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Creating a "Finders and Keepers" Relationship

An Interview with Pforzheimer Professor Susan Moore Johnson

by Carol P. Choy

Pforzheimer Professor of Teaching and Learning Susan Moore Johnson recently published Finders and Keepers: Helping New Teachers Survive and Thrive in Our Schools(Jossey-Bass), a study of the best methods for school and administrations to recruit, support, and retain a strong teaching force amidst a current nationwide teacher shortage. Johnson and a team of doctoral students comprise the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, a research project addressing critical questions regarding the future of our nation's teaching force. A former high-school teacher and administrator herself, Johnson's interest in the next generation of teachers emphasizes the challenge of turning teaching into a long-term attractive career.

Q: Finders and Keepers: Helping New Teachers Survive and Thrive in Our Schools traces the experience of first- and second-year teachers in Massachusetts public schools. To what degree do their experiences reflect the challenges that classroom teachers face nationally?

A: In the four years that we monitored these 50 new teachers in Massachusetts, we also talked with teachers, principals, and superintendents in many other parts of the country. We found that there are remarkably similar themes in the accounts of new teachers wherever we go, and they tell us that our findings ring true. Overall, when new teachers find the support that they need to succeed with students in their schools, they enjoy their work and tend to stay.

Supportive workplaces combine fair and appropriate teaching assignments, regular interaction with experienced colleagues, adequate curriculum and professional development, and orderly schools. When schools fail to provide these things for new teachers, success is much harder to achieve, and new teachers are more likely to leave the school, or the teaching profession in general. Recently, the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers surveyed random samples of new teachers from six states and found further confirmation of these findings.

Q: What has contributed to the fact that the teacher shortage disproportionately affects schools in low-income communities? What conclusions do you draw from this inequity?

Many new teachers want to teach in low-income communities.

A: Many new teachers want to teach in low-income communities. They enter these schools with idealism, energy, and optimism. But schools in low-income communities tend to be shortchanged in many ways. Their buildings are not well-maintained; the least experienced principals are assigned there; supplies are often meager; and discipline is lax. Although students in high-poverty communities often require more services from their schools, they tend to get less than their share. As a result, these schools are often difficult workplaces in which new teachers can succeed, and new teachers leave the profession in disappointment or transfer to a better-organized school—which typically serves a higher-income community.

The repeated turnover of teachers in high-poverty, low-performing schools exacerbates the problem. However, it is very important to recognize two things. First, many new teachers who want to work in low-income communities are discouraged from doing so because of late hiring practices and poor working conditions. Second, well-organized, high-performing schools do exist in low-income communities, and such schools successfully attract and retain new teachers.

Q: You are an advocate of developing alliances and systems of support within the teaching community through coordinated efforts of legislators, administrators, principals, and teachers. Why do you think this is the key to building stronger schools and students?

A: The supports that new teachers need—a comprehensive induction program, sustained interaction with experienced teachers, a curriculum that aligns with state standards, services for students with special needs—cannot be provided solely by the schools. They depend on sensible, well-funded programs and services from other levels of government and public education.

For example, we have found that the hiring process can be crucial to getting schools off to a good start. A school-based hiring process provides a rich exchange of information between the candidate and the school's administrators and teachers, and it enables everyone to set realistic expectations. In fact, we have come to see hiring as the first stage of induction. But many districts—particularly large, urban ones—hire teachers too late for this to happen. Thus, timely hiring, which would benefit new teachers, their schools, and students, cannot occur without the cooperation of the legislators and city officials who approve education budgets, district administrators who post jobs and process applications, and school principals and teachers who take time to interview and select new teachers. Again, these kinds of systems make it possible for new teachers to succeed from the start.

Q: Describe what you mean when you call schools "finders and keepers." Why should we want more of these types of schools?

Soaring rates of attrition, particularly in low-income districts, clearly demonstrated that retaining new teachers was equally important as recruitment.

A: In the year 2000, when school officials learned that a teacher shortage was rapidly approaching, many focused on recruiting new teachers. They offered signing bonuses, mortgage subsidies, and health-club memberships to prospective teachers. Recruiters from one district or state poached teachers from another. Quickly, however, it became clear that successful recruitment was only the first step in staffing schools effectively. Soaring rates of attrition, particularly in low-income districts, clearly demonstrated that retaining new teachers was equally important as recruitment. In schools where new teachers are supported, new teachers also want to stay, and so we have called them “finders and keepers.†The expression has a double meaning, since the new teachers themselves are active agents in the process. They, like the schools, are finders and keepers.

Q: You observe that, while student bodies are becoming more diverse, teachers are becoming an increasingly homogenized group. How do you explain this phenomenon, and should we be concerned by these opposing trends?

A: Throughout the past century, many careers were closed or unwelcoming to people of color. Teaching was the exception. But today, other careers are not only open to all candidates; they actively recruit the very individuals they once excluded. Competing workplaces-law offices, architecture firms, consulting companies, banks are often more attractive, better equipped, and higher-paying than schools. Thus, the "hidden subsidy" of teaching, which once provided schools with teachers of color, no longer exists. Although I certainly do not believe that students always need to have teachers who are of similar race or ethnicity, I do believe that having a diverse teaching force is important for both the students and the teachers, who can share cultural understandings and insights with each other.


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