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LISTEN — Class Disrupted S3 E12: Is There A Teacher Exodus Or Not? Digging Into The Dispute

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Class Disrupted is a bi-weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every other Tuesday).

There are two dominant narratives in education right now about teachers. On the one hand, many media stories and educators say loudly that teachers are leaving in droves, which is making it hard to manage schools. On the other hand, researchers are observing that the number of quits don’t appear much different from how it’s been in education for a while. In this episode, Michael and Diane dig into the data and stories to try to explain the two narratives and find some common ground.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Diane Tavenner: Hey, Michael.

Michael Horn: Hey, Diane. It is good to see you. We’re in the throes of winter over here, where snow and ice are falling and yet, we’re getting teased at the same time with these occasional days in the 50s. But most exciting of all, perhaps, falling COVID case counts, or at least plateauing at the moment. There’s doldrums, but also some optimism mixed in.

Tavenner: Michael, I’m not sure how to share my reality with you, which is that we are coming off an 80-degree weekend, which really felt like summer, which would be wonderful if not for the looming droughts and wildfires that we are used to in California and this sort of extreme weather portends. There’s something about that, that is the type of tension there that is caused by that, that is familiar. As I think about our podcast, it’s familiar because as folks who listen to us know, we never thought we would be in season three of this podcast, let alone the third year of schooling impacted by the pandemic, but here we are. And along with those tensions of being in the pandemic that is going on forever, we still feel that there’s opportunity and hopefulness about the possibility of this being a catalyst for transforming our schools.

Horn: Completely. And as we’ve embarked on this season, we really focused on trying to answer the big questions of the “Who?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “Why?” and “How?” of schooling. And as listeners will know, we’ve been following our own curiosity. I will tell you, there’s a topic, Diane, that we visited early on this season that I’m very curious to return to, which is, “Are teachers quitting? And what do we make of all the stories right now about teacher shortages?”

Tavenner: Oh my God, you’re going to have to give me a bit more because… Yeah, I think it’s just six episodes that we broke it down, why this teacher shortage is different, how we got here. What exactly right now is sparking your curiosity?

Horn: Totally, Diane. I don’t want to revisit everything we talked about, but here’s what I’m seeing right now. There seem to be two very contradictory storylines out there around whether teachers are leaving the classroom at a higher rate than usual. On the one hand, you have what’s become the conventional media narrative, I think, and what I’ll call the “Great Resignation” storyline. This side says that teachers and school staff more generally are falling in line with the great resignation. They’re leaving schools. And as a result, schools are really crunched to fill roles. And this storyline has a lot of weight. There are a lot of stories about central administration, staff and superintendents filling in for missing teachers and such, and surveys of districts reporting big shortages. I will note, Diane, that I think you were actually the first person to flag this for me before it became a media storyline over the summer, because you were seeing teachers quit and you had to open roles in your school for the first time maybe ever.

And so, you called it way before it became a major media storyline. But on the other hand, at the same time, you have what I’ll call the “Nothing New Here” storyline. This one basically says, look, teachers have always quit at higher rates than most sectors. To put some stats behind it, 30 percent of college graduates who become teachers typically leave the profession within six years, and that ranks as the fifth highest turnover by occupation behind secretaries, childcare workers, paralegals, and correctional officers, and just higher than policing and nursing. And this group — Chad Aldeman, a researcher at the Edunomics Lab, for example, has been prominent among these folks. Basically says, “Look, the quit rate has held at lower or average rates during the pandemic. But here’s the thing, openings are way outpacing hiring right now, and that’s partially thanks to the big infusion of federal funding that’s created the opportunity to hire more people, and that’s leading to a higher vacancy rate.”

It’s worth noting that Aldeman has speculated that this is partially also because of an accumulation of unfilled roles over a couple years, which is really breaking things. I guess I see this question, Diane, as important for a couple reasons. Because first, as we discussed in episode six, we think the challenges of teacher shortages call for a bigger redesigning of the educator role, educator training in schools themselves. And second, depending on your interpretation of the debate, it might change how one would act. And finally, I think what we’re seeing in this debate is a more civil version perhaps of what we often see in education, which is adults in two distinct camps, debating something, where perhaps there is truth on both sides. I guess I want to start with a question out of that, Diane, which is, what are you seeing and hearing on the ground and how does that inform our understanding?

Tavenner: OK. I’m with you. Let’s do this. Michael, I think you know I don’t watch a lot of TV, but between all these big February events, Super Bowl, Olympics… I happened to catch an airline commercial the other day.

Horn: An airline commercial? OK.

