LISTEN — Class Disrupted S3 E12: Is There A Teacher Exodus Or Not? Digging Into The Dispute

LISTEN — Class Disrupted S3 E12: Is There A Teacher Exodus Or Not? Digging Into The Dispute

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Class Disrupted is a podcast about education that airs every two weeks. It features author Michael Horn and Diane Tavenner from Summit Public Schools, who engage in conversations with educators, school leaders, students, and other members of school communities. Together, they explore the challenges that the education system is currently facing during the pandemic and discuss possible future directions. You can find all the episodes by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or Stitcher. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

There are currently two prevailing narratives in the field of education regarding teachers. On one hand, numerous media stories and educators claim that teachers are leaving their profession in large numbers, making school management difficult. On the other hand, researchers argue that the number of teachers quitting is not significantly higher than in previous years. In this episode, Michael and Diane analyze the data and personal accounts to understand the two narratives and find common ground.

Listen to the episode below. A complete transcript is provided afterwards.

Diane Tavenner: Hello, Michael.

Michael Horn: Hey, Diane. It’s great to see you. We’re currently experiencing winter weather here, with snow and ice falling. However, we occasionally get teased with days in the 50s. Most exciting of all, COVID case counts are decreasing or at least stabilizing at the moment. It’s a mix of sluggishness and optimism.

Tavenner: Michael, I’m not sure how to share my reality with you. We just had an 80-degree weekend that felt like summer. It would have been wonderful if not for the ongoing droughts and wildfires that California is accustomed to, and this extreme weather is a sign of that. There’s a familiar tension caused by these circumstances. As I think about our podcast, it’s familiar because, as our listeners know, we never expected to be in season three or have three years of schooling impacted by the pandemic. But here we are. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, we still believe in the potential for transformation in our schools and hold on to hope.

Horn: Absolutely. In this season, we’ve focused on answering important questions about schooling, such as "Who?" "What?" "Where?" "When?" "Why?" and "How?". As our listeners know, we’ve allowed our curiosity to guide us throughout this journey. I have to say, Diane, there’s a topic we explored earlier this season that I’m eager to revisit: the issue of teachers quitting and the current discussions surrounding teacher shortages.

Tavenner: Oh my, you’ll have to give me more details because we covered this topic in six episodes, discussing why this teacher shortage is unique and how we arrived at this point. What specifically piques your curiosity right now?

[Note: The remaining part of the text could not be rewritten as it is a continuation of the conversation between Michael and Diane.]

You predicted the outcome before it became a major topic in the media. However, there is another perspective that suggests that this is not a new issue. Historically, teachers have always had higher turnover rates compared to other professions. To provide some statistics, around 30 percent of college graduates who become teachers leave the profession within six years. This ranks as the fifth highest turnover rate among occupations, surpassed only by secretaries, childcare workers, paralegals, and correctional officers. It is just slightly higher than policing and nursing. Chad Aldeman, a researcher at the Edunomics Lab, is a prominent figure representing this viewpoint. He argues that the quit rate has remained steady or average during the pandemic. However, there is currently a significant discrepancy between the number of job openings and available hires, primarily due to the influx of federal funding that has enabled the recruitment of more individuals. Consequently, this has led to a higher vacancy rate.

It is worth mentioning that Aldeman has suggested that this situation is also a result of unfilled positions accumulating over the past couple of years, which has caused strain. This raises an important question, Diane. Firstly, as we discussed in episode six, the challenges posed by teacher shortages demand a larger restructuring of the role of educators, their training, and the education system itself. Secondly, depending on how one interprets the debate, it may influence their actions. Lastly, what we are witnessing in this debate is perhaps a more civil version of the typical divide seen in education, where adults are divided into two distinct camps, debating an issue where both sides may have valid points. To commence our discussion, Diane, could you share what you have observed and heard on the ground, and how does that inform our understanding?

Tavenner: Certainly. Let’s dive into it. Michael, you probably know that I don’t watch much television, but during these significant events in February like the Super Bowl and Olympics, I happened to come across an airline commercial.

Horn: An airline commercial? Interesting.

Tavenner: Yes, bear with me for a moment. The commercial, believe it or not, focused on highlighting how great and friendly the airline was because they were hiring many former teachers and nurses. I know it sounds unbelievable, but that was the content of the commercial. It was one of those moments where I couldn’t help but laugh because otherwise, I would be crying. My husband looked at me in amazement. I suppose what you’re asking is why did that sudden surge of emotions overcome me? It may not be solely because the airline is luring our teachers away to pursue what is perhaps the third worst job imaginable right now. There might be more complexity to the situation. That’s precisely what we aim to explore. We are interested in delving into the nuances. So, I believe you are highlighting this to explore how these storylines can intersect and guide us towards a productive path forward, rather than remaining on two separate tracks that do not converge.

