Our Secret Mission

STEM Library Lab has a secret mission.

You probably already know our regular mission: foster high-quality active learning by providing teachers and students with access to equipment and support to drive academic success.

That is legit, and it’s certainly both true and something we’re proud to work toward.

But I believe, like a pretty large number of education nonprofits in the city, that STEM Library Lab also has an ulterior motive- a hidden agenda. In addition to treating a symptom by engendering high rigor science, we are working to address a systemic root problem: low teacher retention. We work to counter this issue through the development of happier, more fulfilled, and more capable teachers.

Teaching can be a grind. Right now, 50.5% of New Orleans teachers have 5 or fewer years experience, and a 29% attrition rate year over year. STEM Library Lab helps teachers enjoy the lessons they craft.

I love when Ms. Thomas uses SLL to create her 3rd grade electrostatics lesson, or when we help Mr. Mitchell prep a Chemistry flame test, because their students benefit, and our final metric of success is student achievement. But what really excites me is the idea that, in using STEM Library Lab, Ms Thomas and Mr Mitchell are empowered and fulfilled in their teaching practice. Because the more they enjoy teaching, the more likely they are to keep teaching year after year, until our public schools are populated by career teachers.

And we’re in good company because across the region amazing organizations are, like STEM Library Lab, acting as secret engines for teacher retention. For some, it is more deliberately tied to their mission, like Brothers Empowered 2 Teach, while others are doing it as a byproduct of their work.

I wrote last month that “there is no race-neutral decision in American education,” and that assuredly is true of the lens through which we view teacher retention. If we consider retention in New Orleans without considering racial equity, we are failing our students. 53% of public school teachers are black, down from 71% before Hurricane Katrina. In recent years, local teacher prep programs have put an increased focus on recruiting teachers of color. Which is good, but still not nuanced enough to address the underlying systemic issues. This brings up important questions: Are we recruiting teachers locally, or transplants? Are we providing new and veteran teachers with the support to keep them around?

Support comes in a variety of forms, from a variety of organizations. Like Youth Run NOLA or FIRST Robotics, they might have a mission to foster an extracurricular pursuit for students, with the result that teachers are more excited to come to work in order to coach after school. Or they might empower struggling educators with tools for culturally responsive teaching, such as High Resolves and the Center for Restorative Approaches. These orgs help create positive, respectful classroom environments, where teachers leave work feeling invigorated rather than drained. Some are focused on teacher coaching and capacity building in Black-led schools, like BE NOLA. Others, like KID smART and 826 New Orleans, provide community and training for programs that push into classrooms. These organizations are creating more vibrant experiences and decreasing the daily mental lift for teachers.

And these examples are only a few of many.

So there are a collection of organizations working toward teacher retention, but what are the next steps?

  1. Set goals and try to measure outcomes. Could we identify all of the nonprofits running programs and services that key into teacher needs, and set goals?  STEM Library Lab, for example, works with about 200 teachers per year, some a dozen times, others just once.  We could cull that data and assess what percentage of our teachers are retained by their school or the system at large. I wonder whether increased touchpoints with SLL results in a statistical likelihood of teachers remaining in the classroom.
  2. Friendly competition. If SLL can track our retention data, so can others. I’d love to engage some fellow nonprofits in a competition, to determine whose programs can best retain teachers, and learn from those successes.
  3. Create a guidebook. A paper (or virtual) guidebook for new (and current) teachers, informing them of programs around the city providing resources, might help them feel grounded. In my second year teaching I discovered FIRST Robotics almost by accident, and coaching our team after school became my favorite part of the day. Let’s help all teachers find their niche.
  4. Celebrate teachers. There are definitely some organizations doing this already, and doing it effectively, but like SLL, plenty with room to grow.  Let’s find deliberate ways to show teachers they’re appreciated.
  5. Database teacher opportunities effectively. In the STEM education space alone, there are well over 50 organizations and businesses providing programs, field trips, professional developments, volunteers, microgrants, and more, all available to teachers, mainly for free. STEM Library Lab is currently preparing to launch a filterable database of these “opportunities” which will allow teachers to search and find programs, services, and events that mesh with their styles and needs. We’ll be developing this idea in the coming months, and I’m excited to share more soon.

At STEM Library Lab, whenever we look at a new service or solution to a problem, we ask ourselves, who is this serving? Is it accessible to teachers of color, to veteran teachers, to local teachers, or are we catering to the young white transplants? And that is the case with any and all of the proposed solutions above. I’m not specifically hating on that demographic; I’m a young white transplant, and now a former teacher, after all. But people like me are not the backbone of New Orleans schools, and never will be. We need to spend our energy looking at how we develop systems with local teachers of color in mind. I’m energized by the idea of how we design systems to create lifelong teachers, and particularly how we do this with a deliberately embedded equity mindset. This is something I’d love to talk more about, so if you would too, let’s continue the conversation.

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