Opinion

Conforme: Teachers and School Leaders, Detroit Wants You

By Veronica Conforme | June 14, 2016

Photo: Getty Images
(Detroit) – Think back to your favorite teacher. The teacher who made you love a subject or the teacher who challenged you to do more than you thought was possible. For me that teacher was Ms. Rodriguez, who taught ninth-grade world history. She was passionate and made everything about different cultures and history come alive.
Teachers like Ms. Rodriguez make all the difference in how you feel about school and, it has been shown, they make an even more important difference in the lives of students who live in poverty. Studies find that students with highly effective teachers are more likely to attend a four-year college and earn higher salaries.
Every student deserves an inspiring, effective teacher like Ms. Rodriguez; for the historically underserved in Detroit, such a teacher can open doors of opportunity students didn’t know existed.  But like most other urban cities, Detroit is facing a teacher shortage crisis — charters, traditional public schools, and schools in the high-poverty Education Achievement Authority all face challenges in attracting and retaining talent. This trend is projected to continue, leading potentially to mass vacancies.
(More: The past, present and future of Detroit schools by the numbers)
While Detroit is certainly poised for a comeback, the city will not thrive if we don’t creatively but also aggressively address the need for talented teachers.
From what I have seen in my 22 months here, the teacher crisis has worsened due to a lack of consistent and sustainable leadership as well as opportunities for growth, fair compensation, and recognition for hard work.  We simply have not created the conditions to make Detroit the nation’s best city for teachers and school leaders. Furthermore, the chaotic culture fuels the fight for scarce talent among charters, Detroit Public Schools and the EAA.
But there is hope.
Research has found the most important factor in retaining effective teachers is the quality of the school leader. Teachers need to feel they are working collaboratively towards a strong vision with clear expectations and actionable feedback. This is the primary responsibility of school leaders. We need leaders with integrity; who are transparent; and who know how to support, coach, and develop teachers.
Children and teachers are hurt by poor leaders, and it’s disheartening and infuriating when leaders fail by using resources meant for students for their gain. The FBI recently charged 13 school administrators in Detroit with accepting bribes from funds intended for students and classrooms. Actions like these, and the headlines they create, make it that much more difficult to recruit and retain good teachers and school leaders in the city. It makes everyone disillusioned about the school system and allows critics to write us off as dysfunctional.
But even under these circumstances, I could not be more proud of the teachers that work in our schools. At the EAA, where I serve as chancellor, we have started to address the challenge of keeping them by creating career pathways. We give our most effective teachers the opportunity to be lead teachers or master teachers who coach and develop their colleagues.
Through our Achievement Leadership Institute, we are also developing cohorts of school leaders who bring integrity and a vision for great schools to the communities we serve.
Every outstanding educator I have ever met — and there are hundreds of them in Detroit — knows that they are directly accountable to the children they serve on a daily basis. That often translates to late nights in their schools, early mornings and weekends planning for lessons and grading papers, and purchasing classroom supplies with their own money. I hear these stories from teachers in Detroit all the time. They recognize that every dollar spent in a district should directly benefit their students.
In order for Detroit to reclaim its place as one of the greatest cities in America, it must have a high-quality education system. We need to create the conditions to attract and keep teachers who will be remembered for a lifetime — teachers like Ms. Rodriguez — at every school.  That is the path toward changing outcomes for all students in Detroit and ensure they know and fulfill their potential.
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