Tavenner: Yeah, just stay here with me for a moment. The commercial, I kid you not, was about how great and friendly this airline was because they were hiring a lot of former teachers and nurses. I’m not kidding you, that was the commercial. It was one of those moments where I just had to laugh because if not, I would be crying. My husband was looking at me like, “Wow.” And I think what you’re asking me here is why exactly did I want to cry, because it might not be because the airline is stealing our teachers to do maybe the third worst job on the planet right now. There’s maybe more nuance here. In all seriousness, that’s what we’re about. We’re about the nuance. And so, I think you’re bringing this back up because the storylines might need to converge in a way that can help us chart a productive path forward versus staying on these two parallel tracks that aren’t meeting.

Let me get serious and curious, and start with some local experience. As you noted, Summit has had some persistent teaching teacher openings since the start of this year in hard-to-fill areas. The number of openings and duration do feel unique to some previous years, so I went back to check the data. Yes, there are more openings and they are staying open longer than usual. That is true. And what is familiar is that they are constantly challenged. We are constantly challenged to find great qualified teachers in hard to fill areas such as special education and math, which is where these persistent openings are for us. And so, as you noted, a bit of truth from both of those storylines. We have had these persistent challenges in the openings, so it’s accumulation of a few years. It feels a little bit more acute this year because it came late in the summer and they’re staying open longer.

And at the same time, we had a science teacher resign recently and were able to fill that role midyear, which is strange and unheard of. And so, there’s a possibility that we’re over dialing on the data potentially. But the other thing that’s going on is that we have a significant increase in teacher and staff absences this year. And while not the same thing, this is completely impacting how people are feeling and what they’re perceiving. COVID and all the related mitigation strategies are driving a lot of those absences. The reality is, we are just seeing everyone in schools taking more personal days for what many describe as mental health reasons. There is this palpable and pervasive feeling this year that people are tired and the work is challenging in ways that requires more breaks. Just can’t do it all day every day.

And so, let’s circle back to this, because my intuition is that all of that is true, and a big part of what is underneath it is a desirability for flexibility. And so, that’s interesting. I think it’s also important that we know that perception is reality. This is very human, and the perception is that teachers are quitting in droves and that there are a ton of vacancies. And so, where does that come from? At one level, on a very personal experience level, if you’re a student who has, say five teachers, and one of them quits, it feels very confirming. Your experience feels like it’s playing into this bigger narrative. Similarly, if you’re a teacher, one of your colleagues quits, that feels like there’s confirmation there.

The relationship that you had with that person, the reasons they’re giving for quitting, everything you’re reading and hearing, all come together to create your lived experience that feels like this is indeed the great resignation and a crisis, which may very well feel true in your day-to-day life and be true in your day to day life, but may not be generalizable to all of education, all of teaching and the long term.

And so, I think one of the most important points you raised, Michael, is that the massive inflow of dollars has enabled the creation of all sorts of new positions and roles. And in fact, if you carefully read the storylines about education, often the unfulfilled positions are bus drivers, aids and other key roles. I’ll speak to one in our world, which is a really poignant example. Like many people, the demand and need for mental health supports, has dramatically increased. That’s a need for both students and adults, to have counseling and other support services, but we also have dollars allocated to support these things.

And so, in our case, we’ve increased the supports we’re offering. We continue to do so to meet the demands. One worry we have is we won’t ultimately be able to hire enough supports, and we’re stretched, but we haven’t hit that yet. And yet, there is a persistent perception that I hear from members of our community that we aren’t serving people and there aren’t enough supports. And so, I dug into that to understand it because the data wasn’t lining up. And so, what I discovered so far is that much of the perception is driven by how the process works. For example, when a person is referred and needs counseling, it often takes a few weeks to get going. Very few of these services, if they’re not emergencies, begin on demand on that day. People are seeing a counselor, but they aren’t… It’s not for a few weeks.

The second piece is, they maybe are seeing the counselor, but they aren’t feeling better or the problems persist. And so, it’s a dissatisfaction with the outcomes. They’re like, I’m not getting better. And so, I’m not getting the support I need. And so, hopefully this is… Sorry, clearly you tapped into something because hopefully this is the nuance you were looking for when you brought this up. We’ve got to hold all these multiple conflicting realities at the same time, and the data and the lived experience are both important in how we make good decisions going forward.

Horn: Yeah. Diane, all of this lands for me, literally all of it. I think what I take out of it is one point that also jumps out is, just as in politics, timing matters. And so, more teachers are out right now than usual, often because of absences, and we tell ourselves stories from that. Our language maybe isn’t as precise as it always could be in the media, or even they’re quitting at strange times, right? In the middle of the year that, historically speaking, they might not quit. And so, those absences are felt and they disrupt the general routine of schooling. I think it bleeds into some of my other hypotheses, coming at this from more of a 50,000-foot view, if you will. First, one of them is around my usual caveat, which data by definition, they’re backward looking.

