Short-time Teachers

Lack of autonomy, constant testing, negative school cultures and mountains of paperwork push teachers out the door before they hit their stride


What makes good teachers want to keep teaching? In the wake of a Jacksonville Public Education Fund report that revealed an alarming 50 percent attrition rate among beginning teachers, it pays to listen to educators when they tell us why they stay or why they go.

Listening may yield more than insights — it could save billions of dollars. Nationally, according the Jacksonville Public Education Fund’s “Patching the Pipeline” report released in April, taxpayers spend $2 billion annually to replace teachers who leave the profession. Other sources have put the annual cost of attrition as high as $7.3 billion. High attrition rates among teachers with five or fewer years of experience in Jacksonville mean that half of our teachers leave before they “hit their stride,” that is, before their experience gels into good teaching. And when we lose teachers, the JPEF report says, we also lose the vital relationships that, studies show, absolutely impact student achievement.

JPEF researchers tracked the career moves of more than 2,000 teachers over the course of 10 years, and surveyed more than 600 current teachers for its attrition study. JPEF found that Duval County loses one out of two new teachers in the first five years. Only 34 percent of teachers hired since 2003, the report says, remained for five years in the same school at which they began. Figures from the Florida Department of Education show that surrounding counties don’t do much better — though the agency cautions against comparing large and small districts. Using the most recent figures available (2006-’07), the five-year retention rate for Clay, Duval, Nassau and St. Johns counties averages only 51 percent.


Love, the Second Time Around

Scott Sowell, Duval County’s 2012 Teacher of the Year, loves his job now — but he didn’t always. The 41-year-old biology teacher left Duval County Public Schools in 2000, after a five-year teaching stretch that included two years in Damascus, Syria. His reasons for leaving had little to do with the laundry list of well-publicized teacher complaints: lack of student discipline, lousy pay, too many standardized tests or too much paperwork.

“I was a piece of the machine,” he said, referring to his first go-round as a teacher at Kirby Smith Middle School.

Sowell is animated and energetic; only silver-flecked hair at his temples hints at his age. He delivers his next line with straight-faced, perfect comedic timing.

“My human capital was not drawn upon.”

After pursuing advanced degrees, eventually earning a Ph.D. in science education, Sowell served as a professor at Cleveland State University before returning to Jacksonville to care for his aging parents. He found his second stint as a teacher in Duval County to be “radically different” from his first, and all indications are that he’ll stay at Darnell-Cookman Middle/High School — for now.

“If the culture were to change drastically — that’s the only reason I would transfer,” he said.

Sowell and other teachers, in describing why they stay, change schools or leave the profession altogether, sum it up in one
word: relationships.

“I feel 100 percent valued and supported, and not in a tokenistic way,” Sowell said of his second-time-around teaching job. “I know that Mark [Ertel, Darnell-Cookman principal] wants me here.”

Sowell said that Ertel knows his strengths and weaknesses and imbues confidence in him by challenging him to grow.

“My principal knows me as an individual and knows how I can be used best. I get used a lot,” Sowell said with a wry smile, “to mentor new teachers, as department head, to head up professional development — that’s a lot of paperwork.”

A good principal, Sowell said, knows exactly what his teachers need in order to “rock.” Sowell added that working for Ertel has made a “180-degree” difference from teaching jobs he’s held before.

“I was a good teacher in spite of an unsupportive environment,” he recalled
of past teaching jobs, citing problems in school culture.

Sowell cites an unwritten rule at his current school: “You have seven minutes to vent — then you’re done. It doesn’t become the norm discourse in the building.”

Sowell said that while there is room for mentoring and honest, open discussions about things that go wrong and how to fix them, teachers need to see that there are happy people in their schools.

“You’ve got to feel this is a profession with a positive trajectory,” he said.

Third-year teacher Emily Dubas, who teaches first grade at a Southside elementary school, echoed Sowell’s contentions that “the administration sets the tone,” and that the principal-teacher relationship is mirrored in the teacher-student relationship.

