Amid a lot of talk of the reformists versus the traditionalists, not enough concern is paid to the biggest problem in public education today: In many places, there are simply not enough teachers entering or remaining in the profession. It is a problem that is common to charters, magnets, and traditional schools, and it has a disproportionate impact on student success. While generational shifts prompt retirements, too many teachers are leaving the profession while they are still young, and it is having an impact on districts and schools nationwide. A
survey conducted last fall by the Learning Policy Institute found that 75 percent of school districts in my state, California, had trouble filling positions to begin the school year. This problem is even more acute for those serving students in low-income neighborhoods where 83 percent of those districts face staggering recruitment problems. So how do we attract talent to the field and retain them? It became clear to me what so many of us are growing to understand: Teachers need the school supports and professional development necessary for their own classroom success, and even more importantly, for the success of their students. When teachers are not given the tools and training they need to reach their full potential, how can we expect our students to do the same? We know that schools that carefully consider how to support their teachers and ensure that they are getting the professional development they need, have teams that stay motivated and stay happy. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Teachers have individual strengths and interests that need to be cultivated and stimulated. Often the greatest difficulty in providing successful professional development programs is meeting the needs of a diverse cohort of educators. At Green Dot, we have worked with our teachers union to develop a definition of what it means for all teachers to feel the work they do is sustainable and to feel like they can stay in the profession for a long time. Our collective definition of sustainability involves all teachers feeling empowered, appreciated and successful and our comprehensive approach to professional development and support is key to this work. In addition, Green Dot empowers teachers to shape the professional development they seek: Teachers sit on curriculum development teams with administrators to lay out the year’s professional development goals. Teachers are given the chance to become professional development leaders and facilitate the professional development programs themselves at their respective schools. Speaking peer to peer, colleague to colleague, has allowed teachers to learn from each other while also finding further opportunity for leadership and growth. No classroom should be an island. Teachers need space to collaborate and learn from each other.
Professional development should also be ever-evolving, never static. It must grow with the changing needs of teachers if it is ever to be effective long-term. So, each year, Green Dot solicits feedback from our teachers to learn what works for them, and what doesn’t. We have built and refined our feedback tool on a continuous basis—seeking to capture feedback in ways that are actionable and honest. Though we have seen incredible results with our professional development strategy, it is not perfect. We have learned a lot along the way. As we discover what works best for our teachers to feel empowered, appreciated and successful, we want to share these lessons with other public schools. Together, we all face mounting teacher shortages across California and the country, making it all the more important for public education providers to share best practices with each other. Together, we can inspire people to join our noble profession. Teachers are society’s quiet heroes. The education of our children is a profound responsibility, but teachers cannot face it alone. Take my word for it, even after years of experience standing in front of a classroom, teaching never gets any less daunting. But with the right supports, and with thoughtful professional development programs, teaching gets better and better in every way imaginable—for the teachers, and most of all, for the students.
Cristina de Jesus is the president and CEO of Green Dot Schools California. She is a former teacher, and founding principal at Ánimo Inglewood Charter High School, Green Dot’s second school. Green Dot was selected to present a panel on its professional development leadership at SXSWedu 2017.