Retaining great teachers begins with listening to them

In my work I spend a lot of time talking with new teachers, and I know that I, and Teach For America (TFA), get better when we really listen to what our teachers have to say.

Last month we held one of our day-long professional development sessions for our TFA teachers in Detroit. I heard many familiar reflections: how much they love Detroit and the kids in their classrooms; how great the challenges are for kids growing up in poverty in our city; and how they aspire to be the leaders that our kids deserve. But I also heard that they have real concerns that the broader network of support, opportunity, and mentors critical to long-term educator development doesn’t exist here, and that this makes it tempting to leave Detroit for some of the places that are recruiting them -- Chicago, New York City, New Orleans, etc. – where opportunities for ongoing leadership development are seemingly plentiful. So, when I read Punita Thurman’s post that the Foundation is launching Teacher Listening Sessions, to learn directly from teachers what support they need, I was really excited. I hope all of our city’s school and system leaders and partners will listen carefully. 

I think folks may be surprised by what they hear. Yes, teachers are underpaid. And, yes, our kids face complex systemic challenges that make this work really hard. But I don’t believe that is why educators with the potential for great impact leave Detroit classrooms. I think what our city’s educators really want is to get the ongoing development they need to be worthy of our students – not just when they are beginning teachers – but as they continue to stay in the field and refine their craft. They want the opportunity to learn from the very best educators how to create the positive change we know is possible and see happening around the country. 

what our city’s educators really want is to get the ongoing development they need 

I’ve seen this firsthand during our seven years in partnership with Detroit schools and neighborhoods. I’m proud that TFA has created a network here in Detroit of over 800 corps members and alumni who have made a life-long commitment to educational equity. We’re fortunate to work alongside our students, their families, other educators and partners like the Skillman Foundation. This growing movement of leaders is working together at every level in the education system and across sectors; and we see this specifically in the three neighborhoods where the highest concentration of our leaders work: Southwest Detroit, North End/Central, and Livernois/McNichols neighborhoods. Here, there are more than 75 TFA leaders serving as teachers, coaches, counselors, and school and district leaders.

It’s powerful to see individuals realize what is possible through their own leadership, and scale that by working together. But we need to see more of it. And we need to see it in every neighborhood, school, and system in our city. Our kids deserve nothing less. 

TFA Detroit 2016

Detroit teachers gather for a Teach For America event

There is a pervasive belief that Detroit’s education system is broken beyond repair. The system isn’t serving our diverse students and communities the way it should, but it is absolutely possible to repair it. To say otherwise, and thereby send a message to our children that their futures and potential are beyond repair, is unacceptable. As with any great challenge, we need talented and committed leaders to unite to reimagine a system that is designed to serve all students. Those leaders are right here in Detroit. And it is up to all of us to listen to what they need and make sure they have the tools to keep at this work until every child has the opportunity of an excellent education. 

(To) send a message to our children that their futures and potential are beyond repair is unacceptable

There are a lot of different approaches to education in Detroit. But, retaining people who are committed to our students, equity and excellence, is a challenge that our entire education community has to take on collectively. We all need to embrace this problem and listen to what our teachers need, or we’ll lose them.


Rachele DiMeglio

Rachele DiMeglio Adam has been a member of the Teach For America–Detroit leadership team since the local organization launched in 2010, and is currently serving as interim executive director. Rachele also sits on the Excellent Educators Advisory Group for the Michigan Department of Education and was the founding board secretary of Southwest Detroit Community School.