“If we feel valued and appreciated, our kids feel that, too. I try to build a relationship with every single [student] in my class — a special relationship,” she said. “That’s what I love about being a teacher. It all starts from the top and trickles down.”

She would like to remain at her school next year but, as one of the school’s most recently hired teachers, she faces being cut due to budget constraints. While the JPEF study does not cite the financial teacher-surplussing process as a factor in teacher attrition, the practice can disrupt the important relationships that underlie concerns about keeping teachers in the profession. Relationship factors are discussed in a 2006 Working Paper by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education (CALDER), which is cited in the JPEF report.


Downward Spiral 

The camaraderie among teachers and the chance to build connections with students are also what former teacher Jeff Rich loved best.

“What teachers need is to be together, stay together, work together,” he said in a phone interview. “We got there an hour early and left at 9 p.m., after the last track kid crossed the finish line,” he said of his days at Ed White High School.

Rich left the school system in 2011 after six years as a science teacher at Ed White. Despite earning ratings as a “high performing” teacher, Rich said that the political shift that came with a new principal led to a “feeling of unwelcomeness” that soon drove him out of teaching altogether.

“He brought in some people,” Rich said. “He made some quick friends.”

While Rich acknowledged that no one likes change, for him, the quick and vast personnel changes led to a downward spiral in school culture.

“All of a sudden, what you’ve done before is thrown out the window. There was a lack of respect.”

Airing his concerns, he said, only made things worse. Those who spoke up were “yelled at” in front of their peers during faculty meetings. Rich began to hate his job and his life.

“As soon as I got home, I knew where I was going back to in 12 hours,” he said.

He tried to transfer to a district science job, but the paperwork he needed from the principal was never received. Finally, after nearly two years under his second principal (who is no longer principal at Ed White), Rich resigned, one day shy of vesting as a tenured teacher.

“I can never get back that $10,000 that I paid in,” he said.

Rich admitted that once the school culture changed, he experienced a “complete lack of motivation.”

“I was so frustrated I didn’t do a very good job that year, I’m sorry to say.”


A Former Teacher and Principal

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who has been both a teacher and a principal, described what it is about the teacher-principal relationship that inspires teachers to keep teaching.

“It’s feeling valued,” Vitti said.

He noted that while pay has always been an issue for teachers, most enter the profession with clarity about the compensation.

“It’s not just pay,” he said.

Vitti noted that the classroom is a microcosm of all of society’s problems — child abuse, neglect, homes with overwrought parents and homes with no books. Faced every day with this “overwhelming burden,”
he contends, teachers are at high risk for losing morale.

“Teachers will stick it out when they have a good relationship with the principal,” Vitti said. “I had teachers recruited by private schools but they stayed because they shared my vision.”

Vitti went on to explain that the FCAT school-grading system often mandates that the district reassign principals, which can further frustrate the development of school culture, as it did in Rich’s case.

While the principal-teacher relationship didn’t emerge as a major concern in the JPEF study, the study did cite “issues with administrative support at the school level” as high on the list of factors that impact a teacher’s decision to stay or leave.

Teachers participating in the JPEF survey ranked the level of teacher autonomy in the classroom, however, higher than school-level administrative support as a factor in their career decisions. Vitti keyed in on changes that may address autonomy concerns. He has already moved to decrease standardized testing, he said, in order to help restore a sense of professional discretion to teachers.

According to an internal DCPS memo, Vitti discontinued the use of eight tests effective November 2012, including some writing assessments in certain grade levels. The list of tests eliminated includes an alphabet soup of measurements, including Progress Monitoring Assessments (PMAs) in reading, math and science, Pretest Learning Schedule Assessments (LSAs), Developmental Reading Assessments (DRAs) and Read 180: SRI Assessments.

“Teachers have lost their ability to be creative,” Vitti said. “Their ability to focus on teachable moments is stifled by standardized testing.”

