By some estimates, this decade could be marked by the retirement of more than one-third of the teachers in our nation’s schools. In New Jersey, nearly 18,000 teachers were eligible to retire just last year. However, Baby Boomers are not the only ones exiting the teaching ranks--so are their replacements. New teachers, many of them members of the Millennial generation, are leaving too. Among these newest hires, only six in 10 are still in their classrooms five years later. And only four in 10 ever get tenure. In fact, last year, teachers in their first five years left the profession at about the same rate as teachers who retired. In some years the national trend was turned upside down in New Jersey: retirements trended downward, but early-career leavers trended up.
This phenomenon is not new. In fact, the cover story of the May 2001 NJEA Review addressed the problem of “early leavers.” But now the problem is coupled with accelerating retirements. This troubling turnover trend receives little if any attention from policymakers and the media.
Fortunately, demographics are not destiny. Once teachers reach the five-year mark in experience, turnover slows. Our challenge is to ground new teachers, help them grow in confidence along with experience, and give them the support they need to stay in the career that for many of them has been a lifelong dream. That’s why the news that teacher morale is at an all-time low couldn’t come at a worse time.
The costs of turnover
New Jersey produces and attracts a steady stream of good candidates for most open positions. Shortages are subject and district specific: hard-to-staff positions are in math, science, child study teams, and special education. Districts in high-poverty areas of New Jersey experience shortages across all teaching categories. One way to quantify the supply side of the supply and demand equation is to look at the availability of certified teachers. The New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) oversees teacher licensing, issuing an average of 16,000 initial instructional certificates each year. But less than one-third of those New Jersey certified teachers end up as first-year teachers.
NJSchoolJobs.com, the leading advertiser of educational job opportunities in New Jersey, reports that districts are seeking general science, chemistry, and physics teachers. Special education teachers are in demand, especially those highly qualified in math and science, says Todd Lawrence, NJSchoolJobs founder. Lawrence, an educator himself, doesn’t see a large number of teachers leaving his district and attributes that to the support new teachers receive in their grade-level professional learning communities. Another employment trend Lawrence notes is an increase in districts posting part-time positions--positions that may not be eligible for health benefits--as districts struggle with tight budgets. This raises the question about whether districts are replacing retiring teachers’ positions with full-time, tenure-eligible positions that provide a stable workforce. And it shows the negative impact of state-imposed caps on local school tax levies that, when coupled with inadequate state aid to school districts, are forcing districts to weigh educational decisions against financial ones.
The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) estimated the national turnover costs to districts at over $7 billion in 2005. The human and financial capital it takes to hire and replace new teachers, mentor and introduce new teachers to district curricula, and provide professional development, are real district expenses. Harder to estimate are the losses to districts of the expertise and effectiveness new teachers gain in their early years. Beyond economics, NCTAF finds the loss of continuity for students and the loss of community within the school and with parents as consequences as well.
The revolving door of new teachers is most pronounced in schools in urban, high-poverty communities according to every national study and data from New Jersey districts. It is a sad irony that the policy debate about what makes a great public school seems laser focused on identifying failure, sorting teachers to find ineffective ones instead of supporting and nurturing newer hires as they grow into great educators.
A profession under stress—what are the conditions that drive turnover?
In a recent poll of New Jersey teachers conducted for NJEA in January, 70 percent said morale has worsened over the past few years. And among teachers with zero to five years of experience, nearly one-quarter said it is likely they will leave the profession.
The reasons why teachers leave the profession sort into two categories: personal and organizational. In both categories, districts, administrators and teachers’ own unions can help solve what Linda Darling-Hammond calls a “revolving door” or what the NCTAF calls a “leaky bucket.”
New teachers often leave the profession for personal reasons related to their family or life circumstances. Teachers who leave because they are unsatisfied with their career choice often report they feel unprepared, or that their expectations are not a match for their experience. Many studies have documented that new teachers feel they lack the skills to manage their classroom and to solve problems related to teaching and student learning. For many, the job of a teacher is overwhelming in both its time commitment and its energy demand.
