Smiling teacher working with young student.

Jeff Liberty December 17, 2020

Don’t Lose Your Best Young Teachers Midyear: A Holiday Message for Principals

Jeff Liberty

Senior Vice President of Innovation at BetterLesson

I’ve been an educator for almost 30 years. Even with over a decade of experience as a school and district leader, it’s impossible for me to really understand the challenges you’ve faced in this difficult year. You are bone-tired, punch drunk (and not the good kind!), and focused on holding it together until vacation. I’ve been there and I get it. Having walked a mile in your shoes, I hate to be the one to add one more thing to your to-do list, but before you leave for your much-deserved holiday rest, I want to share a story with you that I hope will encourage you to take a few critical steps in the next few days to ensure that some of your best young teachers return to school in January.

This weekend I got an SOS text from a former student (let’s call him “G.”) who is now a first-year teacher in a large urban district in a school with a high percentage of students of color living in poverty. G. is an intelligent, hard-working, and committed young educator. He’s tech-savvy, charismatic, and bilingual. He’s also an African-American entrepreneur who grew up in the same neighborhood as many of his students. In other words, G. is exactly the type of innovative and dynamic teacher and community member I looked to hire when I was a principal and the type of teacher the world needs now more than ever.

“I’m struggling, Mr. Liberty,” G. said when we connected by phone. “I don’t know if I can make it to the end of the school year.” He sounded weary and dispirited, very different from the ebullient, optimistic young man I have known for years. He let me know that he had an offer to join a booming tech company and was tempted to accept it. He wanted to know what I thought.

From having been a first-year teacher myself and from having supported student teachers and many other early-career educators, I know that one’s first year of teaching can be an exhausting grind under the best conditions. As a profession, we have a pretty dismal record of retaining young teachers and especially young teachers of color. When I asked G. to talk about what specifically was making him feel like he might have to leave teaching, I expected him to talk about the challenges of connecting with students remotely, the stresses that come with planning and assessing student work, and navigating multiple digital platforms and systems. And he did talk about those things, and they are real challenges. But the main thing he wanted to discuss, and the main reason why he is considering leaving teaching, had nothing to do with the growing pains involved with developing the foundational elements of his craft in the midst of a pandemic. He knew going in that it was going to be hard to be a teacher, especially this year. But G. has enormous heart and resilience and is willing, as many sons and daughters of immigrants are, to put in long hours at work. His students are suffering through the ravages of COVID-19 and the alienation that has come along with learning remotely since March of last school year and he wants to be there for them. G. is, as he might say, “down for the struggle.”

The thing that wounded him the most and the thing that is close to driving him out of teaching is the interactions he has had with the veteran teachers in his department and his principal. After a recent team meeting with other teachers in his grade, a more experienced teacher pulled him aside (virtually) and encouraged him “not to ask so many questions.” As a teacher who was trained in the Coalition of Essential Schools’ practice of framing “essential questions” and a principal who assessed the quality of the intellectual environments of my schools by the sophistication of the questions teachers ask their students to consider, I was heartsick when G. shared that exchange with his colleague.

But that wasn’t the worst of it, unfortunately.

Early in the school year, G. was meant to meet with his principal by Zoom. Engrossed in a conversation with one of the paraprofessionals he works with about how to help a struggling student, he lost track of time and missed the start of the meeting with his principal. Not one to shirk responsibility, he wanted to call her to apologize and to explain why he had been detained. A colleague offered G. his principal’s cell phone number and he called and left a message. When she called him back, G. said, he could tell something was wrong.

“How did you get this number?” she said gruffly.

A few weeks later, at the close of the first marking term, like so many other early-career teachers including myself, G. found himself behind in his grading and was concerned that he might not be able to submit his grades on time by the end of the week. Wanting to be responsible and remembering how irritated his principal had been when he was late for their earlier meeting, he proactively reached out by email on Tuesday of that week to let her know that he did not see a way that he could submit his grades by Friday. She asked for a meeting as soon as possible.

When they connected by videoconference the next day, G.’s principal was very direct. “This is unacceptable,” she said. “You have a professional responsibility to get your grades in on time and I expect you to do so by Friday. Information about the grading deadline has been in the daily bulletin for weeks.”

“I thought I was going to get fired, Mr. Liberty,” G. told me. “So I stayed up late for the next two nights, finished all my grading and submitted my grades on Friday. I only slept three hours each night, but I got it done.”

“So what was the problem?” I asked. “You were behind and you got caught up. That happens sometimes.”

“Here’s the thing,” G. said. “When I told one of my colleagues on my grade-level team what had happened, he laughed and said, Grades aren’t even due until Monday. It’s right here in the daily bulletin!

Feeling disrespected, unappreciated, and angry (probably exacerbated by a lack of sleep), G. made another appointment with his principal. He let her know that he’d sacrificed his sleep and gotten his grades in by Friday as they’d discussed, but he was upset that she hadn’t let him know when he’d originally reached out by email that grades were due the following Monday. Unwilling to own her contribution to the problem or to acknowledge how hard G. had been working since the school year began, his principal deflected and said, “I’ve told you before that you’ve got to read the daily bulletin.”

Reasonable people can disagree about the root causes of G.’s dilemma. You could even make the argument, as I did, that his interactions with his colleagues and his principal were not “break-up conversations.” Those perspectives would be valid under normal circumstances. This year, however, teaching and learning are more difficult than in any year that I can recall in nearly 30 years of being in the field of education. Teachers’ mental health is fragile and their stress levels are extraordinary. Deprived of reliable and timely information and trying to keep up with teaching and learning conditions that seem to change suddenly, every day they have to worry about their own health and safety on the one hand and the well-being of their students on the other.

What You Can Do Right Now

Identify teachers or other educators on your staff who have been struggling. In your own haze of fatigue and stress, you may have had interactions with some of those educators that did not represent your “best self.”

I’ll say to you what I said to G.: That’s OK. It happens in leadership and in life. Make it right.

In the days before the winter break, make a point of checking in with your young teachers like G. Make sure that they are feeling valued, supported, and connected. Tell them one specific thing that they did for a student, a family member, or a colleague that impressed you. If you can’t squeeze in all of those extra Zooms or Google Meets, write each one of your faculty members a card and mail it to them—or put it directly in their hands if they are coming to school in person. I know you are gassed, but these simple gestures are authentic expressions of your best leadership self and they might just be the best way to avoid having to hire teachers in the middle of the school year.

What You Can Do When You Get Back from Break

Ask your staff how the first half of the school year went—you can do this through a survey or through five-minute listening sessions. Listen to what your teachers have to say about their experiences and find the support and resources they need to be successful.

You are under enormous stress and strain. What you are experiencing and managing as a leader is not normal. Consider doing some reflective writing about what is going well and what still feels like it needs attention in your school and in your leadership practice (I used to go for drives and I’d make voice memos on the way). Make a small list of goals for your own growth and get the support you need and deserve around those goals. Get a coach. Call a mentor or a spiritual leader you trust. Form a PLC with other principals. Listen to what you are saying and what other people are sharing with you in response. Most of all, get some rest. January will be here before you know it!