By Ben Nussbaum
I attended a Faculty Focus Meeting with Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Antwan Wilson where he expressed a desire to make Oakland the best and most desirable school district in the Bay Area for both teachers and students, but right now, as one veteran OUSD teacher told me, “Oakland does a great job of training teachers for other districts.” OUSD and the Oakland Education Association (OEA) go back to the bargaining table again soon. If they are truly serious about retaining quality teachers in the district, building the capacity and institutional knowledge needed to reach Superintendent Wilson’s stated goal, OUSD and OEA must work together to support teachers as they search for opportunities to continue their professional development. Otherwise, Oakland will continue to be a testing ground for new teachers, who after earning their initial stripes, will take their experience to other districts where they feel better supported and where they have more opportunities to develop as professionals.
Oakland continues to have a difficult time keeping good teachers in its classrooms. At the end of the 2015-2016 school year, there were around 400 vacancies that needed to be filled. Ever since I joined the district a little over 5 years ago and as I saw the high turnover at the end of every school year since, the question of how to hold on to those teachers has been at the front of my mind. Aside from higher salaries, what do districts like Oakland need in order to retain high-quality teachers? What is it that is pushing them to other districts and other careers? And the answer is … it’s complicated. There is no single factor that determines whether teachers will stay. Rather, there are many factors that contribute to teacher satisfaction and longevity. So, the question is, how can we change existing structures to give teachers what they need to make a career of teaching in Oakland?
In an effort to get more perspective on the situation in Oakland, my GO Teacher Policy Fellowship colleagues and I had several conversations with educators of various experience levels and what we found was interesting. With the continually rising cost of living in the Bay Area, one might think that teacher pay would be the single, biggest factor in being able to retain quality teachers, and although that is definitely an important issue for teachers, it isn’t necessarily the magic solution that some are looking for. More often, teachers we spoke with talked about whether they felt supported by their administration, whether they felt like they were part of a community, whether they had a strong team to work with, or whether they were getting professional development to push their practice and develop them as leaders.
Thinking about leadership development is what got us thinking about the career trajectory for teachers. Several of the teachers we spoke with talked about how after new teacher induction and a few years honing their craft, they were ready for another challenge, looking for another opportunity to develop, or looking for a way to expand the reach of their expertise to more students. However, outside of going into administration, it wasn’t always clear what the options were. While many of them expressed a desire to stay in the classroom, they also wanted more. They wanted opportunities for leadership positions beyond the ILT with its modest stipends, but unlike other professions, there wasn’t a clear trajectory or blueprint they could follow to advance professionally. The options varied from school to school and the requirements and eligibility were not always transparent. New and veteran teachers alike often struggled to describe the process for obtaining a leadership position.
Districts across the country, from Washington, D.C. to Denver to Charlotte and San Jose are trying different things to address the desire of teachers to stay connected to their classroom, while also expanding their influence. As we discovered in our research, the models were all different in their development, structure and eligibility, and implementation, but all with the goal of recognizing the leadership of teachers at their schools. Every model we studied included incentives for teachers who took on greater responsibility for student learning and many had specific eligibility requirements and an application process, providing the transparency that seems to be lacking in Oakland. When bargaining again, OUSD and OEA would be wise to prioritize a clear and transparent framework for teacher leadership in Oakland to keep quality teachers here, rather than training them up and sending them off to greener pastures.