Every year around this time, families often generously show their appreciation to their children’s teachers with gifts – sweets, something for the classroom, or a gift card. This is wonderful since teachers do one of the toughest and most important jobs in our nation and surely deserve our gratitude. Our students depend on our teachers day in and day out to prepare them to realize their potential and their dreams. But as a city, we can’t stop there if we want to keep our great teachers here in Oakland and support them to thrive.
If we’re serious about teacher retention, we need to give teachers more than a mug, chocolate or a card – we need to give teachers a real voice in how to improve the working conditions in their schools, while simultaneously working to shift structural conditions beyond the school walls to keep our great teachers teaching in Oakland.
These are lessons we learned from the last several years of working to increase teacher retention in Oakland. From 2015 to 2019, Educate78 worked with Oakland teachers to develop and run a teacher retention grant program that supported educators across Oakland public schools to improve working conditions, teacher satisfaction, and retention.
First, we convened classroom teachers from schools across the city to discuss shared challenges of being a public school teacher in Oakland and brainstorm ways Educate78 could address those challenges. They proposed a teacher-led, teacher-designed retention grant program. Educate78 raised money from local and national foundations and worked with our Teacher Advisory Group to make grants directly to teachers. Over three years, we made almost a half-million in grants to teachers to bring their ideas to life. Not all the ideas worked but some did. This work helped retain 27 more teachers serving around 700 children across 26 schools over the first two years of the grant program, and catalyzed a new teacher-led organization, The Teaching Well, that focuses exclusively on teacher sustainability and retention. It’s also spurred us to help more teachers and leaders get strong training in the Common Core standards and supporting our students to learn with rigorous instructional materials.
We learned a lot from this work. Here are our top five lessons, which we hope will be helpful to all the other organizations locally and nationally trying to tackle the teacher retention crisis:
Lesson #1: Ask teachers about their experiences and what matters most to them.
This should be obvious, but it’s easy for leaders in central offices, governmental agencies, or community organizations to get disconnected from the current classroom reality. We created a Teacher Advisory Group to help us design our approach. We conducted a citywide teacher survey to understand teachers’ experiences. Teachers themselves conceived of, designed, and implemented successful teacher retention initiatives at schools like Life Academy, Madison Park, Lazear, and others.
Lesson #2: Empower teachers to decide what’s best and let them lead the work.
When we gave teachers at school sites the power to decide how best to increase teacher retention, they came up with all sorts of interesting ideas: starting with addressing basic needs like classroom resources, and then moving to more support for teachers in their individual roles, building collective capacity and impact through strong team work, and professional development to improve their professional practice and their students’ learning. Their creativity and leadership were responsible for the success of these initiatives and proved that site-based working conditions can positively effect teacher satisfaction and retention.
Lesson #3 Wellness and self-care matter, a lot.
Supported and thriving teachers are able to foster supported and thriving children. We learned from many of the schools – like OUSD’s Greenleaf – that small but targeted investments and actions around wellness can lead to big returns in teacher sustainability, retention and quality teaching in the classroom. Shout-out to The Teaching Well, a new non-profit founded by Oakland teachers, for doing an amazing job supporting teachers to thrive!
Lesson #4: Yes, pay matters, a lot, along with affordability.
Our region’s housing affordability crisis is exacerbating our teacher retention crisis. In Oakland, $80,000 is considered low-income for a family of four. The average Oakland Unified teacher earns $63,149, second lowest among 107 districts across six Bay Area counties. Earlier this year, 4,000 people applied for 28 available affordable housing units. Educators in our Teacher Advisory Group have advocated for more affordability and continue to lead political advocacy for resources that will benefit students, families, and communities. Only through significantly increasing state per pupil funding can we provide our educators with more competitive compensation, which is why we have to pass Schools & Communities First next November 2020.
Lesson #5: Build on lessons learned, coordinate, and institutionalize progress.
This is where we are today. OUSD has made staff retention a priority. Many charter organizations have as well. Organizations and public agencies are acknowledging that teacher retention – especially of our teachers and leaders of color – is a problem interconnected with our larger efforts to dismantle systems, policies, and practices that are oppressing our communities and leading to racist outcomes for students and educators. As a city we need to go to those closest to the pain – and often furthest from power – to provide the most support as we continue individual and collective efforts to retain our excellent educators who directly impact our children’s learning and development every day.
We hope that as these efforts progress in Oakland, we can work together, apply the shared lessons we’ve learned from our partner educators’ work, and forge a fact-based, equity-centered, and quality-focused path to a better future.
Happy Holidays and best wishes for a great start to the next decade!