Wanna Know Why We’re Struggling to Keep Teachers in Our Most Vulnerable Schools?

A recent article from the Philadelphia Inquirer revealed truths that, while saddening, troubling and infuriating, were not exactly surprising.

High teacher turnover hurts kids and diminishes their likelihood of academic success, and the schools serving communities in deepest poverty have the highest rates of teacher turnover.

The picture painted by the article is dire. 

Experts say a stable teaching staff is crucial to a school’s academic success, and turnover of 25% in a year is cause for alarm.Twenty-six district schools experience turnover far beyond that measure. These schools lost at least 25% of their teachers for four years straight or lost more than one-third in each of the last two school years. These schools serve about 12,000 of the district’s most vulnerable students, nearly all of them minorities.

The situation, while maddening, is actually fairly easy to understand. New teachers go to where there are teacher vacancies, just as any new worker goes to where there are job openings. 


What happens when they get there, the article argues, is also predictable: “These new teachers flail as they try to master their craft. They don’t get adequate coaching and support, so their morale tanks and many leave. Then they’re replaced by recruits just like them, and the cycle begins again.”

When read alongside a 2018 summary report from the William Penn Foundation on preparing teachers for urban schools, the pictures gets even clearer.

According to the report, “Seventy-two percent of teachers felt unprepared to work in an urban classroom. Eighty percent felt unprepared to teach unmotivated students. Fifty-two percent felt unprepared to plan and deliver instruction. Sixty-two percent felt unprepared to teach culturally diverse students.”


Before we even jump into analyzing the numbers, we need to address the language used in this report. I recoil at the coded language of “urban classroom,” “unmotivated students” and “culturally diverse students.”  

According to the Philadelphia Notebook, “Fifty-two percent of the schools in the Pennsylvania suburbs of Philadelphia—Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties—have no Black teachers.” And even within the city limits, less than one quarter of the teacher population is Black, despite Black and Brown students making up nearly two-thirds of Philadelphia’s student population.


And let’s be clear. It is imperative that all teachers, regardless of their background, be empowered with the cultural competence needed to teach any and all students.

So, when a report signals that the vast majority of teachers are unprepared to teach “urban,” “unmotivated” and “culturally diverse students,” to me what is really being said is that a predominantly White teaching corps feels unprepared to teach kids who are Black and Brown.

When we put it all together, a clear reality emerges. New teachers, most of them White and unprepared, go to the schools with job openings, the overwhelming majority of which serve Black and Brown communities within one of America’s most deeply impoverished cities. Teachers struggle, kids don’t learn, teachers quit and the cycle begins anew.


But why aren’t these teachers prepared to teach? Why aren’t they prepared to connect with their students and their communities?

According to teachers, it’s pretty clear. They weren’t taught how.

Of the teachers polled in the William Penn Foundation report, 68% said their preparation programs placed too much emphasis on theory and not enough on classroom-ready skills. 

This is hugely problematic, and I must say completely in-line with my own teacher preparation experience. I struggled immensely trying to connect what I learned in my teacher prep courses with the realities of my school in West Philadelphia. 

The disproportionate reliance on educational theory at the expense of practical implementation of specific teaching strategies and studies in cultural competence leads to what many teachers refer to as “Reality Shock.”

REALITY SMACKED ME IN THE FACE.One teacher in the report spoke frankly. “Teachers are usually under the impression that the classrooms are going to be what the books are telling them, which is not true…Reality smacked me in the face.”

Here are a few ways we can better prepare our teachers so they in turn can better serve their students.

1. Expand Teacher Residency Programs 

Teaching is one of the few professions where there is little to no on-ramp for new hires. For far too many teachers, myself included, I passed a few tests, got a certification that allowed me to teach while I took classes at night and was thrown into a classroom. That is a recipe for disaster, and it doesn’t have to be that way, particularly when you consider that the United States Department of Labor and Statistics’ Apprenticeship programs for many trades last up to four years.

Teacher residency programs, while of course having some detractors, to me seem absurdly obvious. Teacher residents are placed in a school with a mentor teacher. They are there every single day. While receiving intense instruction from their teacher preparatory program, they immerse themselves in the day-to-day rigors of their school placement. The gradual on-ramp, while not standardized, empowers teachers to progress from teaching mini-lessons, to leading one or two sections, to leading a full class load. 

By the end of their residency year, they can be offered a position at their school with a toolkit of strategies, competencies and experience that have been developed within the same school community, leading to increased cultural awareness and a first year of full-on teaching that doesn’t have to be an excruciating trial by fire. 


Furthermore, as noted by the Learning Policy Institute, teacher residency programs aid in not only diversifying the teacher pipeline, but also teacher retention.

“Across teacher residency programs nationally, 45% of residents in 2015–16 were people of color. This proportion is more than double the national average of teachers of color entering the field, which is 19%.”

“Studies of teacher residency programs consistently point to the high retention rates of their graduates, even after several years in the profession, generally ranging from 80-90% in the same district after three years and 70-80% after five years.”

No doctor is thrown into the ER on day 1. And if we want our teachers to be effective, neither should they.

2. Ground Teacher Preparation in Applicable Teacher Practice

We need to provide teacher preparation that is grounded upon, but not limited to, educational theory. We need to show teachers how to teach, see them practice it, give them feedback and make them do it again better.

Here’s an example. When leaving a class from my teacher prep program, I walked away with a thorough and empowering knowledge of Discovery Learning, Montessori, Skinner, Piaget, Vygotsky, Zones of Proximal Development and much more.

What I didn’t walk away with was what to do when nobody raised their hand to answer a question, or what to do when 10 students needed to sharpen pencils at the same time, how to make classes more engaging or how to figure out whether students had actually learned what I had at least attempted to teach.

Essentially, I knew what teaching was about, but I didn’t know how to do it.

Our prep programs need to do both. We need to educate new teachers on foundational theory, and we need to ensure that teachers practice and master the moves that make up a teacher’s bread and butter.

3. Prioritize Teacher Cultural Competency and Anti-Bias Training

We need to guide our teachers to learn about the children and the communities they will serve so they do so with compassion, knowledge and humility. 

Teachers need to see maps of the cities and communities they serve. They need to know the demographics, the data and the stories. They need to walk the streets, visit the corner stores and talk with community leaders.

They need to at once understand the traumatic impacts of poverty and institutional racism and its impact on schools and kids, while at the same time also doing the vital introspection and work to identify and dismantle their own entrenched implicit biases.

We need to empower our teachers so their classrooms become places of liberation, rather than oppression.

At its most basic, as one teacher reported, it’s actually quite simple.

“Nothing prepares you for teaching the way doing it does, seeing other people do it, talking to people about the preparation that goes into it, and then actually just being able to do it.”

The time for action is now. Our teachers need it. Our students need it.

Let’s get to work.

This post was originally published on the Education Post’s website.

Zachary Wright
Zachary Wright
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, Curriculum Contributor to the Center for Black Educator Development, and general agitator. His writing has been published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Citizen, Chalkbeat, Educational Leadership, and numerous education blogs. His latest book, Dismantling a Broken System; Actions to Bridge the Equity, Justice, and Opportunity Gap in American Education is available now.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Up Next