Before class one recent morning at Bulls College Prep, math teacher Delaina Martin was swarmed by teenagers. One boy wanted her to see a drawing he made. Another told her he was a finalist for a student leadership position. The seniors — it was their last day of school — stood in line to pose for selfies with her.
Martin is not just popular with students. She’s one of 20 teachers the Noble Network of Charter Schools named to its “Distinguished Teacher” program — out of a teaching force of some 800 educators at 18 Chicago campuses.
The elite designation also comes with a $10,000 bonus, renewable annually for as long as the educators remain as teachers with Noble, Chicago’s largest charter school network.
The program seeks to solve a problem that plagues education: how to identify, reward and hold on to top teachers, who are often drawn to higher pay in educational leadership positions — or outside education altogether. Teacher retention has been a particular problem among charter schools.
Noble also hopes the new program gives younger teachers models to learn from and something to aspire to.
“Teaching is this very nuanced, complicated art form,” said Ellen Metz, head of school at Noble. “We wanted to be able to name — for other educators, for new educators — what does excellence look like? It looks like Delaina Martin.”
Teachers were judged on five areas: their students’ improvement on test scores; classroom culture; instructional rigor; how inclusive and relevant their classrooms are to the students they serve; and the teachers’ impact beyond their own classroom, whether that’s in their school, the Noble network or the neighborhoods where they teach.
Martin hit top marks in every category, according to Noble.
“I think what I do best is relate to kids,” she said. “Cause if kids know that you care about them and that you’re not gonna give up on them — even if they have a rough day, even if you have a rough day — and they keep going,” that’s what matters, said Martin, who has undergraduate degrees in math and Spanish and earned her master’s in education from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
Martin, who grew up in Peoria, says she loves teaching. “So fun. There are bad days of course, but teaching is so great,” Martin said. “I like that I’m forming and shaping minds, I’m creating the next adults.”
Martin said she’s especially inspired by the ability to give kids opportunities and options they might not have had otherwise.
Martin is in her fifth year at Noble and her 11th year teaching. She says she isn’t motivated by money, but agrees that offering teachers $10,000 bonuses will help keep them in the classroom.
“It’s a little nod that you’re doing something right, which I appreciate,” Martin said before adding with a laugh, “OK, it’s a large nod.”
Metz says hanging onto people like Martin has been a challenge. “We were seeing some of the most impactful teachers running into — well, a financial crisis,” said Metz. “It’s a problem in our industry, where the teachers feel that in order to continue to make a wage that honors the work they’re doing — it ends up being a situation in which it’s no longer tenable as they get longer and older in their career.“
Noble says it will add to its distinguished teacher pool every year. To apply, teachers must have worked at least three years in the network and submit to a rigorous vetting process, with portfolios of student work, test score data and classroom observations.
The Chicago Teachers Union, which has been trying to unionize teachers in Noble schools and has unionized other charter schools, is cold to the new program.
“I have no doubt that those are excellent teachers and they’re doing a great job, but what about the other 98.5% of their teachers?” asked Chris Baehrend, who coordinates charter schools within the union.
“It’s like an educational Hunger Games — where teachers are pitted against each other for awards that we expect all of them deserve,” said Baehrend.
He argues that traditional teacher contracts — where all teachers see annual raises regardless of their performance, and where higher education degrees automatically mean more money — do a better job of hanging on to good teachers by giving everyone good salaries and a steady career path. He said it’s no coincidence that Noble’s top teachers have an average experience of 11 years on the job.
Linda Lutton is a reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.