The superintendent also points to his commitment to issuing salary-step raises in his upcoming budget, as well as distributing Gov. Rick Scott’s appropriation for teacher raises as “bonuses” in Duval County.

“That’s nonrecurring,” he said of Scott’s teacher-raise money, noting that it cannot
be counted upon in future years because of what he calls the “whimsical” nature of the Florida Legislature.

Vitti also noted changes that relate to teachers’ desires for a positive school culture, which is built on peer relationships. He’s implemented 90-minute common planning sessions for teachers across the district, and he’s developed curriculum-writing teams made up of teachers.

Ninety-minute collaborative planning sessions, for every teacher every day, were recommended by the outside auditors, ERS, as a result of their examination of district practices under former Superintendent
Ed Pratt-Dannals.

“I think they’ll feel their shackles are coming off to dive deeper,” Vitti said. “I
think it’ll lead to a culture of empowerment for teachers.”


A Focus on Collaboration

The JPEF report indicates that more time for in-school planning was one of a handful of major incentives that teachers said would keep them teaching. Higher pay, more autonomy, less paperwork and less emphasis on standardized tests also topped the incentives-to-stay list.

Trey Csar, president of JPEF, said that the superintendent’s move to put teachers to work in groups to write curricula is a “start in the right direction.” The union Duval Teachers United has also agreed to the 90-minute sessions.

Sowell, too, applauded the move toward more time for joint planning. “We need face time,” he said. Sowell explained that while the 90-minute collaborative planning periods have been recommended for years, there’s been a serious push to implement them under the new superintendent. At Sowell’s school, which operates on a block schedule, teachers have 90 minutes every day for collaborative planning with everyone in their academic department. 

In the absence of a strong spirit of teamwork and collaboration, Sowell said, “assessment vertigo” can set in, particularly amid the state’s emphasis on high-stakes testing in teacher evaluations.

“Reducing my effectiveness to a number is not the best way to evaluate me,” Sowell said of the state’s new CAST system, which uses test gains against a predictive statistical model as 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

“It does tell something. It’s a small piece of the puzzle that we have instead used as a proxy for the whole puzzle,” he said. “We know we’ve got to tweak this.”



Sowell and about 20 of his peers recently formed an organization to develop and promote what he calls “teacher-leaders.”

“When I became Teacher of the Year last year, within three weeks, I had a dozen inquiries about when I was going to start working on becoming an assistant principal,” Sowell said.

Successful teachers who want to go into administration have a “well-lit path” to follow, he explained. “There are lots of people cheering you on” along that track, he said.

Becoming a teacher who stays in the classroom, leads his or her peers and, at
the same time, talks policy is not such a well-lit road.

“We are clearing that path,” Sowell said of his new organization, the Teacher Leadership Network. “We are high flyers. We are interested in policy and all those things, and we want to stay in the classroom. These are voices that are seldom heard in the decision-making circles.”

“I think there is a hunger among teachers for these leadership opportunities,” Csar said, using another word for “high-flying” teachers: “the irreplaceables.” Csar points to a teacher-leadership training program in North Carolina that triggered 700 applications for 26 positions.

In tandem with JPEF’s “Patching the Pipeline” study, the Quality Education for All group (QEA) released a $50 million philanthropy initiative to address teacher retention and other district needs in Duval County. Among QEA’s initiatives is a “new teacher fellowship” which will identify and support “approximately 55 homegrown excellent teachers each year” from the region as they pursue their masters’ degrees.

QEA is led by two big names in Jacksonville philanthropy: The Stein and Chartrand foundations, which have joined forces with The Community Foundation and the charitable arm of The Players.

Acosta CEO Gary Chartrand has transcended philanthropy to become a political player, and his name has become synonymous with privatization-based education reforms in Florida (read the June 2011 Folio Weekly story, With his wife, Nancy, and their adult children, Gary Chartrand created the local Chartrand Foundation in 2006. He, among others, is credited with bringing the Teach For America organization to Jacksonville in 2008, and with landing the first KIPP charter school in Florida, which opened in Jacksonville in 2010.