They only are, convincingly so, about the distant past. And so, we do have to be careful about over relying on stats. Now, stories obviously are very powerful. They tug at us, but it’s also dangerous to extrapolate too much from just a few. But I do think individual stories can help us understand the causal mechanisms of what might be driving teachers to leave or feel frustrated and how this moment does differ in some important respects from past moments. Now, you said it. We know there have always been shortages of teachers in certain subject areas. We’ve talked about this. Math science, special ed, and for certain schools, low income, rural, urban. We discussed last time that the teacher shortages really aren’t what people might perceive when they hear the term. They’re far more targeted and specific rather than blanket.

But it seems to me that it’s possible that on aggregate level, the data might show that quits are relatively stable, but that’s at an average level. And to our friend, Todd Rose’s language, the data could be very jagged at a more micro level, right? Certain schools and in certain subjects in certain geographies, they could be higher. Whereas in other schools, maybe they’re lower right now and large across the average in a state or certainly the country. It would mask that. I think the last piece of that is if the quit rate is just slightly higher in certain areas, that’s going to be felt really significantly, because as you know better than me, Diane, just a couple holes in your teaching force, just a couple missing roles or a couple teachers who are out for chronic reason, maybe over a week or two, that is a huge ripple effect on an individual school and all of the students inside it.

Tavenner: Yeah. You cannot overstate that last point. And it’s so at the heart, I think, of what is going on right now. I’d like to share one level deeper of what I’m seeing that might add even more nuance to what’s happening and what we’re talking about. A little bit of context needed here. At Summit, we are deeply committed to not only attracting great talent, but also investing heavily in the development and retention of our amazing folks in our organization. One part of that is a pretty expansive approach to what we call the annual career matrix survey and conversations. In short, every December, we ask every employee, and we get an extraordinarily high rates of participation, upper nineties, a hundred percent, to share their future aspirations and plans with the organization and the organization does the same. We really try to forecast if there’ll be new roles or opportunities and where people might be able to find a great fit.

And that’s really our focus, is that we want people to be in an open dialogue about this and finding a great fit. We believe students benefit from that. As part of that process, we ask everyone if they plan to return the following year. We do this in December and give them three options, “yes, no, maybe.” As you might imagine, we are able to then compare the data of what they’re predicting is going to happen with what actually happens over time in that next school year and see trends. And so, I went back to look at the data since 2018, and there are significant differences… There aren’t, I should say, significant differences from year to year, which honestly was a little bit surprising. Let me say that again. Not significant differences from 2018 to now in the people, the numbers of people saying that they’re going to return, maybe, not return. And then over those years, the actual return rates. The data’s holding pretty steady. And in fact, the percent indicating this year that they plan to return versus being unsure is up a bit over last year.

Now, last year, people seemed happier, quite frankly, even though we were in virtual school. They didn’t… And so, the narrative and the experience doesn’t seem to be matching up with the data. And so, I don’t… I’m still trying to make sense of this. It wasn’t what I expected, given the conversations and the anecdotes, both internally and externally. I think specifically the conversation around the sustainability of the role of teachers, of school leaders, the absence of or reduction of joy in the role, that is the big conversations that are happening. There’s a perception that in other careers and industries, there’s more flexibility and more sustainability. Now, I don’t know if that’s true, but there feels to be a perception around that. And so, I don’t know what you’re going to make of that, Michael.

Horn: It’s pinging all over for me, lighting up right now. I’ll jump on that with a few more thoughts or hypotheses from that last observation, but one of them is not where I expected to go, which is, as you know, I got a couple book projects in the process. One of them is, why do people switch jobs? Why do they switch careers, what’s driving them and how can we help them make better choices? And similar to my book about choosing college or jobs to be done, there has to be a push, but also a pull on the other side. And so, I think part of feeling this is that teachers have, or are seeing for the first time, that pull. They’re seeing opportunities that perhaps they didn’t perceive historically that they had, which is a point you’ve made many times.

Sometimes, there’s sense of what their job is and how they have to do it, can they do it virtually, do they need to be in person, for example. Those things have changed, and I think there’s a couple other things that are exacerbating this, which is, maybe the quit rate is somewhat stable, but we do know that it’s a lot harder to hire new teachers right now.