The organizational factors identified in a range of studies of teacher attrition include a lack of autonomy, a lack of support from administrators, heavy workload or class size, lack of parental support, a feeling of isolation, poor working conditions and salaries, limited opportunities to give meaningful input into decision-making, and limited opportunities for leadership and advancement opportunities.
The factors that push new teachers out of the profession are strikingly similar to the factors that teachers with high levels of stress and low job satisfaction report across the experience span. The two most recent MetLife Surveys of the American Teacher have reported that teachers with high stress levels are in schools that have suffered from budget cuts, where there have been teacher layoffs, program cuts, and class size increases. Other stress points include an increase in students with special needs, a decrease in parental engagement, and an inability to meet the demands of diverse learners. As professionals, teachers with high levels of stress say they feel they are treated with a lack of professional respect, that their job security is at risk, and that their pay and benefits do not reflect the value of their work.
Sadly, these facts, state teacher turnover data, and the findings from national studies don’t seem to be enough to convince education stakeholders to take action. Just about every aspect of a teacher’s work life is set by school boards, district administrators, and increasingly, by elected and appointed state and federal policymakers.
Teachers feel left out of the decision-making that sets the rules for their profession, and we know that plays a role in their stress levels. From No Child Left Behind to the advent of the Common Core State Standards and the NJDOE’s recently proposed regulations for teacher evaluation, educators are coping with rapid-fire change, change that is taking its toll.
It seems, then, that solving the new teacher attrition problem demands the same solutions as those needed to relieve the stress and lift the job satisfaction of those who are committed to a career in teaching.
What are the demographics of New Jersey teachers?
The teacher workforce grew steadily for nearly 20 years until 2010 when there were suddenly 5,000 fewer teachers as districts struggled with two rounds of state funding cuts leading to layoffs and program cuts. Since then, the number of teachers in New Jersey leveled off to just under 124,000 according to the most current NJDOE data. And last year, the number of first year teachers reached 4,300 after four years of steady losses.
Last year, 78 percent of New Jersey’s teachers were female, slightly higher than the female-to- male ratio in the 1990s. And despite recruitment efforts, the proportion of minority teachers is just 15 percent, only two points higher than it was 20 years ago.
What has changed markedly is the age and experience continuum. By every measure, the workforce is more concentrated with newer and younger teachers. In the 2011-12 school year, just under one-quarter of teachers was in their first five years, that experience band where we see the highest turnover. In districts that are growing in student population, building new schools, or experiencing high retirement rates, the proportion can reach 50 percent or more. The average age of teachers is 43, but there are 21,000 teachers 30 and younger compared to 28,000 age 55 or older.
It’s no surprise then that the generational composition of our faculties is changing as well. Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, had been the majority in the teacher workforce as they have been in the American workforce generally. But they have lost their majority status, down to fewer than 40 percent, after a steady 12-year decline. Millennials, born after 1980, sometimes called Gen Y, have surpassed the 20,000 teacher mark in 2012 in New Jersey districts, and comprise 17 percent of all teachers now. Among teachers with less than five years of experience, 60 percent are Millenials. The middle generation, known as Generation X, makes up the largest concentration. Four in 10 teachers were born between 1965 and 1980.
The generational mix—challenges and opportunities
You’ve heard the refrain from teachers who feel pressured and overwhelmed, “I just want to go into my classroom, close the door and teach.” That might describe any teacher on a given day, but is not reflective of teachers’ desire to work together, a wish that crosses the three main generations of teachers in New Jersey’s schools. The “MetLife Survey of the American Teacher 2009,” found that nearly all teachers believe that increasing collaboration will lead to greater student success and that their individual success and that of their colleagues is linked. In fact, the study notes that the strength of that finding and the agreement among teachers across grade-levels and school types is unusually high. When the data were analyzed by generation, Millennial teachers felt most strongly that other teachers contributed to their success.
Millennial teachers’ strong desire for genuine collaboration and regular, sustained and individualized feedback were key findings in the survey, “Retaining Teacher Talent: The View From Generation Y,” conducted by Public Agenda in 2010.
