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Math for America Retains Talented STEM Teachers through an "Ecosystem of Trust"

Jason Garofalo has been a mathematics teacher for over 13 years. He currently teaches Algebra II to 11th and 12th graders at The Marble Hill School for International Studies in Bronx, New York. The school is small by borough standards with an enrollment of over 400 students. Being the only Algebra II teacher at the school means that Garofalo rarely, if ever, has the opportunity to engage in enlivened discussions about linear algebra or group theory with his colleagues.

However, thanks to Math for America (MfA), a non-profit organization that supports the professional development of exceptional STEM teachers, Garofalo can interact with fellow mathematics teachers from around New York City who share similar intellectual and pedagogical pursuits. “I don’t get to have a deep conversation about my curriculum with other teachers at my school. So, being able to go to Math for America, and sit down with 20 Algebra II teachers and discuss the best way to approach the curriculum … that’s invaluable,” he told Education World.

MfA brings accomplished, experienced teachers together to learn from each other. The program offers multiple-year fellowships to outstanding mathematics and science public school teachers in New York City. Through courses and learning teams, these teachers collectively examine practices, deepen their content knowledge, and receive meaningful peer feedback on their instruction. The collaborative environment allows them to consider new ways to teach and engage students. As Garofalo explained, “Being able to hear other teachers’ points of views about how they would teach something. Teaching can be very isolated at times, so being able to get a different perspective from voices who are amazing teachers, they’re passionate and excited, it’s very refreshing.” The purpose for this community is to not only enhance the knowledge and skillset of these professionals, but also to keep them in the classroom.

The isolation that Garofalo notes is a common occupational drawback and is often cited as one of the main reasons for why teachers leave the profession. One study found that “teachers spend only about 3 percent of their teaching day collaborating with colleagues,” yet almost 90 percent of respondents in the same study said that “providing time to collaborate with colleagues is crucial to retaining good teachers.” Many schools are addressing the issue by offering induction and mentoring programs to foster a collaborative school environment; however, these programs typically focus on training and retaining novice teachers, who are more likely to quit. The MfA model, on the other hand, focuses on helping experienced educators refine their craft, boost their expertise, and forge lasting collegial relationships. Garofalo explains how rejuvenating it is to be surrounded by teachers who are passionate about their practice and the subjects they teach. “After a long day of teaching, you’re very tired, but you have a workshop at Math for American and you go there, I always leave with more energy and more motivation to tackle the next day of teaching.”

Unlike professional development models based on administrators’ needs, the MfA model entrusts teachers with the responsibility of prioritizing and curating their own professional learning goals. Professional development training designed without teacher input can often feel too disconnected from classroom experiences or at odds with one's teaching style. It also perpetuates the notion that teachers have no agency in determining how best to support their professional growth. As Executive Director Megan Roberts explained to Education World, “We don’t tell teachers what to do, we don’t think we need to. They don’t need us to tell them what to do. We trust that they know their students, we trust that they know their own toolbox of skills of excellence, and where they want their toolbox to be filled out more. What we do is try to provide them with as many options to fill that toolbox as they want. And we trust that they’ll make good choices for their students and for themselves and for their own professional learning.” Valuing input from teachers and trusting them to know what they need to grow as professionals and how they can better engage their students is at the heart of the MfA model.

This liberating atmosphere is in stark contrast to what some teachers experience in their daily work lives. Roberts believes that teachers are not only micromanaged but operate in a system that implicitly distrusts them, “Whether it’s … time clocks when they get to school in the morning where they have to punch a card and it digitally says that you made it to school at 8:23 rather than trusting that you know what time you need to get to work. Or, you know, asking you to fill out forms and paperwork to prove things or requiring you to submit lesson plans every week, like all of these things are so woven into the fabric of bureaucracy and the subliminal message, or subconscious message, that we’re sending to teachers is that we don’t trust them.” Unsurprisingly, this constant, misplaced scrutiny and lack of classroom autonomy undermines the dignity of the profession. Richard Ingersoll, a former high-school teacher who now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and researches teacher attrition, echoes Roberts’s assessment that the education system fails to adequately respect and trust teachers. “It’s just a lack of respect…. Teachers in schools do not call the shots. They have very little say. They’re told what to do; it’s a very disempowered line of work,” he told The Atlantic. Treating teachers as valuable educational stakeholders instead of compliant employees can have a powerful impact on how they view their job and their role in the education system. A report by the Learning Policy Institute found that “[t]he amount of voice that teachers have in decision-making on issues directly affecting their ability to do their job well also contributes to teachers’ satisfaction.” 

Another critical component to improving conditions of these teachers’ lives is providing them with a salary commensurate with their expertise, which is why MfA provides its fellows with stipends of upwards of $15,000. Inadequate pay is arguably the biggest driver of teacher turnover, especially for those in the mathematics and science fields. According to the aforementioned Learning Policy Institute report, 67 percent of former teachers said a bump in salary would be “extremely or very important to their decision to return.”  Roberts said that the stipend amount is “enough money that teachers can make life choices with it.” Providing teachers with a fairer salary decreases the likelihood that they’ll leave the classroom to pursue a higher payer position in school administration or in the private sector. In urban areas, the salary differential between an experienced teacher and an assistant principal is approximately $15,000.

After a decade of operation, MfA is having an impact on retaining teachers in high-demand fields. The attrition rate for MfA STEM teachers in New York City is only four percent as opposed to the nine percent attrition rate for the city’s other STEM teachers. Roberts attributes the success of the MfA to the program fostering an “ecosystem of trust,” and wonders “if we could only have a system where we trusted first, I think we would have a different education system.”

 

Richard Conklin, Education World Editor

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