A teacher and student walk down a hall together

Tackling Teacher Turnover

More than half of the teachers in a Muskegon Heights district were leaving within their first year. A GVSU partnership is changing that.

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Teacher retention statistics in the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System have been disheartening, said Arnetta Thompson, director of Talent Management for the school district.

Thompson said the district typically loses more than 30 percent of its teachers each year, sometimes up to 60 percent, mainly because of salary. The current teacher shortage is adding to the problem. In its 2019 report, the Economic Policy Institute stated, “The teacher shortage is real, large and growing ... with high-poverty schools suffering the most from the shortage of credentialed teachers.”

In the midst of these sobering statistics, a unique partnership that began last fall between Grand Valley and the Muskegon Heights district is offering more than hope. 

Students raise their hands
A third-grade student at Martin Luther King Elementary School raises her hand to answer a question.

Through Supporting Emerging Educator Development, or SEED, the district now has 13 teachers committed to remaining in Muskegon Heights schools for at least the next five years.

The idea for the program came when James Grant, professor of special education, was volunteering in the district, assisting with assessments and reading instruction. He became more aware of the challenges the district faced.

Grant pulled together education experts from Grand Valley and the district, including members of the Muskegon and Ottawa County intermediate school districts. The group developed the SEED program from a mix of programs offered at Grand Valley.

SEED, approved by the Michigan Department of Education, is a two-year intensive teacher residency program for people who have already earned a bachelor’s degree.

The teachers receive a salary and benefits to be in the classroom full time while taking Grand Valley classes at night and online to earn teacher certification. The teachers then commit to Muskegon Heights for an additional three years.

Thompson said SEED teachers have a special connection to the students, are invested in the community and offer much-needed stability for students.

“Children believe they go to school for their teachers,” Thompson explained. “Turnover affects their ability to learn. It’s hard to build trust and a rapport when teachers keep switching. The effect is astronomical.”

Many SEED participants are longtime substitute teachers or others who served in educational support roles.

Paula Lancaster, professor of special education in the Department of Teaching and Learning in the College of Education, said far too many children in low-resourced districts are experiencing a steady stream of substitute teachers who may lack professional training and are often juggling multiple jobs and responsibilities.

Teacher gestures in a classroom
Sunaide Mack, a fifth-grade teacher at MLK Elementary, said the SEED program is helping fulfill her dream to be teacher.

“Children believe they go to school for their teachers. Turnover affects their ability to learn. It’s hard to build trust and a rapport when teachers keep switching. The effect is astronomical.”

Arnetta Thompson, director of Talent Management, Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System
Portrait of a student in Muskegon

“Through SEED, we have an opportunity to not only ensure that children and youth have access to professionally prepared, consistent, committed teachers, but the teachers are able to earn a living wage and focus full-time on their work in the classrooms,” said Lancaster. “The entire community benefits from these outcomes.”

Sunaide Mack, who teaches fifth grade at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Muskegon Heights, served as a substitute teacher in the district for four years before joining the SEED program.

Mack earned a bachelor’s degree in telecommunications management from Western Michigan University in 1999 and spent several years working in sales, management and operations.

“Teaching has always been a passion of mine,” said Mack. “I love my students and I love Muskegon Heights. I walked these halls myself as a child. I tell my students stories all the time. It’s nostalgic for me.”

A teacher works with students in a classroom
Brenda Rybacki, teaches third grade at MLK Elementary and is part of the SEED program, an intensive teacher residency program.

An important component of the SEED program is mentoring support. Each teacher is matched with a professional mentor who visits their classroom a minimum of 20 times during the academic year. Mentors offer a range of services including co-teaching, model-teaching, feedback and instructional and curriculum support.

“Our mentors are a mix of Grand Valley faculty, and teachers and administrators who are committed to giving back and supporting the next generation of teachers,” said Lancaster.

The hope is that the SEED program can reverse some of the turnover effects, said Lancaster, and provide the stability students need to thrive.

“Every child deserves a skilled, knowledgeable and dedicated teacher,” she said. “The intense mentoring and coursework are making a difference, and we are looking forward to seeing continued growth in student and teacher learning.”

Thompson said students are already beginning to gain trust in their teachers and feel a sense of security. “You can feel it — the climate and culture are changing,” she said.

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