An area where attitudes toward work differ by generation is the likelihood of switching jobs. The vast majority of Baby Boomers and two-thirds of Generation Xers say they will stay in their current jobs for the rest of their careers compared to two-thirds of Millenials who expect to switch jobs according to the “Pew Research Center Social and Demographic Trends Project.” In New Jersey, state school aid and budget cuts of recent years have resulted in layoffs; many newer teachers who experienced layoffs returned to part-time or temporary teaching jobs. In 2010-11, there were 1,200 fewer first-year teachers than the previous year, the lowest level of beginning teachers in nearly 20 years.
Other demographic studies point to generational differences in the workplace:
- in attitudes toward work/life balance,
- in attitudes regarding respect and authority, and, of course,
- in use of and dependence on technology.
But as teachers in different generations interact and collaborate, it’s clear their generational imperatives complement one another. In focus groups of newer, younger teachers in New Jersey, we learn they admire their experienced colleagues’ expertise and ability to navigate the ins and outs of their school and district, and that they value interacting with veteran teachers to help them sharpen their skills. Not surprisingly, they seek out their generational peers for support and socializing. Generation X teachers, the majority generation of teachers, have similar attitudes toward technology as Millennials; they also place a higher value on work/life balance. And both of the younger generations are alike in their desire to be listened to and to be held in high esteem, according to “Generational Differences in the Workplace,” a study conducted by the University of Minnesota. There are differences, as well, in learning styles with younger generations preferring to learn on the job through feedback and veterans preferring to learn in group settings.
Millennials as a generation are highly educated, innovative and self-confident. The National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality highlights these qualities in “Leading Gen Y Teachers: Emerging Strategies for School Leaders” (2009). Importantly, Millennials, like teachers in all generations, work to make a difference, to make a positive change. They like to share their work in small groups and thrive in a technology-rich environment for teaching and learning. These assets mesh perfectly with the need to equip students with 21st-century skills and the drive to re-examine teachers’ ongoing professional learning. Millennials expect their workplaces to be diverse and tolerant ones.
In New Jersey’s schools today, the mix of generations provides opportunities for each group to weave their unique qualities into a rich tapestry. Baby-boomer teachers bring experience, an ethic of hard work, and their ability to question authority—values their younger peers admire and respect. Generation X teachers model a healthy work/life balance, self-reliance, and a measure of informality. They took the early lead in incorporating technology into the classrooms and work life of teachers. And Millennial teachers echo the characteristics long associated with the teaching profession: the desire to make a difference in the lives of their students and to do so with passion, innovation, and a firm belief that education is the key to a just society.
What do young teachers need?
Perhaps just listening to young teachers and seeing what teaching is like through their eyes can make the case. What are their worries? What surprises them? What makes them tick?
Here’s what teachers in two parts of the state had to say about the condition of their profession. It’s not a tale of two districts; it’s a conversation with teachers who told what is really one story--a story full of enthusiasm, idealism, and the same joy new teachers have always found in their students. These are not teachers who will leave; they are coping with change, worried about things on the horizon. But, they are Millennials to a “T.” They’re optimistic, team-oriented, and self-confident.
East Greenwich is a fast-growing K-6 district in Gloucester County. In one of the two buildings housing grades K-2, there are nearly a dozen first-grade classrooms. “We’re small; it’s a family atmosphere, and you feel you have someone to talk to,” was how Jessica Lensi, a first-grade teacher, described the district. “You always have someone on your side,” she added. Melissa Sturgis, a special education teacher, doesn’t find it’s her regular work--planning lessons, grading papers, etc.--that causes stress. “It’s the demands coming down from the state without a clear plan about how we will meet them,” Sturgis worries.
The East Greenwich teachers confirm what research says is also important to new teachers—lots of feedback from lots of people. “When you’re student teaching you’re so used to getting feedback, you welcome it,” says Katherine Matteo, a fourth-grade, fourth-year teacher. Matteo observed that veteran teachers might see feedback differently. “While we see it as a way to improve, they may see it as a requirement.”