Charter schools are privately owned, publicly funded organizations, which, in Florida, are exempt from most state and local public school regulations. The Florida Department of Education released a “study” last year reporting that charter school students outperformed their public school peers, a report that has been roundly criticized by public school advocates. One University of Central Florida researcher found that charters did not outperform public schools when the student’s socio-economic status was considered.

Gov. Rick Scott appointed Chartrand to the Florida Board of Education in 2011, and BOE board members unanimously elected him chairman in September 2012. Advocates have decried the Board’s recommendations to dedicate all capital outlay dollars to charter schools, leaving zero for public schools since 2011. According to Duval County School Board Chairman Fel Lee, the Legislature failed again this year to appropriate any capital outlay dollars from its dedicated PECO fund for traditional public schools. Public Education Capital Outlay funds derive from state taxes on cable TV, electricity and landline telephone use. While Scott pushed for $100 million in PECO funds to be dedicated to charter schools, the Miami Herald reports that the fund has dwindled due to fewer people having landline telephones (


Teach For America

The Quality Education for All philanthropic initiative reflects Chartrand’s reform brand in a manner that has some local teachers worried. QEA’s move to bring Teach For America teachers to a district with dire attrition problems alarmed Jacksonville teacher and writer Chris Guerrieri. He pointed out that many TFA employees leave teaching immediately after their initial two-year commitment in Duval County.

“I really think TFA has a role to play but as a supplement — not a replacement — for our teaching staff,” Guerrieri said. “The district should first strive to put people who might be lifelong teachers in our classrooms, not people who they know will create an ever-revolving door of novice teachers.”

Teach For America’s Crystal Rountree provided numbers that, while validating Guerrieri’s concerns, show an upturn in
third-year retention this year.

On average since 2008, when TFA came to Jacksonville, 82 percent of TFA teachers have finished their two-year teaching commitments. The tricky part is getting TFA teachers to stay beyond two years. An average of only 35.5 percent of TFA teachers remain through their third years, according to historical data provided by TFA.

This year, that third-year retention rate among TFA teachers doubled to 48 percent, compared to last year’s 24 percent, which is still squarely below the one-out-of-two mark that the JPEF study cites. The only five-year TFA retention figure available — for TFA corps members who began in 2008 — showed an abysmal 3.6 percent retention rate.

Rountree says that an expanded “alumni” network comprising TFA teachers who finished their two-year commitment, the expansion of charter schools in Jacksonville, and a teacher-led campaign to “stay beyond two” helped to bump up third-year retention this year.

Asked whether these relatively low retention rates justified multimillion-dollar investments in the program in Jacksonville, Rountree responded in an email. She wrote that one of the goals of Teach For America is “to build long-term leadership capacity throughout the education system and across sectors to address the challenges of poverty.” Many TFA recruits who leave teaching, Rountree wrote, are engaged in “mission-aligned” work outside the classroom in Jacksonville. Chief among them is Csar, president of JPEF.

“Sure, some are looking to go to policy,” Guerrieri said, “but so are some [non-TFA] teachers. And I have to tell you another problem we have here in the county is 27-year-old vice principals.”

“It’s an upgrade in human capital,” Vitti said of employing TFA corps members. “I’ve always been a [TFA] supporter. I don’t think I would have had the success I did in Miami without TFA.”

Superintendent Vitti agreed that many TFA corps-members are looking for ways to improve the educational system from outside the classroom.

“We need to change the notion that you have to have a certain number of years of [classroom] experience to transform schools. I’m looking for a skillset and a willset. That defines leadership.”


Compensation Considerations

Csar tiptoed around the question of whether the nonrecurring $480 million in state money for teacher raises will help Jacksonville retain the best teachers.

