Atif Qarni is the Virginia secretary of education and a former teacher at Beville Middle School in Prince William County. Robert C. Pianta is the dean of the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development.
On a typical school day, Virginia educators will teach classes across multiple subjects, provide personal social and emotional support for students inside and outside the classroom, manage after-school programs, and grade assignments or prepare lesson plans. They might have a second job to make ends meet.
It is no surprise that K-12 teachers have stressful jobs. On top of the daily challenges, our children’s teachers face the most significant pay gap in the country, earning more than $35,000 less a year in comparison to college graduates in the state.
Too often, we fail to acknowledge that the health of our teacher workforce is vital to students’ success and the future of our state. In a very real way, we take this extraordinary asset for granted. And so, educators are left to navigate the marathon days, with low pay and little additional support.
We should not be surprised, then, to hear that 22 percent of teachers in Virginia do not return to their school after their first year, or that this number increases to almost 50 percent after four years. That sort of churn isn’t good for students, for schools or for our communities.
These numbers are even higher when it comes to teachers in Virginia’s special education, English as a second language and elementary classrooms; these hard-to-teach subjects are the toughest to staff.
Before the end of his term as Virginia governor, Terry McAuliffe (D) appointed a committee to examine the crisis of Virginia’s teacher shortage, precipitated by a 40 percent increase in vacancies in just the past decade. The committee found that teacher turnover serves as one of the key causes of the crisis, leading to decreased student achievement, lower morale in our schools and significant gaps in the capacity of the workforce.
We must take the steps to expand and retain our talented teachers.
Measures that Gov. Ralph Northam (D), legislators and the Board of Education have put into place can help realize this goal: a 3 percent raise for teachers starting next summer, state incentives to fill hard-to-staff positions, and financial and academic support for new minority teachers who are preparing for required entrance exams. The revised accreditation standards now rate teachers and schools by more than just scores on standardized tests. They also take into account educators’ impact on students’ growth, absenteeism and the achievement gap.
Now we can take bigger, bolder strides toward stemming the tide of teacher turnover, leveraging 20 years of statewide teacher retention data and analysis from the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development. We convened educators, administrators and policymakers at our statewide Teacher Retention Summit to use the data to fulfill a fundamental responsibility to both identify and implement lasting solutions to Virginia’s teacher shortage.
With the ability to learn about our educators in the context of the characteristics of the students they teach, the climate in which they work and the training they received, we can unpack the reasons behind today’s turnover — and provide relevant policymakers with the insights they need to shape policy solutions for the state’s teachers.
We know the most significant turnover for our educators happens within their first five years in the profession. This tells us we need to strengthen the supports that our novice teachers have at their disposal to chart these especially challenging years. These supports may range from targeted professional development opportunities and more personalized mentoring from experienced teachers to increased investments in critical support staff such as guidance counselors and social workers.
If we focus our retention efforts on our early-career teachers, we can ensure they develop the skills needed to remain in the classroom long-term, increasing the number and quality of our educator workforce. After all, retaining talented employees is the most important component of a successful organization.
To support our teachers, we must also support our school leaders. With more intentional professional development tailored to their needs, school leaders can build a culture of trust, structuring learning environments that both improve overall teacher satisfaction and shape students’ success. By laying the groundwork for strong principals and administrators, we can offset the burdens that are increasingly falling on our teachers.
And while there are many investments we must make across the education continuum, increased teacher salaries remain at the top of everyone’s priority list and are critical to retention.
Together, state and local policymakers and teacher preparation programs should drive these bigger, bolder solutions to enhance recruitment, effectively prepare teacher candidates for work in the field and reduce teacher turnover. Northam’s recent budget proposal to increase the teacher salary raise from 3% to 5% is a significant step in the right direction on this issue.
The success of our children is too important to do otherwise.