TEACHER RETENTION – WHEN THE “WHY” IS NOT ENOUGH

The deepening teacher shortage pushes most districts into a reactive mode – scurrying to recruit replacements for high-need areas. This is urgent work, but – like most reactive tasks – only part of the picture. The other portion is retention, and it is just as important to the health of our schools as recruitment. 

Schools with higher retention rates have fewer reported shortages. While this sounds like stating the obvious, taking a deeper dive reveals how much of a boost a higher retention rate really provides.  A stable teaching staff generally translates to a happy teaching staff. Teachers who enjoy what they are doing share their good fortune with friends in other districts. These friends are more likely to apply when a position opens. The openings are filled more quickly and with higher-quality candidates. It is a cycle that impacts schools with lower retention rates as well but in a negative way. Fortunately, it is a cycle that can be broken. 

Teachers don’t go through intensive training and preparation to become a teacher just to quit a few years into it. They all have a “why” that – despite the often-negative press about the vocation – called them to teach. Reports of factors influencing the emotionally laden decision to leave teaching vary according to experience level. Younger and more inexperienced teachers leave because they don’t feel fully prepared or supported. They often feel isolated and left to fend for themselves. More veteran teachers leave because they feel their career path is flat, crave more autonomy, or disagree with the decisions of administrators. Regardless of the nature of the specific reason, most issues can be addressed and ameliorated. 

IDENTIFY THE NEEDS OF YOUR TEACHERS 

The key to retention is identifying the needs of the people in your employ and working to fulfill those needs. Every teacher should be invited to sit down with his or her campus administrator and discuss the supports they need to do their job well, along with where they see themselves in 3 – 5 years.   Crafting a career path renders goals more tangible and easily tracked.  Sharing it with those who can assist in helping move along the path tells employees you are invested in them as professionals.  People stay in environments where they feel valued and supported.  Department chairs, team leaders, special project chairs – all are viable roles to give those teachers wanting to grow as leaders the opportunity to do so. Districts should also strongly consider sponsoring or helping with the costs of additional certifications for existing staff. An internal program that grows your own keeps people in the district – often in high need areas. Investing in your people is never a bad idea. 

First-year teachers may not yet know where they see themselves next week, never mind three years from now. They need support in becoming proficient teachers, support that doesn’t feel like documented corrective action. Does your mentoring program legitimately support new teachers? A quick but thoughtfully worded survey can elicit actionable feedback and allow you to make mid-course corrections in the program so that these budding educators feel their contributions are heard and their mentor cares about their progress.  The match of the mentor to the mentee is a huge variable in the success of the program. Mentors benefit from targeted training that helps them understand their role and strategies to best serve their mentees. 

FEEDBACK AND PRAISE 

All people need positive feedback and constructive criticism. Be sure that your evaluation system has a built-in feedback loop. No one should only see their supervisor on formal observation days. Faculty and staff also appreciate public recognition of accomplishments. When I worked as a principal, I gave “kudos” in our weekly campus update, so that others would know the outstanding things happening at our school as well as get a clear picture of the type of behaviors warranting kudos. I kept a checklist and made sure to include everyone at some point during the year. The rockstars of the school – from the maintenance man to the new history teacher to the Upper School Dean – made the kudos list multiple times. 

The power in the list lay in both its consistency (a new one came out every week without fail) and its descriptiveness. I briefly explained the kudo-worthy action so that others could emulate it. Kudo-earning behavior always aligned with our campus mission and goals so there was never a doubt about where we were headed or what it took to get there. It rewarded everyday excellence as well as the extra mile. Staff members could nominate their colleagues, and I happily published any such submissions, giving credit for the nomination. People often skipped past the informative portion of the bulletin to go straight to the kudos.   

PERKS 

Education is not a field known for its perks. That doesn’t mean we should just ignore the power of a few low-cost (or no-cost) incentives like the ones below. As you read these, think of what else your school or district could do to help teachers feel valued and incentivized to stay. 

  • Use of work-out facilities when students are not actively using them. This costs nothing and can be part of a comprehensive wellness program. 
  • Free breakfast or lunch in the school cafeteria. If there is a school garden, they should also feel free to pick an orange or some tomatoes. 
  • Additional classroom resources. Teachers pay for supplies out of their own pockets. A pack of highlighters, a few books for their classrooms, and goodies like packages of stickers are much appreciated. 

Other options that bring a heftier price tag extend to reliable, in-district childcare and even – in a few districts – help with housing.  Teachers are priced out of the housing market In a number of urban areas across the country.  Savvy districts have even started building housing for teachers new to the profession, granting a few years to save for a down payment on a house of their own.   

RECONNECT WITH YOUR WHY 

Teachers enter the profession because they love learning and want to positively impact children. We must do a better job of keeping them connected to this purpose by removing the extraneous responsibilities that are heaped upon them, giving them a fair portion of autonomy in doing their jobs, helping them grow in the profession, and celebrating their accomplishments.   

I like to think that we learned a few things during the pandemic – the thin silver linings or “Covid Keepers,” as I call them. One is that we know there is great power in feeling that you are not alone.  Giving teachers a voice in governance and working alongside them to drive improvements both creates buy-in and a sense of efficacy. Working as a team in the pursuit of a better society, better system, and better future for our kids brings a sense of camaraderie and pride in community. It reconnects them with their “why,” and that is a powerful motivator for retention.   

 

 

About the Author: Laura Henry

The former Executive Director of Chinquapin Preparatory School – a college prep boarding school for low-income students who are able and motivated – Dr. Laura Henry has worked in both public and private education for 30 years as a school leader, college professor, and alternative certification coach and trainer.  Laura also serves as the Chair of the North American Boarding Forum for the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA), and mentors underserved youth.  Laura’s doctoral and master’s degrees are both from the University of Houston’s education department and her B.A. in History was earned at Rice University.

 

About Teachers of Tomorrow (www.teachersoftomorrow.org)

Teachers of Tomorrow is the largest, fastest growing Teacher Certification Program in the nation, delivering online and in-person training to individuals pursuing a career in teaching. Teachers of Tomorrow is also the #2 most diverse certification program in the country with 46% non-white enrollment; and 70% of their teachers remain in the profession after five years, versus the national average of only 50%. Over the last 12 years, Teachers of Tomorrow has certified more than 45,000 new teachers, and in 2016 the Company trained and certified an estimated 7,000 teachers. Teachers of Tomorrow is an approved teacher certification provider in Texas, Arizona, Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, and South Carolina.