How schools can keep new teachers from burning out and quitting

Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

New teachers are frustrated and overwhelmed, but there are relatively simple things schools can do to keep them on the job: Pay them more money, reduce the bureaucratic paperwork and provide more support from mentors, a panel of experts told an EdSource roundtable on Wednesday.

“We all know teachers are tired, they’re burnt out. They’re being asked to do more things than they’ve ever done, and in challenging conditions,” said Tommy Chang, chief executive officer of the New Teacher Center, a nonprofit that focuses on helping new teachers succeed. “This crisis is not new. It was always at our doorstep. Factors have become worse in the last two years, but we’ve known about these problems.”

The roundtable entitled: “The critical first years: How to effectively support and retain new teachers” covered ways that schools can do a better job supporting and retaining new teachers, half of whom quit within the first five years. Panelists described the specific obstacles new teachers face, especially teachers of color, and what would help them succeed.

All agreed that higher pay, especially in California’s more expensive areas, is crucial. But it shouldn’t just be reflected on a paycheck. The state and individual districts should also expand student loan forgiveness programs, offer housing stipends, cover costs associated with obtaining a credential and pay student-teachers for their work while they’re still in school.

The financial stress drives far too many talented teachers from the profession, they said.

“These financial burdens, in one of the most expensive areas of the country … can make you or break you,” said Gabrielle Wilson, a substitute high school teacher in Palo Alto Unified. “It’s just a lot.”

They also talked about the critical nature of mentorship, not just from veteran teachers assigned to assist new teachers, but from everyone on campus. Support, they said, must be comprehensive, long-term and linked directly to the challenges new teachers face in the classroom.

John Brazelton, a master teacher at Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach, said he provides lesson plans to new teachers so they can focus their time on connecting with students and “creating the classroom culture that suits them personally.”

“Writing curriculum, making PowerPoints and devising labs — we’ve got all that,” said Brazelton, who’s been mentoring new teachers for 20 years. “Instead, let’s focus on the things that are going to cause you the most stress and anxiety, and that’s classroom management.”

Jenna Hewitt King, who teaches high school English at San Leandro High School, said she has so little time for grading and writing lesson plans that she often feels overwhelmed. She teaches five classes but only has one 55-minute period a day for preparation, which she’s sometimes forced to skip when she’s assigned to substitute in other classrooms.

She and most of her fellow teachers spend countless unpaid hours outside of school grading papers and creating lesson plans.

“It’s not sustainable. There’s just not enough time in the day to catch up,” said King, who was a Teach Plus California senior policy fellow last year. “I think that it plays a really big role in the burnout that teachers are feeling.”

Inordinate amounts of paperwork are also a burden for new teachers, panelists said. Obtaining a credential is more complicated than ever, they said, and the ever-increasing red tape only compounds the stress that new teachers already endure.

They specifically mentioned the edTPA, a required video assessment that most teachers have to pay for themselves, at a cost of $300 or more. Some states, including New York, have canceled the requirement, and California should too, panelists said.

“All these extra hoops that (new teachers) have to jump through for the state of California to issue a clear credential, all while they’re working full-time for free, and paying to be a student and doing the edTPA … it’s totally unnecessary,” Brazelton said. “There’s a lot (we should do) to make it more survivable and less chaotic and stressful for these new teachers, which I think is one of the primary reasons for burnout.”

Julie Sheldon, teacher induction coordinator for the Walnut Valley Consortium, said districts can help by paying some of the fees associated with credential requirements, such as the edTPA. They can also alleviate the workload for new teachers by assigning them to fewer committees and extra duties such as coaching or overseeing clubs. Ideally, new teachers should also have smaller classes and more time for preparation.

“The idea that newer teachers are given the hardest assignments is so wrong,” she said.

She also emphasized the importance of support, not just from a mentor but from the entire school staff. New teachers need practical, realistic advice and encouragement that’s tied directly to what they’re experiencing in the classroom, she said.

“After they’re done with their induction period, no one ever says, I wish there was more paperwork,” she said. “But they do say, I wish I had more time with my mentor.”

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