How to Keep Good Teachers in the Game

| May 5, 2011 | 0 Comments
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School of One

Engaging, motivated teachers are at the heart of every successful school. For schools like Rocketship, where 75% of teachers come from Teach for America, which recruits mostly recent college grads to commit to two years, finding ways to train and keep them becomes that much more of a priority.

What’s their strategy? First, they pay more than typical public schools – on average between 10 and 20 percent more, according to Judith McGarry, Rocketship’s spokesperson.

And since most of these teachers are “very young” — for many of them, it’s the first time teaching in a classroom – McGarry said teachers’ progress is tracked closely. Every eight-week assessment of students’ progress is compared to the teachers’ own eight-week assessments.

“We reward talent, provide an upwardly mobile career path, and give them a reason to believe that this could be a sustainable work-life balance.”

“We think that this constant feedback helps them ramp up really quickly,” McGarry said of new teachers. “So we do actually use student achievement and student testing as one measure of how we evaluate teachers’ effectiveness. But we don’t really have the problem that the Los Angeles School District did, because, first of all teachers walk in knowing this is how they’re going to get evaluated, and second, it’s one of multiple measures that we use for their effectiveness.”

Other measures include meeting regularly with the principal to work on their professional growth plans, collaborating closely with other teachers, and working with academic coaches. Sometimes classes are videotaped, so teachers and coaches can evaluate the way the class is run play-by-play, and sometimes educators wear microphones and earbuds to get live coaching while they teach.

It’s all part of the teachers’ “professional growth plan,” which defines their trajectory at Rocketship. First-year teachers are called “Emerging Fellows” and attend leadership workshops and have the chance to think about whether they want to move ahead in the Rocketship school system.

In their second year, teachers are called “Rising Fellows” and, along with their teaching duties, must manage Learning Lab staff, who are typically teachers’ aides. They’re also given the chance to take over managing the school during the fall and the spring for certain increments of time.

Third-year educators are called “Principal Fellows” and become more involved in managing the school while going through coaching and professional development.

It’s an intense program that requires a great deal of motivation to carry through, but that applies to any motivated teacher, not just TFA recruits. McGarry said.

“The TFA burnout problem is frankly the problem that any teacher faces who has promise and drive and motivation, and it’s been going on for years,” she said. “It’s because teaching has been a profession that has not rewarded or encouraged innovation or hard work or talent. So we actually have a lot of structural differences in our network that do all those things: reward talent, provide an upwardly mobile career path for teachers, and give them a reason to believe that this could be a sustainable work-life balance.”

Matthew Williams

Tiffany Gee teaches math at Rocketship.

Teachers give out their phone numbers to students, and students call them. Tiffany Gee, who teaches math at Rocketship Mateo Sheedy, says some students call on a regular basis, but she doesn’t necessarily mind because “it helps them know they have a regular resource they can count on.”

“A lot of parents don’t remember how to do something. It’s been a long time since they’ve done fifth-grade math! So I’m there to help at night,” she said.

Does she wish she had a break in the evenings after intense days of teaching? “Once in a while I wish I had a break, but for the most part, students are short on the phone,” she said. “They’re not calling because they want to bother me. Plus, they have no excuses for not having homework done.”

McGarry says none of this is lost on Rocketship.

“If we pop into any classroom right now and you ask a teacher how hard they’re working, they’re going to tell you they’re working really hard, so we make no mistake about it,” she says. “But, at the network level, we’re absolutely obsessed with figuring out how to make the workload reasonable for teachers, because we want these people in our network for a very long time.”

By offering them a detailed trajectory, avenues to progress within the network even if they’re not interested in teaching per se, Rocketship hopes to provide enough incentive to keep them interested in staying.

For Gee, who has taught public schools in Gilroy, Calif., and in China, teaching is fulfilling — at least for now.

“I’m not sure how long I want to be a teacher,” she says. “I’m taking it one year at a time. I’ll see where it takes me and where I go from here. I’m not really sure.”

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