"When I Grow Up, I want to be a Rock Star!": Elevating Teacher Retention

By Aurene Padilla

Starting at the age of Kindergarten when anyone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up I would answer, “teacher” without any hesitation.  My two older sisters would always play school with me and later I would play school with my stuffed animals.  

I thought being a teacher was the most amazing job in the world.  What could be better than hanging with and helping other kids?  How cool would it be to have a classroom filled with paint, paper, and books?  The fact that teaching was the family business made the job even the more viable. I loved hanging out at my dad and mom’s schools and their students would treat me like I was the coolest little kid.  In my eyes, teaching was the best job ever!

Growing up, I loved school.  I thought my teachers were rock stars and I wanted to be exactly like them.  My 1st-grade teacher, Mrs. Makekau, made us hand-drawn Snoopy character bookmarks and would write the names of books we read on them.  We all competed to collect as many of them as we could.  In 4th-grade, our teacher, Mrs. Tamura, played a mean ukulele and we would sing all day long; my math teacher Mrs. Yasunaga helped me memorize my multiplication facts with Times Table Bingo.  My 5th-grade teacher, Mrs. Kubota, always had a plastic pond of crayfish in her class for a Science unit.  And Mrs. Mansho, my 6th-grade teacher, was the biggest star of all.  She had perfect hair and make-up and all the girls wanted to grow up to be exactly like her.  

I set a course to become a teacher and studied hard in school.  During the summers, I worked as a teacher’s aid.  I loved working with the kids and marveled at the fact that they loved me and followed me around everywhere.  I was right: teachers were rock stars!

Upon graduating from the University of Hawaii with a teaching degree, I was extremely lucky to land my first job teaching third grade at Holomua Elementary School.  

It was challenging from the start. I spent many long hours after school at work and every Sunday in my classroom. There were many tears in the start of my career.  I will never forget the parent that was so unhappy that she took her child out of my class or the angry letter I received from a father who didn’t agree with our school’s philosophy.  I had 32 students in my class and I sometimes struggled with behavior management, organization, and the sheer amount of time, work, and energy it took to be a teacher.  I was often overwhelmed and wondered whether I could really be a teacher for a living.  However, with the support of a school-level mentor, a cohesive grade level, and the advice from my educator parents, I survived.

This year marks my 20th year in the teaching profession and I am happy that I persevered through the tough times at the start of my career.   I now work as a Mentor for Beginning Teachers and every day I work with teachers new to the profession who are eager and filled with hope and excitement like I had been.  

Unfortunately, only half of the teachers that begin their careers today have stories similar to mine.  Recent studies have shown that teacher attrition is a real dilemma.  50% of beginning teachers quit the profession after only 5 years.  

Why are we unable to retain our teachers?  Why is it that a job that was once so revered has become one that people are leaving in droves?  In my work with beginning teachers, I have found that many teachers didn’t have pre-career guidance and training nor high-quality induction and mentoring support in their formative teaching years.  They feel ill-equipped for the demands of the profession and lament that teaching didn’t end up being like they thought it would.  

When I look back at my own career, I see the people and systems that helped me overcome the struggles I had and led to a path of leadership in education.  All teachers need these types of supports to grow, thrive and survive the early struggles of our careers and make an impact on our profession.

On the Job Training

In many professions, lengthy apprenticeships and internships are required prior to obtaining a license to perform.  In education, most colleges require 3 semesters of practicum and 1 semester of student teaching. However, during the student teaching semester, pre-service teachers simply inherit the established classroom of a veteran teacher mid year for a few weeks.  Such a program does not prepare our teachers to open the school year, organize, or plan to lead their first, second, even third classroom.  Many of our beginning teachers are hired to teach their first class and have never been responsible for the well-being 25 children by themselves ever, not to mention being responsible for educating them too.  

Professional Learning Network

It takes a village to raise a child.  Teachers cannot work in silos.  The larger the professional network a teacher has, the more resources they will have readily to use in their classrooms.  There are no full-proof formulas for classroom management issues, differentiated instruction, or a curriculum for all students: it’s an art, not a regiment.  Teachers need to collaborate with one another through dialogue, observation, and data teams to improve their craft.  The more diverse the network, the more support, advice, and resources teachers have access to face a diverse set of issues.

Instructional Mentor

Hawai‘i’s Department of Education has established a program that pairs all beginning teachers with a trained instructional mentor.  In its early stages, the program has shown great progress.

Leadership Pathway

Teachers enter the profession focused on their classrooms and the students in it. It takes them awhile to acclimate to the school’s environment, their colleagues, and curriculum and instruction.  However, the success of our public school system lies in the hands of teacher-leaders who are in the trenches to lead the way.  Beginning teachers must have a clear pathway to assume leadership on their grade levels and departments, eventually in their schools, and ultimately in the department.  Being a teacher-leader cements the teacher as a stakeholder in the profession and promotes longevity.  Teachers can only collectively have ownership of our profession if we assume leadership roles.

As I look back on my twenty years of teaching I realize that I have not yet reached “rock star” status, however, my career has withstood challenges of the last two decades:  a 21-day strike, Furlough Fridays, No Child Left Behind and Common Core Standards.  I have been able to stay the course because I have prepared for this job all of my life, and have been supported through every step in my career by colleagues that have been amazing role models and leaders.  It is paramount that teachers being inducted to our profession receive the same types of support as they choose to enter our profession and throughout. Let’s make some new rock stars!

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Aurene Padilla is a second-generation educator and is the Induction Program Coordinator for Central District:  Leilehua, Mililani, Waialua Complexes, a Hope Street Group Fellow for Hawaii, and a part of the National Program Leader Network.  She has taught in the Hawaii Department of Education for twenty years and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Spanish, a Professional Diploma in Elementary Education, and a Master’s Degree in Reading Instruction. Aurene is the proud mother of two children, ages 10 and 9.  When she is not teaching or being a mom you will find her surfing, cross fitting, or training for a marathon.