That’s not new per se. It’s a historical trend. From 2006 to 2019, the number of education degrees conferred fell by 22 percent. The evidence suggests that this has continued to go down since COVID. We also know that substitutes are in short supply. There’s data behind that. I think, from my perspective, I guess, Diane, this all comes together as a perfect storm where maybe you’re not seeing it in your data, but there still could be a bigger resignation ahead. It’s not clear that everything is materialized yet, or been counted, given the challenges and timing and these lagging statistics ultimately.

I guess that speaks to one last thing that I think is getting muddled in, and you said this as well, which is that, some of the noise fueling the stories isn’t about teachers. It’s about the bus drivers, the staff, the administrators. You said mental health professionals, right? Nurses, et cetera, that are creating other shortages, which frankly just creates more stress in schools, and schools are dealing with a lot of stress right now. I think a lot of the stories are more reflective of that than any deep macro trend one or way or the other.

And so, I guess I want to end … Coming back to our, “So what?” Because we talked a lot last time about how the teacher role should be redefined. We talked about thinking about joy as different from the absence of dissatisfaction and pulling these things apart. But in your school where you’ve created a lot of motivators, a lot of things that bring joy, how are you thinking about these challenges on a more micro level, if indeed this is where these specific shortages are playing out? I guess more specifically, what can an individual school leader, or maybe even a parent, learn from that?

Tavenner: Michael, that’s a good question because all of this doesn’t matter if we’re not doing something with it. And so, I think one of the ways, I think a good example of how we’re thinking about this, is we’re trying to strike the balance of using the data in very targeted and specific ways. And so, let me give you an example. One of our teaching roles, specifically in our expeditions program, is harder to attract and retain people. And the data is just really clear about that. It’s been showing that trend for a little while. Expeditions is a really foundational part of our model. And so, it’s critical that we figure out how we can provide this perspective-changing experience for our students that they have come to love and expect and make it fulfilling and sustainable for teachers.

And so, armed with the expansive data from all groups, we’ve embarked on a two year redesign process that really is seeking to rethink roles, experiences, and design in ways that we believe will be attentive to the needs of educators, while at the same time, centering the needs of students.

I know that’s broad, but that’s the idea, is that getting really surgical and targeted and not thinking we have to redo everything, but focus on the place where the data is really popping. I think that highlights the fact that, Michael, these are not easy problems. All the easy problems in the world have been solved in my view. We are left with the hard ones. And so, in short, teaching as we’ve defined it, does not provide a lot of flexibility, which is one of the number one things people want from their professional experience right now and maybe into the future. I don’t think any of us know if that’s going to hold. And so, it’s going to take some serious ingenuity and creativity to figure out how to make the role more flexible while still serving students and operating in an ever complex and demanding setting that are our schools, which of course, is a call back to our previous conversation where we talked about the never ending layering of demands that make these super difficult and at the same time, an opportunity and really pressing.

Horn: We often end here. Flexibility and an end to one size fits all. It’s a theme for us, there’s no doubt about it. But I think it’s a good place to leave it because I always learn something more from our conversations about what that really means and has to look like. Let’s wrap up with the final word on what we’re reading or learning or exploring or just being entertained right now. We’ll start with you, Diane. What’s on your list?

Tavenner: All right. I’m not sure if you remember, but I kicked off this season, season three, by sharing I was reading The Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel. I’m back to meritocracy, Michael. This time, I’m coming at it from a historical perspective versus a philosophical in the book by Adrian Wooldridge called The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World. I know these titles are confusing, they just move the words around. But all I’m going to say is I need to talk to you about these ideas. There is a lot here. I’m clearly continued to be drawn to it. It’s all education related. I think it really taps into so many of the different controversies and dialogues we’re having. I’m just really curious to have this conversation with you.

Horn: I’m excited to have that conversation and perhaps do it as part of a podcast so we can all benefit and learn. And maybe I’ll stay a little bit on topic for mine. I know I’m not supposed to do something necessarily related to education here, Diane, but I just have to because I actually considered using this little tidbit for my opener, but here it is. I actually got to go to an actual school today, an actual school visit. And as you know, Diane, before the pandemic, I traveled a lot and got to see schools all over the country and even the world. I haven’t been able to do that since the pandemic started, which has felt really frustrating.

And yet today, I got to actually go into a school, a Jewish day school nearby, led by a very innovative leader who you know, Dalia Hochman, who’s done work for Summit. It was so uplifting and refreshing and exciting to be in a school with such thoughtful students and educators again. It really made me hopeful and optimistic for the sorts of conversations that they were very casually having in the hallways about what school could be. And so with that, I think we’ll leave it there. Thank you all for joining us on Class Disrupted.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.

Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a life-long educator, innovator, and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life. 

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