Why are teachers leaving the classroom? Lawrence Township plans to find out.

March 5, 2024 | From Mirror Indy https://mirrorindy.org/lawrence-township-sets-out-to-discover-why-teachers-are-leaving-the-classroom/

Eighth grade teacher Sabrina Tiggs floats from desk to desk during Black history class. She checks on projects, troubleshoots glue guns and calls out students she sees with cell phones, all while moderating a debate about what music to play during class.

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Last week was too much T-Pain, her student teacher pipes up above students. Michael Jackson it is.

“I want to love you. Pretty young thing,” Tiggs sings as she leans over a student’s desk to offer feedback on their presentation about Black hair.

Tiggs is one of more than a dozen Lawrence Township educators studying this year why teachers are leaving the classroom. The 16-year veteran of Lawrence Township gets it. At the end of the year, she’s leaving, too.

“I’m mom, I’m auntie, I am the nurse, I am the teacher, I am the counselor,” Tiggs said, describing her role in the classroom. “We as educators, we are everything.”

The new study comes amid a national teacher shortage that’s being felt in Indianapolis. Marion County’s teacher retention rate was 68.5% last year, meaning about one in three teachers chose not to return to their school.

Local education nonprofit Teach Indy is leading a coalition to encourage educators to identify challenges and propose solutions schools can adopt to make teaching jobs easier. In doing so, Teach Indy officials say they hope to flip the conversation surrounding teacher retention.

“A lot of places around the country where this type of work is happening, I do feel like it’s more central office-down as opposed to bottom-up,” Teach Indy Executive Director Sara Marshall said. “That’s why I think our cohort is really unique. It’s: How do you go to the people that are closest to the challenge, which is the teachers themselves, and empower them to solve for challenges?”

A teacher-led effort

Teach Indy chose Lawrence Township first for its “Reimagining the Teacher Role” project, Marshall said, because the district had shown innovative thinking in the past about teacher retention. The nonprofit plans to expand to other schools in the future.

Lawrence Central and Lawrence North high schools and Belzer and Fall Creek middle schools are participating in the study this year. Groups of two or three teachers, plus a building leader, will work together in each school to interview colleagues about their jobs, including what they like and what challenges they run into regularly.

A Teach Indy coach will work with the cohorts to discuss what they learned and brainstorm possible solutions. The groups will bring those ideas to their peers for feedback and, by August, begin testing the solutions in their schools.

Marshall said schools that have participated in similar exercises have explored a four-day work week or hybrid work models. Teachers in Lawrence could look at similar ideas or consider something totally different.

“We’re purposefully trying to keep everybody from jumping to solutions,” Marshall said. “Lawrence North’s solution might look very different, and their challenge might look very different than Belzer’s or Fall Creek’s.”

Lawrence schools intend to test proposed solutions during the fall 2024 semester, Marshall said. Then, the cohort will reflect on the changes and whether they could be replicated in other schools.

Though it’s a teacher-led study, making big changes like shifting educators’ work schedules would require support from administrators. That’s where regular communication with district leadership comes in, Marshall said.

“We know that having a high-quality teacher is the No. 1 factor in student success,” Lawrence Township Superintendent Shawn Smith said in a statement. “We are committed to ensuring that all students have excellent teachers.”

Why some teacher leave

To Tiggs, some reasons for teacher burnout, such as a demanding workload, are clear. She crafts her own curriculum, manages her classroom and mentors students and other teachers.

Tiggs and student teacher DJ Kirby, who is finishing up her last year at IUPUI, said they believe teaching is a calling, one they felt drawn to because of the kids.

Working with students, they said, takes time, patience and the ability to meet kids where they’re at. That means celebrating successes, but also managing them on their worst days, too.

Not all teachers are prepared to do that, Tiggs said. She’s seen many educators learn in college the content they need to teach students but not the classroom management skills. She said she’s seen many young educators leave teaching simply because they weren’t prepared to step into the classroom.

Meanwhile, veteran teachers leave to pursue jobs in administration or research, Tiggs said. She knows because she’s one of them.

At the end of the semester, Tiggs said she plans to take a sabbatical and decide on next steps. She’s thinking about starting a doctoral program, studying urban education and law, so she can more fully focus her attention on exploring the big questions in education, such as why teachers are quitting.

Even though she plans to leave the classroom, Tiggs said she hopes to continue her work with Teach Indy. She won’t be teaching her middle school students anymore, Tiggs said. Instead, she’ll be teaching the next generation of teachers.

“It’s about giving back and making sure that the next generation is prepared and ready for what they have to face in the real world,” Tiggs said. “I feel like if I don’t do it, I’m not doing what I was put on this Earth to do.”

Mirror Indy reporter Carley Lanich covers early childhood and K-12 education. Contact her at carley.lanich@mirrorindy.org or follow her on X @carleylanich.