Our recent investigation Turnstile Teaching found 26 Philadelphia district schools where teachers churned through jobs at an alarming rate, hindering some of the city’s most vulnerable children.
The story touched a nerve, and teachers and readers shared their experiences as well as ways to fix this chronic problem. Their comments have been edited for length and clarity.
One teacher’s take
I was not surprised at all by the findings. Some of the numbers surprised me — just how bad it was — but in general, it confirmed what I see. It really resonated, especially the connection to leadership. Teachers feel like we have no choice when it comes to absences. It’s a difficult, difficult job. I care, and I love what I do, but I’ve taken mental health days. If someone like me, with 12 years of experience, who enjoys teaching and learning, who enjoys the challenges of a neighborhood school, has done it, what about someone who is really struggling? I don’t think bonuses will solve the problem of teacher turnover at all. Bonuses don’t mean that teachers will stay at particular schools. Once their year or two is up, they’ll leave.
As I think about other solutions, I think additional human resources in the buildings may help — actual people. Classroom aides, hall monitors who are not school police, and of course additional counselors and social workers. Also, strong leadership matters. The principal leads the charge in creating a culture and climate that is warm, welcoming, safe, and conducive to teaching and learning. The same goes for the teacher in the classroom. We should create an atmosphere that is engaging enough such that the kids wouldn’t want to disrupt or misbehave. That comes if we’re allowed a certain degree of latitude in our classrooms that I don’t feel we have.
— Stephen Flemming, 37, Martin Luther King High School, Philadelphia
Philadelphia schools have many issues that teachers face daily. They’re drastically underpaid and should not be starting at $45,000 a year. Starting salary for teachers needs to be $60,000 and midcareer teachers should earn about $85,000. Senior teachers should get $95,000 a year. To improve, schools need more of the experienced “master teachers.” No more than 5 percent of a school’s faculty should have fewer than five years of classroom teaching experience. Principals seem to want new teachers who are full of well-meaning enthusiasm. But when a teacher has zero experience, you can’t expect them to run a classroom that will raise test scores. They may be cheaper, but they come with a high cost — lower achievement and the type of school environment you described in your article.
— Elizabeth Monaghan, 66, retired teacher, Marlton
My career in education spans over 50 years, including parochial school, public school, and as a student teacher supervisor at the university level. Most of the time I taught in South Philly schools. Most of the time I transferred because of the principal, not the kids. As I followed my student teachers around North Philly and Kensington, I saw different conditions in the schools. Most of the time the school climate rested on the principal. My best principal walked around the school all day long and got to know the children. She supported her teachers. She worked the system. She encouraged parents to participate. Of course, a lot depends on the parents. Schools like Penn Alexander and Meredith are famous for their strong Home and School Associations. They raise money for the extras. Again, the principal has to encourage that kind of participation.
— Gloria C. Endres, 78, retired teacher, Philadelphia
I have been a volunteer both at Blankenburg and Cassidy elementary schools. What struck me was how few substitutes there were. When a teacher was absent, students were put in different-level classrooms or teachers from other grades would drop in during their prep time. One year, a second-grade teacher dropped out midterm and she was replaced by a series of substitutes. None of them stayed for long. It was hard to volunteer and see the plight of the teachers and the students. Cassidy had environmental issues with mold, lead, and asbestos. Students running around the school out of control and the lack of support teachers received from the principal was an even bigger problem.
— Sally Fritzson, 69, Paoli, part-time Philadelphia School District volunteer
(Our investigation explained how districts such as Dallas and New York give bonuses to teachers who work in hard-to-staff schools. Highly rated Dallas teachers can earn up to $15,500 extra a year, capped at three years, for working in a struggling school.)
This story is the root of many problems within the school district. More than money, more than anything else, the district must prioritize stability. It must build strong teachers and get those teachers into schools that need them the most. One of my earliest hearings focused on teacher vacancies and the impact of unstable staffing. It’s why we oppose “leveling,” why we stopped some of the mandatory turnover within the Acceleration Network. Staffing stability is the key to achievement — not vice versa. This is what the district misses when it says nonsensical things like “turnover is common among urban school systems” and “quality is more important than teachers’ familiarity with their students or the communities they serve.” Nope. Our Teacher Town Hall and Student Town Halls all echo the same familiar theme. Teachers matter. Stability matters. Churn, turnover, and moving teachers without regard to the impact on them or students’ learning is the death knell of a system. No other investment matters more.
— Helen Gym, 51, Philadelphia City Council member
Early on while reading the article, I thought, why not financially motivate teachers with experience to work at these higher-turnover schools? You then explain why the union is opposed to this and I understand its point. A solution could be a targeted charitable trust funded at least one year at a time to generate the assets needed for “incentive pay.” Does the district have any “go to” benefactors with whom to discuss this idea? Perhaps a campaign aimed at the sports franchises? The math may not be that difficult. For example, what if 100 teaching slots were specially incentivized at $15,000 per position. That would cost $1.5 million per year. That’s $375,000 each for the Eagles, Phillies, Sixers, and Flyers. I may be naive, but I would think these teams could not only make a big difference here in the lives of city residents and give back but also get some great press and community goodwill. If not the teams, what about a campaign directed by the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce?
— Bill Thames, 60, finance manager, Wynnewood
I moved to Philly in 2017 from my home state of Texas after teaching for 15 years in a middle school that enrolled large shares of low-income students. I had been trained in “trauma-informed teaching” — to look beyond the behavior, build relationships, create a safe environment — and knew I wanted to teach in the Philadelphia School District. I am a public school product. I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. Even the thought of teaching in a private school or a charter was a nonstarter. But I left Robert Morris Elementary in North Philadelphia after five days.
I realized right away that there wasn’t going to be much teaching and learning going on. I felt like I had walked into a school where the staff was in zombie mode. They were all just trying to get through the day. I was encouraged to stand at my door while teaching to prevent children from leaving the room on a whim. I felt more like a bouncer. I saw a lot of burnout in the teachers who were there, and I don’t blame them. I had 40 eighth graders — even though 33 is supposed to be the maximum class size. One of my students asked: “How can we learn in here? There are too many people.” My students had no permanent teacher the year before.
A teacher is but one person. We need support when in-class interventions and incentives are not successful. When schools are short-staffed and classes overflow and corrective actions are limited, the children suffer. This is not education. This is crowd containment. The big-picture problem is the invasive tentacles of poverty. Day-to-day administration also matters. A culture of caring for kids and not just about test scores — that makes all the difference.
— Heather Green, 45, Philadelphia, will teach next year at an area charter school.
Over the next few weeks, Philadelphia teachers will decide where to work next school year. Those decisions will determine whether high turnover at some of the 26 schools persists.