As more teachers leave the profession, one Nashville principal focuses on keeping retention high

As more teachers leave the profession, one Metro principal focuses on keeping retention high
Posted at 5:09 PM, Jan 18, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — On the heels of a pandemic that changed the education world, it seems more teachers are leaving the classroom.

"And there's a couple reasons for that. One is that teachers are overworked," said Katie Cour, president and CEO of Nashville Public Education Foundation. "They have so much on their plates that go well beyond the instruction of their students."

Political battles have also left some teachers feeling undervalued.

"Tennessee was one of twelve states that in the last couple of years has restricted what teachers can teach," said Cour.

Not long ago Dr. Kellee Hill, a biology teacher at Whites Creek High School, faced a crossroad: to leave the classroom or continue teaching?

"But the one thing that kind of kept me right here is I knew that years from now, whatever I did was going to have a lasting effect on a student and then their career path," Hill said.

But lately, more teachers are choosing to leave. In fact, one study found of all industries in the U.S., teachers in grades K through 12 have the highest burnout level.

"So the combination of being overworked and undervalued really takes its toll on our attrition numbers," said Cour.

As teacher attrition rates rise nationally, the same is true in Nashville.

"We see some of the highest turns in our lowest performing schools and our schools that are serving predominantly economically disadvantaged students and students of color," Cour said.

That's why principal Brian Mells is tackling the issue head-on.

"Here at Whites Creek we were able to put in a lot of supports and retention, things in place for our staff so that we had a 91% retention rate this past school year," he said.

He found that many teachers in the middle of their careers were at a similar crossroads as Dr. Hill. So Mells developed a mentor program called Cobra Cultivators, named after the school's mascot, for teachers to support each other.

"[I] think part of lowering attrition rates is really focusing in on the care and the culture part," said Mells. "We could set high expectations, but it's all about: do you care about me? Do you care about where I'm going and my professional trajectory?"

But he believes higher pay and making sure teachers are heard is also part of the solution.

"It's a hard job every day; however, it's a rewarding job, and we enjoy what we do," said Mells.

Cour said Metro Nashville Public Schools is making strides in addressing the issue locally thanks to pay raises, more planning and professional development days for teachers, paid family leave, and including teacher voices in leadership discussions.

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