Guest columnist Pema Latshang : School leaders need to further invest in their teachers

Joseph Metcalf School teacher Cynthia Gerena reads “La Leyenda de Piedra Papel Tijeras,” by Drew Daywalt, to her third grade class during a read aloud session at the dual language elementary in Holyoke on Friday, March 6, 2020.

Joseph Metcalf School teacher Cynthia Gerena reads “La Leyenda de Piedra Papel Tijeras,” by Drew Daywalt, to her third grade class during a read aloud session at the dual language elementary in Holyoke on Friday, March 6, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By PEMA LATSHANG

Published: 02-05-2024 4:47 PM

Over the past three years, it’s become clear just how essential teachers are to the everyday lives of the western Massachusetts community. In remote and hybrid settings they were there for us throughout the pandemic, with many stepping up to do this hard work in uncertain conditions. As we emerge into our new normal, they remain critical members of our communities — and deserve to be treated as such.

Having and maintaining a teaching workforce that reflects the diversity of our classrooms is an essential part of creating a well-rounded education. Research shows that racially and ethnically diverse teachers produce myriad positive outcomes for all students, especially the most historically marginalized students.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. There has been a notable surge in burnout rates among educators nationwide over the past three years, which is manifesting in high turnover. Retention of educators and leaders of color is as low as 56% in some local districts (compared to an average of 85% for this population statewide).

In Massachusetts, the pandemic-induced teacher shortage and emergency licenses administered for teaching resulted in western Massachusetts schools diversifying their workforce at a much faster rate. According to a report from the Wheelock Policy Center, emergency licensing is diversifying the teaching workforce at greater rates than traditional licenses, and emergency-licensed teachers are staying in the workforce at rates similar to other newly licensed teachers, with most hoping to remain in the profession. And importantly, emergency-licensed teachers are performing similarly to other newly hired teachers.

Since we have educators in the classroom who “want to stay, and school leaders who want to keep them,” we need to be doing everything in our power to help them do so. We need to invest in these educators to keep them in classrooms, and we need to create and implement pathways for these educators to move from emergency to permanent licensure.

If we don’t, we risk losing over 850 teachers in western Massachusetts whose emergency licenses are set to expire this year. Not only would this loss be a detriment to students, it would also be a significant financial strain on our school districts.

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The Learning Policy Institute estimates that it costs nearly $20,000 on average for each new hire, including school and district expenses related to separation, recruitment, hiring, and training. This is money we should put back into the districts and schools to better serve our students.

We also know that high teacher turnover rates disproportionately impact high-poverty and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) majority communities such as Springfield and Holyoke. This makes teacher retention and training clear-cut equity issues, and no child’s ZIP code should determine the quality of education they receive.

Teachers themselves also believe that districts should prioritize retaining high-quality, diverse educators, according to a recent Educators for Excellence survey. We also know that educators who reflect their students’ life experiences and identities have increasingly positive effects on students in their classrooms, particularly students in diverse districts like Springfield and Holyoke. For example, Black students who had a single Black teacher were 13% more likely to enroll in college, and having a Black teacher cut high school dropout rates by 39% for Black boys from low-income households.

Across the state, we are seeing similar issues with retaining educators and a diverse teaching workforce. Most notably, seniority-based layoffs are affecting novice educators, who are more likely to be BIPOC teachers than their senior counterparts. Legislative bill H.583/S.340: An Act So All Students Thrive, would implement criteria for teacher layoffs that captures performance and value outside of seniority. Policies like this will only benefit students and the diversity of educators in schools throughout the state.

With all of this in mind, it’s clear that school leaders need to further invest in their teachers, thereby increasing the quality of teaching and retention rates throughout our schools, districts, and state. These investments could include helping to pay for the cost of permanent licensure for emergency-licensed teachers and implementing other proven retention policies that go a long way toward helping school leaders retain the best possible teachers. Our students, and our school budgets, will thank us in the long run.

Pema Latshang is founding executive director of Teach Western Mass.