Oct 19 2017

Beyond the Numbers: How Teacher Turnover and Shortages Undermine Teacher-Student Relationships

Guest Author Jiawen Wang


LPI’s report Teacher Turnover: Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It, builds on earlier research to better understand one of the primary factors driving teacher shortages. In it, authors detail who is leaving their schools and the profession, unpack the causes and consequences of teacher turnover, and offer policy recommendations to address the problem. The report also highlights the adverse impact on students, particularly students from low-income families and students of color who typically attend schools that are disproportionately impacted by high turnover rates. In this installment of LPI’s Solving Teacher Shortages blog series, we’ve invited Jiawen Wang, an 11th-grader at Oakland High School and a student leader with Californians for Justice, to reflect on how teacher turnover and shortages impact students.

As a student in Oakland, I’ve seen firsthand what happens when a school district has a hard time hiring and keeping teachers to fill all of its classrooms. Over the years, I’ve had short- and long-term substitutes, been enrolled in classes with no teacher assigned to them, and felt the impact of starting a new school year and realizing a favorite teacher—someone I had connected with and was looking forward to seeing—hadn’t returned. Each of these experiences creates a stressful situation and makes it difficult to learn. 

Take what happened at the start of this school year as an example. My classmates and I arrived in sociology class to find that a teacher hadn’t been assigned to the course. Every day during that first week, students would arrive in class ready to learn, only to find out that we still didn’t have a teacher. I ended that week feeling distraught. It felt like my education was being limited by something I didn’t have any control over.

At times like this, having a teacher who knows you and who looks out for you makes all of the difference for a student. For me—and for many students at Oakland High School—that special teacher is Ms. Emily Macy. I arrived at school for the start of my junior year this fall to discover that my schedule was a mess. Besides not having a sociology teacher, several classes were missing from my schedule on the first day of school. I also had scheduling conflicts—like a course scheduled at the same time as my internship—that I wasn’t sure how to fix. With the line of students waiting to see a counselor wrapped around the block, I went to Ms. Macy. She knows my interests and goals and was able to guide me through those rough few days, helping me get the classes I needed and keeping me calm, even with all of the uncertainty and craziness. I actually get nervous just thinking about what it would have been like without her.

It’s not just that Ms. Macy cares. It’s also that she has been my teacher and mentor since 10th grade. My classmates and I have had time to develop a trusting relationship with her. And those relationships can make all the difference in helping students feel safe and comfortable at school and ready to learn.

But I’m one of the “lucky” ones. One in three California students can’t identify a single caring adult at school, according to the 2013–15 California Healthy Kids Survey. They don’t have a Ms. Macy to help them sort through scheduling problems or just listen when they’ve had a rough day. Instead, they go through their school days feeling isolated and unseen by teachers and other staff. That’s why I am working with other students who are part of Californians for Justice (CFJ), a statewide student-led organization working to advance educational justice and improve our social, economic, and political conditions, to build what we’re calling relationship-centered schools.

One key element of this campaign is to encourage schools, districts, and the state to invest in school staff, especially teachers. This includes improved and increased support for beginning teachers, as well as time for teachers to collaborate with their peers. It also includes hiring additional staff to support relationship-centered programs and strategies, like restorative justice, Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports and community schools. Other important elements include providing training for staff on social and emotional learning and practices, and more attention to hiring and retaining teachers of color who reflect the majority of students in so many of our schools.

At CFJ, we know that high teacher turnover and the use of substitutes to fill classes undermines efforts to create relationship-centered schools. Even when schools and districts provide teacher training, high turnover means that the learning and capacity goes out the door when teachers leave. That’s why we’re also working to better understand the causes and solutions to teacher shortages and to promote practices that will help districts recruit, support, and keep teachers who understand the importance of building strong, trusting relationships with students and who receive the training and support to make that happen. In Oakland, where, according to one report, 70% of teachers leave the district within 5 years, we’ve asked Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell and her leadership team to work with us to prioritize teacher retention as part of an overall effort to foster the relationship-centered schools that students want and need.

Teacher turnover has serious, long-lasting effects on students’ opportunity to learn and thrive, but the costs don’t end there—it also impacts school and district budgets. LPI’s new turnover calculator details the dollar costs. That’s important, especially in a district and state where school funding is low and we don’t have enough resources to meet all of our needs. At Californians for Justice, we are also working to highlight the cost to students when teachers come and go. Without the strong connections students need to feel safe and comfortable at school, we can struggle and fall behind in our classes. We can become overwhelmed and not know who they can turn to for assistance. We can check out and go through an entire day without talking in class or connecting with an adult.

By investing in teacher support and retention, we are investing in one of our students’ most important resources. We’re creating the conditions necessary to ensure that every student has a caring and supportive adult—their own Ms. Macy—every day and at every school.

Jiawen Wang is a junior at Oakland High School and is a student leader with Californians for Justice. 


Image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.