board of Overseers Professor of Education and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, says there are strong correlations between a district’s poverty and its teacher turnover.

“A suburban affluent district might average 10 or 11 percent teacher turnover a year, while a low-income urban district might average over twice that, and there are high rates in rural areas too, typically if it’s rural and low-income,” Ingersoll said.

About 40 to 50 percent of teachers leave teaching within five years, says Ingersoll, citing a 2013 dissertation by David Perda at the University of Pennsylvania: “Transitions Into and Out of Teaching: A Longitudinal Analysis of Early Career Teacher Turnover.”

The problem isn’t new. A national study by the Learning Policy Institute found that demand for teachers increased sharply after the Great Recession, leveling off around 260,000 hires a year by 2014. Projections showed a large increase in 2017ñ18 and a projected plateau bringing annual hires demanded to about 300,000 teachers a year by about 2019.

“The teaching work force continues to be a leaky bucket, losing hundreds of thousands of teachers each year – the majority of them before retirement age,” the institute reported in 2016. “Changing attrition would change the projected shortages more than any other single factor.”

What a district can do

The good news is that there are things districts can do, Ingersoll said. Pairing young teachers with a veteran mentor is one step.

Those programs can be expensive to implement, however, and there are other measures that are low-cost but go a long way.

Giving teachers the flexibility to run their classrooms and enforce rules as they see fit, a low-cost step, he said. Teachers complain they are micromanaged.

Student teacher Julia Lusciano helps Randall Elementary second-grader Ryan Tallett with his work Dec. 14 in Cortland.

“That’s really management. Are these people treated like professionals,” Ingersoll said. “The idea is that professionals are experts and have a voice, that’s something that could be fixed without spending a lot of money.”

At Groton, says Martin, the district focuses on keeping teachers that are a good fit for the community.

“We offer an individualized coaching program with a third-party vendor, Better Lessons, for the first three years of a teacher’s employment here at Groton. In addition, we try to provide PD (professional development) over the summer and throughout the school year,” she said.

Marathon Superintendent Rebecca Stone says the main reason the small, rural district loses teachers is that they often leave to move closer to home and their family – a difficult problem to combat.

The district offers a mentoring program to help new teachers make sure the topics they cover are relevant and that they have the support they need. It also offers professional development and the small district lends itself to a family-oriented climate.

“Sometimes we’re able to retain people that way,” Stone said. “And sometimes they leave and call back and say, ‘We didn’t realize what we had til we left.’ ”
Praise can go a long way too, Ingersoll said.

“A teacher could be up ’till midnight coming up with terrific ideas in the classroom and nobody notices, noone cares and they certainly are not paid any extra money,” he said. “It’s voluntary and after awhile they get tired.”

Adjusting expectations

Teachers need to be prepared for what lies ahead in their careers, said Rhiannon Maton, an assistant professor at SUNY Cortland in the Foundations and Social Advocacy department. They will have to navigate many challenges: interacting with administrators, connecting with parents, and most importantly meeting the needs of their students.

Maton tells the future elementary school teachers she trains to find a school that feels like a good fit.

“It is good to work in a school with a positive and supportive environment among colleagues, especially in your first few years,” she said. “Supportive colleagues can provide guidance, care and ideas when you struggle.”

Ingersoll also recommends teachers spend time in the schools they are considering.

“Do teachers seem to get along with one another? Are there large amounts of student misbehavior and discipline issues?” he said. “Walk around the building and when the bell rings between classes you’ll get a sense, are the halls full of people slugging one another or does there seem to be a level of decorum in the building?”

A district’s success

From 2015-16 to 2016-17, the Moravia school district saw zero teacher turnover among teachers with fewer than five years experience and 5 percent among all teachers – a rate Superintendent John Birmingham said is normal.

The effort starts with recruiting the right person for the job, he said. There is a rigorous application process and interviews are time intensive.

“We spend some time sitting down with the successful candidate to give them a sense of what the position entails,” he said.

After the hire, the district provides mentoring and professional development.

But that’s not all. Birmingham believes in exactly what Ingersoll says is crucial: giving teachers flexibility to teach the way they want.

“We are asking our teachers to take risks to try to do everything they can to reinvent themselves and be the best teachers they can and know that within those risks there’s support,” he said. “We want to support you if you’re innovative and student-centered and student-focused.”

“If you model that from the top down, teachers believe it,” he said. “And show humility when you have areas that maybe you didn’t make the perfect decision.”

What Lucisano seeks

Lucisano has already had lots of experience through practicums and student teaching so she knows what a district would need to do to keep her.

First of all, Lucisano knows she wants to teach in the Syracuse area because that’s where she’s from. She’s leaning toward being a general education elementary school teacher, but the master’s degree in literacy will provide a backup plan: to be a certified reading specialist.

Lucisano is looking for some very specific things:

• The district to build in planning time for teachers to coordinate across grade levels – so fourth-grade teachers, for example, will know what to do to make sure their classes are ready for fifth grade.
• Flexibility to teach as she wants, rather than rigid expectations.
• Funding and support to enact teaching methods she thinks will benefit her classes – for example, flexible seating and new technology.

Salary isn’t among Lucisano’s top three considerations. Teaching is a calling to her and she has her long-term goal to advance her career to administration in the future. Still, the median salary for an elementary teacher in metropolitan Syracuse is $64,180 a year, show data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, not as good as the $80,540 statewide median, but better than the national median of $60,830.

“I know that I’m going into a field that is not necessarily the best-paying field,” she said. “And I do have plans to move up to administration eventually.”