September 7, 2012

I’m not someone who backs down from a challenge: For the past three years, I’ve taught special education in a “low-performing” public school in Anacostia, a neighborhood with the highest rates of unemployment and violent crime in the District. In my second year of teaching, I was rated “highly effective” by the D.C. Public Schools’ IMPACT teacher evaluation system. But this June, I left to take a job at a D.C. charter school — to teach the same grades and students with similar needs. I’m a teacher that DCPS lost.

I’m not alone in this. A report issued this summer by TNTP, a nonprofit group that advocates for teacher quality, shows that nearly two-thirds of highly effective teachers who leave their jobs do so to teach in nearby schools in similar roles or take other positions in education. In other words, most of us aren’t leaving for other career paths or even “easier” teaching jobs. Our school leaders just aren’t giving us reasons to stay.

The impact of these moves on students can’t be understated. The TNTP report, “The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America’s Urban Schools,” shows that a highly effective teacher imparts five to six more months of learning per year than does a low-performing teacher. And when a high-performing teacher leaves a low-performing school, only one in 11 potential replacements will be of similar quality — almost guaranteeing that when a great teacher leaves, his or her replacement will be less effective.

Schools can’t be expected to hold on to every single teacher, but when the best consistently choose to walk out the door, it should be a red flag signaling leadership failure. To retain our irreplaceable teachers, we need irreplaceable leaders.

Irreplaceable school leaders know how to keep their best teachers motivated and hungry for growth. When I was rated “highly effective,” I received a one-time bonus of $15,000. While the extra money was welcome, there were costs to this distinction.

My rating served as a permission slip for my school to cut off the coaching support that had helped me improve. For the evaluations that followed, I was videotaped, rather than observed in person, and I received my scores in writing, rather than during a feedback-driven conference. As far as my school leadership was concerned, I was a great teacher, but I still felt that I had plenty to learn — and I was no longer receiving opportunities to do so. Instead of feeling valued, I ended up feeling neglected.

One of the simultaneous joys and struggles of teaching is that you can always improve. High-performing teachers want opportunities to lead and support other teachers, but we also want support and frequent feedback on our own performance. When principals assume that high-fliers cannot or do not need to improve, they not only do us (and our students) a disservice, but they also run the risk of losing us. It is a fatal leadership decision. “Irreplaceables” demand excellence. We want to be challenged, and we won’t settle for any form of mediocrity — not from our students, not from our peers, and especially not from ourselves.

Teachers often cite poor school culture as a key reason for leaving. Great leaders build trust between teachers and administrators, while grounding their staff in a universal goal for student achievement. For principals to keep their top teachers, they need to create a dialogue around school change that encourages equity of voice and a sense of ownership and empowerment for everyone on staff.

At the end of the day, superb leaders demonstrate the elusive character trait of grit. That’s a commitment and determination to achieve a goal, no matter what it takes. A principal with grit knows that he or she can’t succeed without a team of great teachers and sets clear retention goals for high-performers. This principal is honest with teachers who are struggling, even when it’s uncomfortable, and does not consider inaction, failure or silence as acceptable responses to ineffective teaching. This principal pushes every teacher to his or her full potential. Finally, this principal asks the best teachers, “What is it going to take to keep you here?”

The writer is a special-education teacher at a D.C. public charter school and a 2012 Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.