What is going on in Philadelphia that is driving so many teachers out of the classroom and out of the teaching profession? In part, Philadelphia teachers are experiencing what teachers all over the country are experiencing. A recent survey of American teachers reveals that morale is at its lowest in 20 years. Research has shown that teachers tend to leave schools for reasons that have long plagued Philadelphia schools: because the working conditions make teaching unsustainable, because their autonomy and professionalism have been eroded, and because they've been treated as the problem with education instead of the potential solution. Certainly some of Philadelphia's teachers move to charter schools, but the mixed model in Philadelphia - neighborhood district schools, magnet district schools and independent charter schools - has yet to be proved as a method to ensure quality education for all students. Even less certain is how, or if, this model is capable of supporting increased teacher professionalism.
Philadelphia's newly hired superintendent, William R. Hite Jr., may be able to steer Philadelphia in a new direction by working with teachers instead of against them. We should all applaud his efforts so far to learn about and heal the system. Because Hite is a former teacher and principal, I am hopeful that he will remember just how much of an impact teachers have on student learning; particularly the kind of impact that standardized tests cannot measure very well. If we want our schools to be a place where meaningful learning occurs, the classroom must be a place where both teachers and students can thrive.
At the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, we support beginning high-school math and science teachers with comprehensive five-year fellowships that include the kinds of resources - mentoring, classroom materials, a community of colleagues, and sustained learning opportunities - they need to become leaders in and from the classroom.
Kelsey Johnson, a physical- and environmental-science teacher at George Washington High School, is one of five fellows teaching in Philadelphia. In the three years that Kelsey's been teaching, she's created an Advanced Placement environmental-science course at George Washington, led her classes on ecologically focused field trips through Fairmount Park, and helped her students design and plant gardens in projects that require them to apply what they've learned in ways that are meaningful and personally enriching.
Kelsey is exactly the kind of teacher Philadelphia's students need and deserve. So we need to ask: How can Philadelphia sustain and retain teachers like Kelsey?
Great teachers like Kelsey don't just happen. Like all professionals, teachers develop when they have ongoing opportunities to learn, have access to resources and expertise and the time and support to reflect on and improve their practice.
Teachers need to be able to contribute their expertise to every decision-making process at every level of the education system, and operate with autonomy to teach in ways that enable their unique and diverse students to learn and grow to the best of their ability.
Given the current state of the economy and Philadelphia's financial struggles, it's reasonable to ask how Philadelphia could afford to make this kind of commitment to its teachers. But if you consider the cost of teacher turnover, the question quickly becomes: How can it not? Nationwide, teacher turnover costs American taxpayers an estimated $7.3 billion per year. It's time to ask if improving the conditions and sustainability of teachers' work might be a better use of Philadelphia's limited funds than constantly recruiting, hiring and training new teachers.
Philadelphia's students will be back in the classroom on Sept. 7. It's time we stopped treating their teachers as disposable, interchangeable technicians and acknowledged them as accomplished professionals engaged in highly complex, challenging and critical work. Philadelphia is a world-class city; it owes its teachers and its students a learning environment where both can thrive. I hope that Dr. Hite agrees. Perhaps then more teachers like Kelsey will be drawn to Philadelphia and will be inspired to remain in the profession and in the city they love.
Nicole Gillespie is director for teaching fellowships at the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, Moorestown, N.J., kstf.org.