Why I Switched Schools: Teacher Leadership as a Tool for Teacher Retention

Lexie Woo and Fellows
From left to right: Michele Cleary, Lexie Woo, Teresa Ranieri, and Amanda Zullo

I am a statistic.

According to a United Federation of Teachers report, in the 2012-2013 school year, there were “2,144 ‘regular’ resignations of educators who were fully certified, appointed and not eligible to retire.” That’s almost equivalent to the number of teachers who did, indeed, retire that year—2,300. The article states that, “most attrition takes place among teachers in their first through fifth years.” Although I did not leave the teaching profession, I did leave my school. And it was, in fact, after my fifth year. Without realizing it, I had fallen into a group of educators making an exodus from their classrooms.

I spent the first five years of my teaching experience teaching special education at a Title I middle school in Brooklyn. I loved going to school every day. I would anticipate teaching each new lesson, watching students engage in an experiment, a Socratic seminar, or a book club. I loved getting to know all of the unique and beautiful personalities of my students—the shy student, quietly blossoming as the year went on, and the tough guy, trying to seem disinterested, then sneaking me his impeccably-completed homework when his buddies weren’t looking. And I loved collaborating with my colleagues. We would discuss behavior management strategies, projects, and rubrics. We would spend time grading assessments together, planning new units, and—my favorite—coming together after school when our school culture was faltering, and developing a plan for improvement.

So why leave?


Despite having wonderful students and colleagues, and a love for special education, there was not enough support for professional growth. Initiatives, such as the one my colleagues and I planned to improve our school culture, were often not carried out, and there was never a consistent school culture for an extended period of time. We would constantly cycle through plan after plan, but without commitment from the entire staff, and without adequate administrative follow-through, plans continued to fail, and students suffered the consequences. Year after year, I felt frustrated seeing my and my colleagues’ hard efforts being undone by under-qualified educators who had not been adequately prepared for their classroom experience. Each year passed without a consistent expectation for school culture, particularly for student behavior. Eventually, my school became an increasingly dangerous place to work and learn, with students frequently walking out of the classroom and fights breaking out in the hallways.

After admitting to the reality of the grim future of my school community, I became painfully aware that there was no foreseeable career path available for me at my school. Even worse, the hopeful thought of staying brought about fear of the clichéd burnout so characteristic of teachers in settings like mine. At the end of five years, the only way I could envision improvement to my own practice and professional growth was to find a new, more rigorous, and challenging workplace. With a heavy heart, I left.


There is new hope for educators living stories like mine. This year, I had the great opportunity to work alongside teachers with similar stories and concerns. As part of the New York Educator Voice Fellowship, three New York City educators and I came together as Policy Fellows and developed a proposal for the Elevating Effective Educators program. This program targets the highest-needs schools to improve equity and access. The recommendation includes a two-pronged approach:

  1. Recruiting: Provide funding to college- and university-based teacher preparation programs to create or expand residency programs.
  2. Retaining: Provide funding to districts with high-need schools to develop career pathways for effective and highly-effective educators.

It is time to close the opportunity gap. We already have the resources to do this in the form of phenomenal, hard-working educators. Elevating Effective Educators outlines the steps to put this dream into practice. So, let’s take this first step together, and champion for this program, which supports students and educators, and helps pave the road to educational equity.

(c) Lexie Woo

Lexie Woo is a special education teacher at P.S./I.S. 49 in Queens, NYC. She is in her eighth year of teaching. She is a Policy Fellow with America Achieves, Teacher Champion Fellow with Collaborative for Student Success, and teacher leader with Educators 4 Excellence.



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