Interrupting Doom Loops: Reflections on Mid-Year Teacher Exits - ASCD
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December 1, 2020

Interrupting Doom Loops: Reflections on Mid-Year Teacher Exits

How do we break cycles that send promising young educators out of the profession too early?

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Improvement for a young teacher can be thrilling, but how do we counteract its all-too-common twin, the dreaded teacher doom loop?

James Collins (2001) has famously described how organizations and systems can slip into cycles of rapid improvement or deterioration—what he terms flywheels and doom loops. These upward and downward spirals are useful in understanding classroom dynamics and teacher mental health as well (Kanold, 2006).

Flywheels in the classroom are heady, virtuous cycles of improvement. Once a young teacher gets the basic classroom management engine running, teacher-student relationships can begin to thrive—which in turn helps classroom management run more smoothly. An upward loop like this typically involves an affective/emotional component, such as an elevated sense of competence.

Yet that cycle can also spin the other way, sending a teacher into a doom loop. One classic example is the novice teacher struggling to manage the classroom, which leads more students to disengage in learning and act out—exacerbating the management issue even further. The teacher's capacity and mental health can unravel with frightening speed.

Doom loops often send promising young educators out of the profession, at times even before the school year ends. Some academics label these mid-year exits as "within-year turnover," but in teacher lounges, they are often whispered about simply as a "KO" or "knockout." A recent North Carolina study found that roughly 5 percent of all teachers left mid-year, but that the rate could be as high as 40 percent for rookie teachers in the highest poverty settings (Redding & Henry, 2018).

Occasionally, the match between teacher and school is so poor that these mid-year departures are considered a "healthy exit"—a sigh of relief for all involved. But within-year turnover is usually devastating for both staff and students. Students endure significant learning loss and frequently have to make do with an unqualified, long-term substitute. The same North Carolina study found that such students on average lost 54 days of academic instruction—almost a third of the school year. A follow-up study found significant dips in test scores (Henry & Redding, 2020). In addition, mid-year exits often bring socio-emotional consequences for students, such as feelings of abandonment (Sandstrom & Huerta, 2013).

These exits weigh heavily on the rest of the staff, too. Even for experienced teachers who step in for the departed colleague, resetting classroom norms mid-year can be a Herculean task. Academic and behavioral expectations may need to be rebuilt, and students may hesitate to extend trust to a new adult (Id-Deen, 2016). Even a single mid-year departure can destabilize staff culture, as other teachers wonder who might be next to leave. School administrators must not only maintain morale but also hire and onboard replacements (Guin, 2004).

For the teacher at the heart of a doom loop, the experience is typically traumatic. In Ohio, where I teach, and in many other states, teachers can have their licensure revoked for leaving during the school year. Even without this censure, such a departure is seen as a mark of Cain within the profession—if, that is, the teacher does not leave the field outright.

A Doom Loop Story

We commonly associate teacher doom loops with rookie teachers, but even veterans can fall victim to these downward spirals—as I myself learned over the past year.

I had been teaching history and English for a decade at a high-performing, high-poverty secondary school in Massachusetts before my wife's work brought us to central Ohio. In my previous role, I had risen to the rank of a humanities department chair and led my students to some of the highest English language arts growth rates in the state. But I quickly became overwhelmed by the demands of my new school in Ohio.

How could an expert so quickly be reduced to a novice?

At first glance, the two schools resembled one another in size and student demographics and had similar commitments to social justice. But several teacher burnout indicators awaited me: a longer school day, larger class sizes, more students walking in with trauma, and fewer resources to support them. I had never taught so many students living with grandparents or court-appointed guardians because their parents were incarcerated. In the first semester, I broke up more fights than I had in the previous decade.

The academic and behavioral expectations were lower than I had expected. I was the only teacher in my grade assigning regular homework. Many students saw me as an outlier because of my high expectations and contested my classroom norms daily. Simply getting students to settle into their seats at the start of class was a battle. On top of all this, I was scrambling to execute an incomplete 9th grade English curriculum.

By the second month of school, I found myself spiraling into a doom loop. I had always thought of myself as a warm teacher, but I began to lose my temper more. My behavioral redirections got louder. This further alienated more students, who then put in even less effort.

I had heard the classic refrain that adjusting to a new school culture is like being a new teacher all over again, but my overachieving self had hoped I could speed through these transitional challenges. I considered myself an expert in teacher perseverance. I am a disciple of Elena Aguilar's Onward books about teacher resilience and a proud alumnus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine's Stress Management and Resiliency Training program. I feared complaining as a new member on the team. My plan was to grit my teeth, grin, and keep grinding.

As I failed to gain traction with my students, I doubled down on mental health strategies. I found a therapist to help me unpack my new reality. I exercised before school. I meditated during my lunch break. I called veteran educator friends for advice in the evening.

But my methods were insufficient. I contemplated quitting mid-year, something I had always judged harshly in fellow colleagues.

Asking for Help

I realized I had no choice but to reach out to my school leaders and ask for significant help. I scheduled an early-morning meeting with my administrator and shared that the situation felt untenable. I knew mere tweaks would not help, so I came with ambitious asks.

Thankfully, my school leaders were amenable and eager to problem-solve. Because of the interventions we came up with together, I made it through the year. Here were a few key action steps I took:

  • Press pause: My administrator suggested setting up substitute coverage so that I could work off-campus for a couple days. This not only allowed me to recenter, but also gave me space to recalibrate my instruction and get ahead on building curriculum. I turned to some well-developed units from the KIPP Foundation that provided a gentler release of responsibility and added additional scaffolding to meet my students where they were, rather than where I wished they were. These reconfigured lessons engaged more students.

