Teacher turnover is a struggle for a lot of schools. A new teacher is hired, they teach for a year or two and then *poof* they’re gone. It’s often the worst at schools where poverty is high and student achievement is low, but an elementary school in the heart of Utah’s Monument Valley might have a solution.
At 7 a.m, the sun is barely peeking above the redrock monuments, huge outcroppings, often standing all alone. The horizon is striking no matter the direction. Jody Lee-Chadde has a perfect view on her morning walk to school.
“I don’t think that anyone has as gorgeous a morning walk as I do,” says Lee-Chadde. “It’s really something else.”
Lee-Chadde teaches 4th grade at Tsé'bii'nidzisgai (a Navajo word that means 'light on the rocks') Elementary School, also known as TES. It’s located in the southeast corner of the state, which happens to be the northernmost point of the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in the country.
Lee-Chadde, along with every other non-native teacher, lives practically next door to TES.
“I live in teacher housing — you can’t have a house on the reservation,” said Lee-Chadde. “It’s maybe a quarter of a mile away, so I just walk to work every morning.”
Besides the breathtaking landscape, there was another factor that drew Lee-Chadde to Monument Valley: the salary.
For some experienced teachers, San Juan School District is offering to pay them for each year they’ve taught plus an added $12,000. Lee-Chadde, who was teaching in New Mexico at the time, was offered $70,000.
“I never thought that I’d hit $70,000 ever in my life as a teacher,” said Lee-Chadde. “Those are pretty big dollar signs.”
So, encouraged by the pay and intrigued by the challenge, she came. She said it has been challenging — students on the reservation are known to be shy. Lee-Chadde said it was weeks before some of her students spoke to her for the first time.
“To gain the trust of the students was my first and most important job,” said Lee-Chadde.
Since the beginning of the school year, Lee-Chadde has seen a transformation in her students. They’re engaged, they’re self-motivated, they offer to take turns reading.
She loves it here, but she said her students constantly ask how long she’ll stick around.
“Our students definitely notice how long you’re here,” said Christy Fitzgerald, the principal at TES.
“One of the first things I was asked when I got here was, ‘How long are you going to be here?’’ Fitzgerald said. “All the kids know, they see this revolving door of teachers.”
Fitzgerald said in a typical year TES and neighboring schools can lose 30 or 40 percent of their teachers, sometimes close to half.
Although it’s beautiful, Monument Valley is also remote. If you want to shop at a large grocery store or go out to eat you’re looking at a two or three-hour drive.
“If you want to see a movie, you need Amazon prime,” Fitzgerald said, laughing. “If you’re a big shopper this may not be the place for you. There are some drawbacks.”
Because of those drawbacks, it’s hard to convince some teachers to stay. And the constant turnover, more than anything else, has made the task of improving a school like TES nearly impossible.
“It takes a long time to build that trust that you’re going to stay and that you’re here for them, not for yourself,” said Fitzgerald.
The turnover also takes a toll on student achievement. TES has an “F” rating based on statewide testing. So, the district decided to do something.
With help from a state grant, the elementary schools on the reservation have been able to offer a few high paying positions to veteran teachers. They teach a full load of classes and are also responsible for mentoring fellow teachers. It’s called the Quality Teacher Incentive Program, or QTIP.
“We’ve hired three [QTIP teachers] for this year with a combined work experience of 60 years,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s a pretty large depth of knowledge that we’ve brought in.”
Fitzgerald said the benefit is twofold. One, paying these teachers at the level of an administrator gives them the incentive to stay. And two, having this extra support and mentorship gives all of the other teachers incentive to stay.
This is the first year TES has had QTIP positions. So far it seems to be working.
“Amazingly enough right now we only have one teacher that is planning on leaving,” Fitzgerald said.
Danielle Shirley, the school’s social worker, said this could have a huge effect on the students. While she’s new to TES, Shirley grew up on the reservation and attended a neighboring elementary school.
“Growing up we had teachers who were in and out. The only ones I trusted were the ones I remembered from previous years,” Shirley said. “Having that relationship built and trust needs to be that foundation for every kid.”
Shirley said these kids want to trust their teachers. They want to open up, they’re just extremely cautious. It was a struggle for her when she arrived.
She tells them about her childhood. Bringing in water, walking through the brush to the bus stop, looking after her siblings. Shirley said the more they know about her story the more they trust her. But even then, they still wonder.
“They keep asking me if I’m coming back next year and it’s really sad because I’m like, ‘Of course I’ll be here,’” said Shirley.
Since Jody Lee-Chadde is also constantly asked that question she’s had time to think about the best answer.
“When the students ask me if I’m going to be here next year I tell them, ‘I’m not leaving until one of you take my job.’” Lee-Chadde said, fighting back tears. “I think that my goal here is to see that these kids grow up and they’re the teachers and they’re the administrators.”
For Lee-Chadde, coming to Monument Valley was an exciting career move. But for her students, this place is their home.
This story has been corrected - Tsé'bii'nidzisgai Elementary School was misspelled in a previous version.