Across the state of Tennessee, nearly one in five teachers are only in their first or second year of teaching.
Tennessee leads the nation with the highest number of early career teachers, and many of those end up in large school districts, understaffed urban schools and in some of the schools with the highest needs across the state, according to a recent report by the Learning Policy Institute.
During the 2018-2019 school year, Hamilton County had 181 first-year teachers in classrooms across the county.
But the county bucked a national trend this year: nearly 90% of those teachers are returning this August.
A year earlier, one in four first-year teachers — about 26% — left after their first year.
Hamilton County Schools leaders, including Chief Talent Officer Keith Fogleman and Director of Human Resources Penny Murray, are celebrating the success of the district's new teacher induction program this summer as the district's human resources departments work to ensure classrooms are staffed by the first day of school in just a few weeks.
Since many of the first-year teachers the district hired in 2018 will be returning, that means less turnover in schools and more stability for teachers.
But it's not all good news.
Though the district's first-year teacher retention rate improved by nearly 15%, its overall retention rate remains stagnant.
In fact, more teachers resigned from Hamilton County Schools this year — 250 resignations as of July 19, higher than the district's three-year average.
As Fogleman, Murray and their team count success with new teachers, they are looking to how the system can not only retain the most vulnerable, early career teachers, but how to support and retain experienced, veteran teachers, as well.
"I think we're seeing career changers, we're seeing some burnout. I think there are more things we could do to support teachers," Fogleman said. "The indication from our exit interviews would tell us we could do more to focus our more experienced teachers, so that will be a focus as we move into this year."
Recruiting and supporting new teachers
Recently about a dozen first-year teachers were among educators who spent a half day at the school system's central office. Sitting together in a boardroom, the new hires turned in HR paperwork, set up their email accounts and laptops, networked with other new teachers and learned about supports the district offers such as teacher wellness workshops, a new teacher network and one-on-one mentoring.
"We really appreciate you selecting Hamilton County," Fogleman said as he addressed the room. "You are going to be key to the improvements we hope to continue to make, and we're counting on you."
The new hire orientation was the first step in a strategy aimed at ensuring teachers feel valued, he said.
"Studies always indicate that an effective orientation is one of the first important parts of retaining employees," said Fogleman, who was hired by Superintendent Bryan Johnson after a long career in private sector human relations. "Orientation is not just about turning in papers and learning about benefits, but getting an initial understanding that they're walking into an organization that cares about them and getting them prepared for the first day of school."
Once the school year starts, new teachers will be paired with mentors in their schools who will serve as coaches, not supervisors or someone evaluating them, for the remainder of the school year. New teachers will have options to attend training sessions as part of a new teacher network, launched in 2018, that includes sessions on classroom management, preventing burnout and self care.
The No. 1 reason teachers leave Hamilton County, according to exit surveys, is because they don't feel supported.
Experts say this is a national trend, and it tells school districts that they need to do more to support new teachers.
Renee Murley, director of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's School of Education, works closely with Hamilton County Schools. UTC is one of the top providers of new teachers for the district. Every year, dozens of student teachers and recent graduates are in classrooms across the district.
"Induction and school culture [leadership] are the two main factors for teacher retention," Murley said. "Teachers will remain committed to their role in an environment where they feel support from their administrators, colleagues and mentors."
Hamilton County's increased retention of first-year teachers, from 68% in 2017 to more than 86% as of this July, is significant, Murley said.
"Hamilton County's new induction program is a strong, innovative program to support new teachers through voluntary professional development addressing teachers' individual needs. Through their own self-reflection, new teachers have the opportunity to choose their path of focus," she said. "Teachers often experience burnout, especially when dealing with trauma many children often face in today's classroom. The self-care focus is critical for teachers to establish boundaries and balance in their life."
Erin Kirby, head of the district's induction program, said mentoring and the specific training for new teachers made all the difference this year.
"I think it was the boots on the ground, the mentoring that really kept our teachers charging on this year," she said.
Many mentor/mentee pairs met weekly to talk about what new teachers struggle with. Mentors observed their mentees' classrooms, helped plan lessons and attended some of the same leadership training.
But first-year teachers also had the opportunity to come together with their peers — other first-year teachers who were in the same boat — and talk about their challenges and successes at new-teacher network sessions throughout the year.
Kirby talked about one new teacher from Daisy Elementary who she said was ready to "throw in the towel" midyear. She was struggling, but Kirby and her mentor recommend she attend specific support sessions on how to handle student behavior and manage her classroom.