  • Schedule creatively: A minor scheduling adjustment like a dropped lunch duty would not have been enough to escape my doom loop. Fortunately, my administrators were open to my idea of eliminating my smallest section and redistributing my students to other sections. These changes were bundled together with other mid-semester shifts, so few students asked questions. Though I picked up a quiet study hall block in return, this shift still bought me an extra moment to breathe each afternoon and regain some emotional constancy. I no longer felt like I was drowning.

  • Consider co-teaching: In my toughest section, my administrators reassigned my novice co-teacher and brought in a veteran colleague to co-lead with me. Her arrival was reaffirming, as she initially struggled with many of the same challenges I had. With her experience and expertise, she helped me refine my classroom management approach—what to sweat, what to let slide. We gave students more leeway on dress code and in-class snacks but doubled down on calling home to families and confronting students who were resisting independent work. Even though my colleague could only co-teach for one quarter, she restarted the classroom management engine in this tricky section, allowing both my students and me to feel a greater sense of harmony.

Closing the Loop

Systems scholars like Jal Mehta (2015) have argued that the beauty of any loop is that it can be interrupted. As my story shows, some circuits are in fact open to multiple areas of attack and healing.

It is worth acknowledging that my school sank considerable resources into interrupting my doom loop. Nevertheless, the consequences for colleagues and students would likely have been far greater had they not intervened. My administrators had seen other teachers quit before and had built in capacity to make muscular mid-year moves to support their team.

That said, are strategies like these enough to interrupt every teacher doom loop? Hardly. Despite similar interventions, my school lost two other veteran teachers that winter. If I had to guess, I'd say the difference was that these two teachers were never able to get their class culture to gel and thus felt trapped in a daily cycle of conflict with students.

I remain humbled and humiliated about how poorly I performed at my new school, but at least my students did not have to adjust to another teacher. During the second half of the year, we were able to do some powerful work together. I will never forget their insights that winter on race and trauma, when we read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye less than a year after her passing and only a couple hours away from her birthplace. In the spring, the COVID-19 crisis interrupted our hard-won classroom culture, but by then I had managed to rebuild relationships enough to motivate many students to keep up their studies remotely.

In the book Falling Upward, the Franciscan friar Richard Rohr (2011) describes how failure can ultimately be transformational in our own development. He turns to a quote from the 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich: "First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God!"

I walked away from last year with renewed gratitude for teaching, more conscious than ever of the complexity and fragility of the classroom ecosystem. I am looking for a new school that will be a better fit for me going forward, but I remain hopelessly in love with teaching and thankful that my passion for the work has not been extinguished.

The Power of Intervention

How many other educators might still be teaching if we became better at interrupting doom loops? Too often, we turn our backs on the colleague crying in the copy room. We look at the struggling teacher as a ticking time bomb—but there are almost always wires we can cut. I encourage all of us to reach out with less hesitation and less judgment when we find fellow educators flailing.

As leaders, we must intervene when—not if—a teacher falls into a doom loop. Schedule informal, one-on-one, "temperature check" meetings a few weeks in with new staff to build trust and learn what supports they need. Supplement these with weekly surveys and frequent observations to identify potential doom loops early on. Create a nonevaluative mentoring program for all teachers new to your school. Leave adequate space in your schedule for those unexpected moments when more substantial help is necessary.

Those of us without formal leadership roles can play an invaluable part as well. We can pop in as informal co-teachers more quickly than administrators when we hear a commotion next door. New teachers can send difficult students over to seasoned educators for resets instead of calling a dean. Grade-level or department teammates might be able to cover classes on a one-off basis. We can create safe spaces for teachers to process challenges and, when appropriate, be the bridge to trusted leaders when colleagues are too shy to reach out themselves.

Let us work together to normalize rather than stigmatize the vicious cycles that all of us are vulnerable to as professionals in a difficult field. Through modeling and discourse, leaders can craft a staff culture that promotes vulnerability, self-care, and community—one where colleagues catch each other when they fall.

I hope my story is evidence enough that a doom loop need not be a death sentence. Supporting one another through these vicious cycles will only help us better support our students in the complex, demanding loops that make up our work in schools.

References

Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap … and others don't. New York: HarperBusiness.

Guin, K. (2004). Chronic teacher turnover in urban elementary schools. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 12(42), 1–25.

Henry, G. T., & Redding, C. (2020). The consequences of leaving school early: The effects of within-year and end-of-year teacher turnover. Education Finance and Policy, 15(2), 332–356.

Id-Deen, L. (2016). Hidden casualties of urban teacher turnover: Black students share their experiences. Journal of Urban Learning, Teaching, and Research, 12, 142–149.

Kanold, T. D. (2006). The flywheel effect: Educators gain momentum from a model for continuous improvement. Journal of Staff Development, 27(2), 16–21.

Mehta, J., & Fine, S. (2015). The why, what, where, and how of deeper learning in American secondary schools. Students at the center: Deeper learning research series. Jobs for the Future.

Redding, C., & Henry, G. T. (2018). New evidence on the frequency of teacher turnover: Accounting for within-year turnover. Educational Researcher, 47(9), 577–593.

Rohr, R. (2011). Falling upward: A spirituality for the two halves of life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Sandstrom, H., & Huerta, S. (2013). The negative effects of instability on child development: A research synthesis. Low-income working families discussion paper no. 3. Urban Institute.

Henry Seton Headshot

Henry Seton is a humanities teacher-leader, writer, and presenter. He formerly chaired the humanities department at the Community Charter School of Cambridge in Massachusetts.

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