Opinion: Great teachers will stay when school has focus, mission

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Josh Andrew is head of school at the Atlanta Classical Academy, an Atlanta charter school. He started his career with Teach for America as a ninth grade English teacher in Detroit.

In this guest column, Andrew discusses his charter school’s approach to attracting and keeping teachers.

By Josh Andrew

“I don’t like the person I’m becoming.” In the early fall of the 2015-2016 school year, I encountered a new colleague in our school parking lot holding a box of her personal belongings. We were five days into our school year in Detroit and five days into our new working relationship as the ninth and 10th grade English teachers, but her year was ending.

When I pressed for an explanation for her decision to leave, she didn’t mention our overcrowded classrooms, poor wages or dilapidated building. Those were frustrations she expected and ones we both could rationalize. Instead, she described a personal loss of identity. As our school worked to raise test scores and prepare students for the labor market, she mourned a job that promised meaning. I drove home feeling unsettled.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between February 2020 and May 2022, more than 300,000 public school staff left the field. A National Education Association poll from last year also found that 55% of teachers said they plan to exit the profession sooner than planned — up from 37% in 2021. And of the teachers still in the profession, a 2022 study by Merrimack College and the nonpartisan EdWeek Research Center showed that just 12% report feeling “very satisfied” with their jobs.

I now lead Atlanta Classical Academy, a small public charter school, and know the gravity of this problem. A year can hinge on the intent-to-return form we distribute in the late winter. But when we surveyed our faculty last summer following a year of adherence to COVID-19 protocols, mandated quarantines, and instruction in masks, 93% of our teachers indicated they were satisfied or very satisfied with their employment.

Over the last decade, I’ve memorized the litany of reasons teachers quit: overbearing administrators, large classes, and demanding parents. For school leaders and elected officials, the temptation is to begin a frantic game of policymaking Whac-a-Mole. The solution, however, lies in schools returning to their foundation and their distinct competitive advantage: an authentic mission that gives life to its employees, creates a clear framework for parent-teacher engagement, and sparks an obsession with professional development.

Educators choose this profession, sacrificing flexible work hours and lucrative pay, because few other vocations allow a person to engage in the care of a human mind and heart. If teachers are quitting, our first question should concern our mission statements. Are schools offering an educational vision worthy of their students and faculty, or do they locate themselves as a cog in the modern economy’s grinding machine that aims at skills and job readiness as the highest end?

Recently, visitors from Georgia’s Charter School Commission remarked on the quality of our teaching faculty. While Atlanta Classical faces the usual funding limitations, a retired opera singer leads our fine arts department, a Vanderbilt Ph.D. who worked in cancer labs teaches biology, a University of Georgia Ph.D. who taught college for a decade teaches Western civilization, and a University of Florida MFA who has published in the Hopkins Review and the Harvard Review teaches composition.

While none of these faculty members earned conventional teaching degrees, each would tell you they chose Atlanta Classical because of the clarity and force of its mission: to develop students in mind and character toward the end of forming intelligent and virtuous American citizens.

This pursuit animates every decision we make, beginning with curriculum and extending to policies surrounding homework, extracurriculars, technology, and assessment. Our first discussion with prospective parents doesn’t concern the school’s performance on standardized tests. We tell them the integrity of our institution hinges on every member of our community prioritizing the mission over personal preference.

Teachers don’t wonder whether the school’s vision will change over the summer or whether parents will challenge curricula. Instead, our adherence to a common ideal guides us to honor our parents’ trust and the faculty’s responsibility. While difficult conversations are still inevitable, they lead to growth and maturation when all parties struggle toward the same end.

A direct consequence of our mission is teachers’ devotion to professional development. Because we believe teachers are primarily in the business of human formation, we’re always striving for excellent instruction. This year, part of our faculty’s summer reading included Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article about top surgeons seeking out coaching in the operating room.

Inspired by his thesis, we committed to observing our teachers at least once a month and providing detailed feedback. By the end of November, we completed more than 300 observations of our 60 faculty members. We also invest in their continued education, funding five of our employees’ graduate degrees and others pursuing advanced certifications in their fields.

Schools forget that educators, like students, are changed by their work. With each day in the classroom, they are becoming something new. Years removed from my time in Detroit, I admire my former colleague’s choice to leave a teaching job without purpose and agency to seek a school whose mission honored her profession.