About 30 percent of teachers new to Chicago’s public schools leave within the first five years, according to a Catalyst analysis of School Board data. At least some of the turnover is inevitable, and not all of it has to do with the working conditions in particular schools.
According to a study conducted in the early 1990s, 45 percent of teachers who left teaching—and 33 percent who switched teaching jobs—did so at least in part for personal reasons such as child-rearing, a family move or illness.
Others teachers simply leave in search of new opportunities. In many cases, they never saw teaching as a life-long career. Steven Strull taught social studies at DuSable High School for five years before moving on to work as a school consultant. “For me, the [motivation] is personal intellectual growth,” he says.
Higher-paid professions also lure teachers away. Mark Schrupp left a law career to teach social studies at DuSable. Two years later, he returned to law. “Teaching was easier to do when I was single. I didn’t think I’d be able to handle all the loans for law school and also start a family.”
Teachers may also leave for districts with higher pay. In Chicago, the top of the salary schedule—that’s for someone with at least 12 years experience and a doctoral degree—is about $62,000. In some north suburban high school districts, it tops $80,000.
Among districts in northeastern Illinois, Chicago’s maximum salaries for teachers with varying levels of education are near the medians, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. However, its starting salary for a teacher with a bachelors degree is more competitive—about 25 percent higher than the median, according to the state.
A couple of factors unique to Chicago do work against teacher retention and recruitment. One is the board’s city residency requirement, which applies to employees hired since 1980.
Mark Vondracek, who has a Ph.D. in physics, taught at Amundson High school for three years. But when it was time to buy a house, he took a job in Evanston. “My wife and I didn’t like being restricted [as] to where we live.”
Many teachers reportedly circum-vent the requirement by setting up a Chicago mailing address. “All you need is a box at ‘Mail-Box Etcetera’,” one teacher reports.
Another negative factor in Chicago is the bureaucracy that comes with a large system; in Chicago, that bureaucracy historically has not been customer friendly.
For instance, a first-year teacher at a Northwest Side elementary school has a degree in African- American studies and wants to teach at a school with a more multi-cultural curriculum. She intends to leave the district rather than switch to another Chicago school. Two things tipped the scales against Chicago, she says. One is the residency requirement, and the other is the disorganization she encountered at central office during the hiring process: “Sit here for five hours. Come back tomorrow and do this. Come back the next day and do this. Come back the next week—you still have to do this.”
“Our reputation for customer service is crap,” agrees Carlos Ponce, the board’s new director of human resources. But he assures, “The days of losing stuff, of being discourteous—they’re over.”