“That may help us retain, but it’s not going to help us compete,” Csar said.

Teaching is generally a very steady career, Csar explained, and much of the pay, in the form of retirement benefits, is going to come on the back-end of a teacher’s career.

“But if you’re a real high-flyer,” he added, “it doesn’t offer a growth opportunity.”

As he pointed to the graphs in JPEF’s report, Csar emphasized that in most counties, raises come too late to act as incentives for beginning teachers to stay. It will take more work for the county to sort out the high-flyers, aka “the regrettable attrition,” from other departing teachers. Creating better data management systems — a goal of QEA’s philanthropic push — will help.

“No one wants to spend money on invisible things,” Csar said, referring to data systems, “but there are lots of reasons that you should.”

Former teacher Rich, who earned the distinction of being a “high performing” teacher under the previous evaluations system, may be one of the high-flyers who would still be with DCPS had the school culture at Ed White remained positive. Now working for Bio-Safe Systems, a private-sector horticultural and agricultural company in Tampa, Rich said he’s never been happier than he is now, in his current job.


Gelling, But Where?

For beginners who want to stay on as teachers, the promise of relative career stability may offer an additional incentive.

Dubas, the first grade teacher, said this year she took quantum leaps as a teacher, and that her skills “gelled.” Like many beginning teachers, she’s earned “effective” ratings but is looking forward to developing into a “highly effective” teacher, and awaits this year’s results. The thought of having to begin again at another school due to budget concerns, however, distresses her.

Only in the Orwellian universe of school district management would cutting teachers be called “surplussing,” but Dubas has been “surplussed” so that her school can meet its budgetary needs. She doesn’t know when or if she might be hired back.

“It’s frightening,” she said. “It’s very upsetting. I get attached to these kids and
to not see them grow … it’s unnerving. These fifth-graders I’ve known since kindergarten,” she said, referring to her time as a substitute teacher before she finished her degree at University of North Florida. “Some of my students will be upset. Parents are upset. They want the younger siblings to be in my class.”

She said she’ll continue mining Pinterest for interesting visuals for her students, she’ll take her interactive white-board skills to the next level, and she’ll keep reading blogs by other teachers, in other states, to get new ideas on how to keep her students motivated.

“I may end up where I know no one,”
Dubas said.

So far, she’s found that few other schools are hiring, and that many are cutting teachers, like her school is.

Dubas’ trepidation taps into a potential source of teacher attrition that hasn’t been explored: budget cuts. The subsequent teacher surplussing may have a musical-chairs effect on the relationships we know to be crucial to kids’ success.

“It does come down to money,” she said. 

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A well-written and informative article, though I might wish for more attention to teacher perspectives on the issues--they are the ones leaving (or staying) after all. The JPEF and QEA recommendation for "recruitment" strategies seems a bit odd. Isn't the alarming point of the study the problem of "retention"? While recruitment is certainly important, perhaps we need to finally begin to think about the importance of strategies to increase teacher retention!

If a "better data management system" would mean we could provide more recent data than that from the 2006/2007 school year, that would be good. It's pretty pitiful that we seem to lack solid data on more recent years. How hard can that be? Thursday, July 4, 2013|Report this


I think it is important to understand what it means to be a surplus teacher. You do not "lose" your job, you are put into a pool where you can be picked up by another school. Many times a teacher will not be placed in another school until the beginning of the school year, once principals find out how many students they have enrolled. Principals also "jump the gun" so to speak at the end of the school year as they begin to plan the budget for the following year. As people put in their transfers or resign altogether, the positions at the school become available again and the teachers are able to stay at their schools. Often times, even if surplussed, the teacher has the opportunity to go back to the school they were surplussed from as changes are made to the budget or as positions become available.

It is important to note, the teacher mentioned in the article was offered her job back just days after being surplussed however she denied the rehiring, preferring to be kept in the surplus pool. Saturday, July 6, 2013|Report this