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Retaining STEM Teachers by Creating a Supportive Environment
By Mike Gani Posted:July 12, 2014 0 Comments
Teaching is hard. However, one thing that may be even harder is keeping STEM teachers inside the classroom. Teacher attrition, or the rate at which teachers leave their jobs, stands between 10 and 20 percent. While many are leaving one job for another position elsewhere in the system or the country, many are leaving teaching altogether. While it is fantastic that President Obama called for 100,000 new STEM teachers by the end of the decade, this may be nothing more than pouring sand into a bucket with holes in the bottom. Researcher Richard Ingersoll estimates that 25,000 math and science teachers are leaving the profession every year, and only 7,000 of those are due to retirement. The rest are burnt out, jaded, or simply unwilling to put up with the high-stress, low-reward life of the modern teacher. Further, an Education Commission of the States report found that math and science teachers in middle school and high school settings are among the most likely to leave the teaching profession.

Fixing this issue is a very serious problem because without trained, knowledgeable subject experts that can combine subject mastery with pedagogical experience, STEM classrooms across the country will continue to be underserved. Adequately preparing students for STEM excellence in college and beyond is of paramount importance in the modern K-12 classroom, so ensuring that teachers who have the potential for excellence remain in the field is an important step in ensuring a bright future for the STEM workforce.

Why Are Teachers Leaving?

Most people are drawn to teaching because they want to make an impact on students' lives. However, there are a number of roadblocks to achieving this impact. Teachers are among the lowest compensated professionals and they have little room for incentive-based growth or professional development inside the classroom. In too many instances, teachers are being forced to teach towards standardized tests that remove classroom creativity and create a culture of competition and fear. Many schools lack formal mentorship or collaborative teaching efforts that can leave professionals both new and seasoned feeling isolated. The modern classroom is not adequately outfitted with all needed supplies, so the average teacher spends over $430 annually on supplies out of his or her own pocket. Newer teachers actually have higher out-of-pocket expenses than this because they have no supplies to carry over from year to year. Mix all of this with a society that continues to pay only lip service to valuing teachers while it also demonizes them for everything from declining student behavior to continuous drops in test scores, and it is small wonder that few educated STEM professionals would want to stay in the teaching field. In fact, almost 1 in 3 STEM teachers will leave STEM teaching within their first five years.

Solving the Attrition Problem

So, what is a school to do? The traditional answer has been to throw more money at the problem by offering teachers bonuses and other incentives if they consistently raise student achievement or if they promise to teach in a less desirable school. However, despite these widely-touted policies, they are ineffective. A 2012 RAND study found that incentive pay had no effect on student achievement. Likewise, it is also likely that these minor incentive bumps would be unlikely to keep teachers in the classroom because they vary over time, are often subject to budget availability, and they are not a true solution to the problem of teacher compensation. For the work and the hours put in, teachers should be more highly compensated across the board. Not only would this increase retention rates, but it would aid in attracting better candidates and it would assist in making teaching recognized as a profession on par with other respected careers in the modern American workforce. But compensation is not the only avenue that schools have in retaining qualified STEM teachers. In fact, many low cost solutions have been found to be equally effective in retaining teachers over time.

A TNTP study found that teachers were more likely to be retained if they received regular feedback that was both honest and positive, if they received recognition for positive work, if they were made accountable for a specific area through leadership and professional development opportunities, and if they had adequate resources for their classrooms. With the exception of adequate resources, which boils back down to the need for money, each of these things can be implemented inside of a school regardless of its resources. Instead of money, these tactics call for the development of a culture of accountability and interdependence that shows teachers that they are part of a team that is supportive but demanding. Principals, district staff, and other administrators can help support teachers most at risk of leaving the profession through constant contact and consistent involvement between administration and the classroom.

An Attitude Shift

Excellent teachers are not born; they are made through their education, their ongoing mentorship, their collaboration with other teachers, their devotion to their students, their mastery of their subject material, and the supportive environment they create with other professionals in their schools. But, great teachers cannot be expected to be unsupported superheroes. These professionals are not taking on monastic vows when they enter the teaching profession. Indeed, many STEM educators have given up the option for vastly more lucrative careers within the STEM field. Retaining STEM teachers seems to boil down to treating the teaching profession as what it is: a profession full of professional people.

In no other profession would professionals be expected by their employers to provide their own supplies. In no other profession would new members not be enrolled in some sort of mentoring process. In no other profession would members not be subject to some sort of systematic review to ensure that their abilities and methods continue to be up to par. Teachers should be treated no differently. And if society is unwilling and schools remain unable to compensate teachers at the levels that they deserve, then the least that they can do is provide a supportive environment that nurtures creativity, encourages personal development, provides adequate resources, provides honest feedback, and nurtures new members of the teaching community. While this may not retain every teacher that enters the STEM education field, it will provide a more enticing professional environment that will seek to keep people in and address their issues proactively rather than ignoring them until it is too late.