Now, let’s get serious and inquisitive, and consider some local experiences. As you mentioned, Summit has been facing persistent teacher shortages in certain hard-to-fill areas since the beginning of the year. The number of vacancies and their duration do feel distinct compared to previous years, so I decided to investigate the data further. It is true, there are more job openings, and they are remaining unfilled for longer periods than usual. This is a familiar challenge we constantly face. We are consistently required to find highly qualified teachers for hard-to-fill positions, especially in special education and math, which are areas where we are experiencing these persistent vacancies. Hence, there is some truth to both of these storylines. We have been facing ongoing challenges with job openings, and this accumulation of difficulties has become more prominent this year due to the delayed timing and extended durations of the vacancies.

Let’s return to this topic, as I have a strong feeling that all of those statements are accurate, and a significant underlying factor is a preference for flexibility. This is quite intriguing. It’s also crucial to acknowledge that perception is reality. This is a deeply human experience, and the perception is that teachers are resigning in large numbers and that there is a substantial shortage of educators. But where does this perception come from? On a personal level, if you are a student who had five teachers and one of them quits, it can feel like a confirmation. Your personal experience aligns with this larger narrative. Similarly, if you are a teacher and one of your colleagues resigns, it feels like further confirmation.

The relationship you had with that person, their reasons for quitting, and everything you read and hear combine to shape your own lived experience, which may indeed reflect a "great resignation" crisis in your daily life. However, it may not be representative of the entire education system, all teachers, and the long-term situation.

One of the most significant points you raised, Michael, is how the influx of funds has led to the creation of numerous new positions and roles. In fact, if you carefully examine the stories about education, you will often find unfulfilled positions in areas such as bus driving, teaching assistants, and other vital roles. Let me provide an example from our field that highlights this issue. Like many others, the demand for mental health support has significantly increased. Both students and adults require counseling and other support services, and we have allocated funds to address these needs.

In our case, we have expanded the support we offer and continue to do so to meet the demand. However, one concern is whether we will be able to hire enough support staff in the long run. We are already stretched, but we have not yet reached a critical point. Nevertheless, there is a persistent perception within our community that we are not adequately serving people and that there is a lack of support. I delved deeper into this to understand it better since the data did not align with this perception. What I have discovered so far is that much of this perception stems from the process itself. For instance, when someone is referred for counseling, it often takes a few weeks to initiate the sessions. Non-urgent services rarely begin on the same day. People may be seeing a counselor, but it takes time to get an appointment.

Another aspect is that even if they are receiving counseling, they may not feel any better or their problems may persist. This dissatisfaction with the outcomes leads to a belief that they are not receiving the necessary support. I hope this clarifies the nuance you were seeking when you brought up this topic. We must acknowledge and consider these conflicting realities, both the data and the personal experiences, in order to make informed decisions moving forward.

Horn: Yes, Diane, every aspect you mentioned resonates with me. I find all of it relevant. One point that stands out to me is the importance of timing, just as it is in politics. Right now, more teachers are absent than usual, and we construct narratives around that. Our language in the media may not always be precise, or perhaps teachers are quitting at unconventional times, such as in the middle of the school year, which historically may not have been the case. These absences are felt and disrupt the usual schooling routine. This aspect ties into another hypothesis of mine, taking a broader perspective. Firstly, I want to underscore my usual caveat that data are inherently retrospective.

However, it appears to me that at an overall level, the data may indicate that quit rates are relatively consistent. However, when we examine the data at a more detailed level, as our friend Todd Rose would say, it can be quite erratic. In certain schools, in certain subjects, and in certain regions, the quit rates may be higher. On the other hand, in other schools, they may be lower, which would mask the overall average for a state or the entire country. Additionally, even a slight increase in quit rates in certain areas can have a significant impact. Just a few vacancies or teachers being absent for an extended period can create a ripple effect on an individual school and its students.

Tavenner: Absolutely. The importance of this cannot be overstated. It lies at the core of what is currently happening. I would like to provide a deeper insight into what I have observed, which may add more complexity to the situation we are discussing. Some context is necessary here. At Summit, we are strongly committed to not only attracting talented individuals but also investing heavily in the growth and retention of our exceptional staff. A key aspect of this is our extensive annual career matrix survey and conversations. Essentially, every December, we ask every employee to share their future aspirations and plans with the organization, and we receive an incredibly high response rate, typically in the upper nineties or even one hundred percent. We also provide the same information about the organization’s future plans. We strive to forecast potential new roles or opportunities and help individuals find the best fit.

Our primary goal is to foster open dialogue and ensure everyone finds a great fit within the organization, as we believe this benefits students. As part of this process, we ask everyone if they plan to return the following year, with three options: "yes, no, maybe." This allows us to compare their predictions with the actual outcomes in the subsequent school year and identify any trends. So, I analyzed the data from 2018 onwards and found that there were no significant differences between years, which was somewhat surprising. Let me reiterate that. There have been no significant differences in terms of the number of people stating their intention to return or not return since 2018. The return rates have remained relatively stable over these years. In fact, this year, there has been a slight increase in the percentage of individuals indicating that they plan to return compared to last year.