"She said, 'Maybe I'll give this a try before I quit,'" Kirby said. "And it transformed her classroom, it transformed her practice. Her principal started sending people into her classroom to see her teach and how she evolved."
Keeping high-quality teachers in the classroom
Ensuring teachers remain not only in the classroom but in a specific district is important for a number of reasons, educators say.
Hamilton County has struggled with high numbers of low-quality teachers in the past. In 2016, nearly one-third of Hamilton County teachers ranked among state's least effective, and the worst teachers were disproportionately in some of the district's lowest-performing schools.
Decades of research show that teachers are the most important in-school factor for boosting academic growth, and extensive research indicates that teacher quality increases the longer a teacher has been in the classroom. Students are more successful in classrooms with experienced teachers, and the morale of a school is stronger with more stability and less teacher turnover.
But there are even financial implications. It's expensive to recruit every year, Fogleman says. And though some attrition is good, the district doesn't want to lose out on good teachers.
Some teachers, even experienced teachers, are leaving the district but not the profession. They get jobs in Bradley County or Cleveland City Schools. Some teach in North Georgia.
Though the state tracks when teachers move to other districts in Tennessee, Fogleman's team is trying to figure out why teachers are leaving Hamilton County and where they are going.In 2017, 265 teachers resigned from Hamilton County. In 2018, the number dropped to 248, but this year it's back up. Only 61 retired in 2019, compared to 81 in 2017. One hundred and twenty-three teachers retired in 2018, but the district offered a one-time retirement incentive that officials say contributed to that number.
"So we want to be sure we're doing all we can to make sure they want to stay in Hamilton County," Fogleman said. "We can't control moving back home or moving with a spouse. We can't control some things, but we want to do everything we can to keep them in the profession. We want to do everything we can to keep them from going across the state line."
Teachers also have transferable skills, Murray said, and can find better-paying jobs in other industries. When the economy is good, some who might have decided to become teachers go elsewhere.
Salary, working conditions and school leaders are all significant factors.
A 2018 Education Week survey of teachers across the nation found that leadership was as important as salary in keeping teachers on the job — 18% of respondents said leadership was the reason they had stayed or were leaving teaching, and 17% cited salary considerations.
In 2014, the Tennessee Department of Education released a report that suggested "strong working conditions have higher rates of teacher retention." The department encouraged districts and schools to ensure teachers felt they had sufficient time to meet their responsibilities and to prepare to be effective in classrooms, as well as to ensure teachers felt they were being evaluated consistently and fairly.
Murray said morale and stigma in the community is also important. When teachers don't feel valued, it doesn't give them the confidence to stay in their roles. Murray said the hope is to "re-recruit them, so they take pride in being a teacher."
"How can we elevate our teachers within the community and let them know [they're] valued and how important they are?" she said. "I don't think we can do that culturally across the nation, but what can we do here in town to champion them and evaluate them?"
Throughout this year's budget cycle, educators have said they need to be treated — and compensated — as professionals. Teachers have pushed for more classroom supports in underfunded schools and classrooms and for a pay raise.
Instead, McClendon proposed the district use up to $8 million in its fund balance to give teachers a one-time bonus of about $1,500 and use the $6 million slated to cover the pay raises to hire more support staff,
The Hamilton County school district's 2020 fiscal year budget includes a 2.5% pay raise for teachers, but a school board member recently proposed cutting it to fund support positions.
Jeanette Omarkhail, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, emphasized at a recent school board meeting the stress teachers feel and their need to feel valued.
"Being respected is an important value personally and professionally. We can and we will continue to ask to receive the respect that we and our students deserve," she said.
Fogleman said the lessons the district has learned from its success supporting first-year teachers can inform its next steps in figuring out how to ensure no teacher feels is0lated or left behind.
"We know that there are lessons from the first-year teachers that we will be able to carry into our second, third and even our more-experienced teachers," he said.
In the coming year, despite budgetary constraints, the team plans to continue its work with first-year teachers. Second- and third-year teachers also will have opportunities for support, as well as ways they can step up into leadership roles, officials said.
That's critical, Kirby said.
"We asked our great teachers, 'What is going to keep you in our buildings?' and a lot of them said leadership opportunities. A lot of them want to stay in the classroom, but they also have such a gift for inspiring and impacting others and they have the capacity to do that," she said. "So we want to elevate them so they have a greater reach."
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.