Burn. Burned. Burnt.
Even before the pandemic sent schools into all around panic mode, those were the words you heard all the time when speaking to teachers in urban areas. They assume immense psychological loads, they take their work home, they cry on their couches because they can’t cry in front of their students. Rarely will you hear them say it’s too much—teachers are stoic like that—but they will not hesitate to tell you that it’s a lot. And locked away in those burned out and bedraggled minds is the kind of practical knowledge that could propel the profession forward. (Full disclosure: I am an English teacher, at Belmont Charter Middle School.)
Over the course of seven years, 27 percent of teachers left the district to transfer to another school, and 15 percent of those left the profession entirely. This isn’t brain drain. It’s brain exodus.
Unfortunately, the education system loses these teachers en masse because there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. At the end of last school year, about 6 percent of teachers and 6 percent of principals nationwide left their jobs, and Philly has been experiencing a severe shortage of classroom teachers throughout the district this school year as well.
But the stress of teaching here is not new. For years, teachers have put in their time and then left for the suburbs or matriculated to administration or abandoned the profession entirely. According to a report from the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium, over the course of seven years, 27 percent of teachers left the district to transfer to another school, and 15 percent of those left the profession entirely. Most of those who vacate are talented young teachers.
This isn’t brain drain. It’s brain exodus. It is also expensive. According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a nonprofit think tank, it costs an urban district $8,750 every time a teacher leaves, in recruiting, hiring, processing and training someone to take their place. That does not count the learning cost to students, of having new teachers who are unused to their school, or to the profession.
Philly has ideas to staunch the bleeding, including enhanced teacher orientation, recruitment and coaching. And there is hope that in our new pandemic times, some relief could be on the horizon. But that won’t be enough. Maybe we should look to the United Kingdom for a solution.
In 2018, England’s Department for Education (their DoE) announced that they would be starting a 5 million pound pilot program to offer teachers with 10 years experience a chance at a fully paid sabbatical year off. Proposals like these in the UK stretch back 10 years, when one of Wales’ main teachers unions, NUT Cymru, called for fully paid sabbaticals for all Welsh teachers as part of a plan to retain professionals. The notion, as recently as a decade ago, was roundly rejected as unrealistic. But things have gotten sort of dire in the UK: As of 2018, the Kingdom had a 30,000-teacher shortfall, 20 percent short of the needed number of teachers to keep things above board.
This is not a new concept. At universities—where teachers have a similar workload to that of elementary and secondary education—sabbaticals are expected. The reasoning? Academics have valuable experience and knowledge that can be used to grow their students and advance the field that they’re in. Higher academia uses sabbaticals to give professors the chance to expand their shared academic universe, temporarily free of the responsibilities of teaching, and as a perk that keeps them refreshed.
It’s also sound business practice. A 2006 study found that 89 percent of human resources departments say that sabbaticals are helpful for retaining staff, similar to the findings of a study published in 2002, which found that academic sabbaticals improve professor retention. A 2010 study of academics found that those who took a sabbatical were considerably more likely to be personally positive and professionally sharp afterward.
These are all things Philly needs. The school district here is way below the national average when it comes to teacher retention, much less bringing them in in the first place. Working in the city is hard, and many—perhaps too many—new teachers and professionals see working in an urban environment as a springboard to something more manageable, with a bigger salary. Why not encourage them instead to spend a year developing new skills, or studying their field, or reading—and then returning with all that knowledge to the classroom?
Philly has nodded in the right direction, but the efforts don’t quite go far enough. Right now, after 10 years of service, teachers can request a sabbatical at half-pay as long as they are taking classes or doing some other form of professional development. (Medical sabbaticals are also an option.) A 10-year teacher makes roughly $75,000— which means a salary of less than $38,000, before taxes, to pursue your goals and support your family. Philly teachers are also prevented from undertaking any other jobs that pay during this time.
Simply put, if you are a Philly teacher who takes a sabbatical year and has only one source of income, you will likely be impoverished. Still that is a slight improvement over the last teachers contract, when you could apply for non-health sabbatical only after 20 years.
Harry Feder is a history and civics teacher in New York City’s Beacon High School. A former lawyer, Feder’s the kind of guy who needs intellectual stimulation. A couple years ago, he took advantage of New York City’s sabbatical policy, which grants teachers who have served 14 years in the district a year of study sabbatical at 70 percent pay, and teachers who have served 14 a full year sabbatical at 100 percent pay. (New York City teacher pay maxes out at around $100,000 for the most qualified, and hangs around $70,000 for qualified teachers.)
Feder says he used his sabbatical to edify himself and work on a report for the Department of Education. He visited schools from Seattle to Appalachia (on his own dime) and did pedagogical evaluations of classrooms across the country.
“I did a year. I submitted a research proposal that had to be approved by the superintendent for a year of study without coursework, but I had to produce a report at the end of the year,” says Feder. “What I did was, essentially, looking at the American high school and the extent to which we educate students to be democratic citizens.”
Sabbaticals, just as much as anything, according to Feder, can also allow teachers to simply study their craft and content area, and make their knowledge more whole.
“I have a colleague here who I know took classes at SIPA at Columbia, took classes on terrorism and national security. Now he came back and teaches this senior elective on terrorism,” says Feder.
Of course, Philly would have to come up with a way to fund a fully-paid sabbatical program, something especially complicated given the dire state of pension liability in the District. One idea would be to set it up like a 401k: Teachers could slowly pay into a plan that would cover 30 percent of the cost, while the District agreed to foot the other 70 percent of the year off. This would be 20 percent more than it pays already, but offset by the savings it would accrue by not having to hire a replacement teacher.
That said, there’s no way of knowing if England’s grand adventure into fully paid teacher sabbaticals is going to pay off in the big way they are hoping. But it is clear that our current ideas for keeping teachers in their jobs are not working. Millennials are attuned to economic reality and know that if a job leaves no room or time for professional development, it’s a dead end.
In New York, Feder says that if he had his druthers, he’d offer a fully paid sabbatical every 10 years, and once again every 10 years, allowing teachers to plan their academic pursuits more wholly—and to simply enjoy their jobs more. “I would want to keep morale up,” says Feder. “It’s incentive!”
Editor’s note: This story originally ran in November, 2018. It’s still an idea we should steal.
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