As new teachers, they received some important advice. For Colin Aregood, a first-grade teacher in his fourth year in the district, it was “You only have to be ready for the next day. You’ll get overwhelmed if you don’t take it one day at a time.” What advice would Aregood pass along? “Don’t be afraid to ask for help. No one wants you to fail.”
One hundred miles away, Westwood Regional is a Bergen County district with a teaching staff nearly three times the size of East Greenwich. The grade levels are different, the community is different, but the new teachers are cut from the same cloth. They’re busy, pressed for time, uncertain about what the advent of standardized tests in their evaluation will mean. But, just like their fellow teachers to the south, they light up when they talk about their students. Jasmin Yoo, a fourth-year music teacher, didn’t know what to expect, but says the kids never disappoint her. “They rise to the occasion. Wherever I set the bar, they exceed it.” Kevin Donatella, in his third year working with fifth graders, knows when he’s had a good lesson, “It’s when the kids have fun and they talk to each other about what they’ve learned.”
While some may associate the integration of technology with young teachers (their “dream” classroom has a SMART board, a document camera, and some iPads), these educators say that gadgets enhance learning but can’t take the place of well-planned lessons.
If only policymakers could hear what these teachers say about the importance of mentoring and collaboration. They need time to learn from experienced teachers, and although their mentors gave them amazing advice, it was never enough. Paul Flaherty is a high school math teacher in his second year in Westwood, but has some out-of state experience. “We have one period a week to work with our co-teacher, but we still meet after school at least twice a week,” he notes. Vanessa Cardenas, a new Spanish teacher in the district, says “I try a little bit of everything to improve. I get ideas from other teachers, I use Edmodo, and I’ve taken courses with the Regional Training Center.” Donatella connects with other teachers on Twitter when he needs an idea or two about a new lesson.
Two districts, one story. New, young teachers inspired by their veteran colleagues. As East Greenwich’s Michelle Przywara, a third-year, fifth-grade teacher, explains, “We have so many wise teachers around us. We tell our students to raise their hands if they need help; sometimes we need to be reminded to do that, too.” And “We’re only evaluated five periods out of 900 each year.” says Flaherty; “I always want veteran teachers to stop by or to have a chance to watch them.”
Like teachers of any age, these young educators have discovered that there is never enough time to do all that needs to be done. Cardenas struggles to take at least one weekend day off from her schoolwork. “There’s so much paperwork, more than I ever imagined, and the paperwork trail that follows that paperwork!” adds Sturgis.
And, just as the research suggests, these teachers are striving to make a difference. Among this small sample of teachers who have between zero and five years of experience and are in the Millennial generation, there are already leaders. Lensi is the East Greenwich Education Association (EGEA) president, while Sturgis chairs the EGEA Pride in Public Education committee. In Westwood, Matteo is the district’s current Teacher of the Year, and Flaherty has already presented at math education conferences.
Stemming the turnover tide
While the crop of young teachers we interviewed in East Greenwich and Westwood are committed to the long haul of a career in education, many of their colleagues around the state have not received the support they need to stay and grow in the profession. And to add injury to insult, more change is coming. Thanks to a new evaluation system instituted by the state, every teacher will wear a new label of highly effective, effective, partially effective, or ineffective. The Common Core, PARCC Assessments, and new state regulations in special education suggest that the pace of change is likely to accelerate.
For younger teachers, help may be on the way. The TEACH NJ Act, which received bipartisan support, mandated a redesign of the state’s new teacher mentoring program, including those teachers with experience but who are new to a district and those who have entered the profession via the alternate route. The NJDOE plans to introduce those new regulations at the June meeting of the State Board of Education. Only then will we see if the current administration is genuine in its desire to strengthen the profession.
Look for an article in next month’s Review on NJEA’s vision for the mentoring of new teachers and other Association programs designed to nurture and support educators. As it has always been, it is teachers who will lead the profession to a brighter future.
Mary Ann Jandoli is an associate director of education and evaluation research in NJEA’s Research and Economic Services Division. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.