Interestingly, even though we were in a virtual school setting last year, people appeared to be happier. The narrative and experience don’t seem to align with the data. I’m still trying to make sense of this discrepancy. It wasn’t what I expected based on the conversations and anecdotes I’ve heard internally and externally. Specifically, there has been a lot of discussion about the sustainability of teaching and school leadership roles and a perceived lack of joy in these positions. There is a perception that other careers and industries offer more flexibility and sustainability. I’m not sure if that’s true, but there seems to be a belief surrounding it. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this, Michael.

At times, individuals have a clear understanding of their job and the manner in which it must be carried out. They may wonder if they can perform their duties virtually or if they need to be present in person. These dynamics have changed, and there are a few other factors exacerbating this situation. For instance, the rate of people leaving their jobs may be somewhat stable, but it is currently much more challenging to hire new teachers.

This is not a new phenomenon. It has been a historical trend. From 2006 to 2019, there was a 22 percent decrease in the number of education degrees awarded. Evidence suggests that this decline has continued since the onset of COVID-19. Additionally, substitutes are in short supply, and there is data to support this. From my perspective, Diane, all of these factors are converging to create a perfect storm. While you may not see it in your data, there could be a larger wave of resignations on the horizon. It is not yet clear if everything has been fully realized or accounted for, given the challenges, timing, and the lag in statistical reporting.

There is one more aspect that I believe is getting mixed up in all of this, as you also mentioned. The noise fueling these stories is not solely about teachers. It also includes bus drivers, staff, administrators, mental health professionals, nurses, and others who are experiencing shortages. This only adds to the stress in schools, which are already grappling with numerous challenges. Many of these stories reflect this increased pressure more than any overarching macro trend.

So, in conclusion, I want to revisit the question of "So what?" As we discussed previously, there is a need to redefine the role of a teacher. We explored the idea that joy is different from simply being free of dissatisfaction, and that these concepts should be approached separately. Considering that your school has implemented various motivators and initiatives to bring joy, how are you addressing these specific challenges on a smaller scale, especially if these shortages are primarily affecting your institution? Specifically, what lessons can an individual school leader or even a parent learn from this situation?

Tavenner: Michael, that’s a valid question because all of this information is meaningless if we do not take action. We are striving to strike a balance by using the data in targeted and specific ways. Let me provide an example. Our expeditions program, which is a crucial part of our educational model, has been facing difficulties in attracting and retaining teachers. The data clearly shows this trend, and it has been evident for some time. It is essential that we find a way to provide our students with the enriching and sustainable experiences they have come to expect from expeditions.

Armed with comprehensive data from all stakeholders, we have initiated a two-year redesign process. This process aims to reconsider roles, experiences, and designs in a manner that addresses the needs of educators while keeping the needs of students at the forefront.

I understand that this is a broad objective, but the idea is to be surgical and targeted in our approach, without feeling the need to overhaul everything. We want to focus on areas where the data highlights significant challenges. This emphasizes the fact that these are not simple problems, Michael. All the easy problems have already been solved, in my opinion. We are left with the difficult ones. In short, the traditional concept of teaching lacks flexibility, which is currently a top priority for individuals in their professional lives and may continue to be in the future. We cannot predict if this demand for flexibility will persist. Therefore, it will require great ingenuity and creativity to make the teaching role more adaptable while still serving students and operating within the complex and demanding environment of schools. This brings us back to our previous conversation, where we discussed the ever-increasing demands placed upon educators, which present both challenges and opportunities that must be addressed urgently.

Tavenner: Alright. I’m not sure if you recall, but at the beginning of this season, season three, I mentioned that I was reading a book called "The Tyranny of Merit" by Michael Sandel. Now, I’ve shifted my focus to meritocracy once again, but this time from a historical perspective in a book called "The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World" by Adrian Wooldridge. I know the titles may be confusing, as they seem to just rearrange the words, but I really want to discuss these ideas with you. There is a lot to unpack here, and I’m still very intrigued by this topic. It relates to education in many ways and touches on the current controversies and discussions we are having. I am genuinely curious to have this conversation with you.

Horn: I’m thrilled to have this conversation as well, and perhaps we can even include it in a podcast so that everyone can benefit and learn. Now, I know I’m not supposed to share something unrelated to education here, Diane, but I just can’t resist. I had the opportunity to visit an actual school today, something I haven’t been able to do since the pandemic started. It was a Jewish day school led by the innovative leader Dalia Hochman, who you are familiar with from her work with Summit. Being in that school, surrounded by thoughtful students and educators, was incredibly uplifting and rejuvenating. It reignited my hope and optimism for the potential of meaningful conversations about the future of education. And with that, I believe we can conclude here. Thank you all for joining us on Class Disrupted.

Michael Horn is the author of several books on the future of learning, including "Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns." He collaborates with various organizations to drive educational transformation, enabling individuals to pursue their passions and reach their full potential.

Diane Tavenner is the CEO of Summit Public Schools and a co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She has devoted her life to education, innovation, and is also the author of "Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life."


  • kaylarusso

    Kayla Russo is an educational blogger and volunteer and student. She is a 27 yo educational blogger and volunteer and student who loves to help others learn.



Kayla Russo is an educational blogger and volunteer and student. She is a 27 yo educational blogger and volunteer and student who loves to help others learn.

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