Three Tricks to Retaining Teachers

Have you ever noticed that the constant stream of articles about the teacher retention crisis in America’s schools never really ends?

Poke through Google and you’ll find bits on attrition in math and science, where candidates can easily move into the private sector and earn significantly more over a lifetime, and on the costs that attrition carries for schools and districts.  You can find reports drafted by national organizations like the Education Commission of the States and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

Ed Week and Edutopia are writing about teacher retention.  So is Cal State University and the Virginia Department of Education.

And in every case, the voice of practicing classroom teachers is missing!

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Sure, if you look hard enough, you can probably dig up a quote or two from classroom teachers in all of these sources—but only after hearing from authors, researchers and various other “experts in the field” who are seen as more knowledgeable on the factors driving people from our classrooms than us teacher-types.

So let me bring some reality to this conversation, built on nothing more than my 16 years of experience as a practitioner.

Teacher retention depends on three easy-to-address factors that no one seems to take very seriously:

Involve us in conversations about reform BEFORE cooking up new ideas: 

I’m always amazed at just how under-informed education’s decision-makers really are.  They sit in offices thousands of miles from real classrooms imagining teaching utopias that are not only impractical, they’re downright impossible to pull off!

They wax poetic about how important it is to meet the multiple intelligences of every child and to collect data that can be used to develop plans for remediation and enrichment.  They push for a greater focus on individualized instruction and on incorporating technology into the 21st Century classroom.  They stress that reading and math skills matter, insisting that we find ways to integrate across the entire curriculum.

And they want it all done at once!  To put it simply, these guys and gals are dreamers—-and they are creating teaching environments that are completely overwhelming to those of us responsible for implementing their visions.

The solution:  Don’t make ANY decisions without savvy classroom teachers at the table.  We can use our understandings of schools today to help to bridge the differences between what’s desirable and what’s doable.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I’m not arguing that all teachers should be involved in every decision before moving forward.  That would lead to instructional gridlock.  But as things currently stand, teachers are so far removed from important conversations that we are spitting out impractical policies every year—and impractical policies push teachers out of the classroom.

Give us opportunities to advance: 

Let’s be honest:  We don’t really want to retain EVERY teacher, do we?  I mean, is anyone really that upset when the building curmudgeon or the screaming banshee on the third grade hallway hang up their chalk?

The teachers we should care the most about are usually super motivated high-fliers in their fifth or sixth year who have a passion for students AND a passion for education.  They’re intelligent, thoughtful practitioners who leave students AND colleagues inspired.

And they’re flocking out of classrooms because they want to advance in their profession but they realize that the top rung on teaching’s career ladder was also the bottom rung!  There’s no such thing as a classroom teacher who has “been promoted” because we’ve done such a poor job creating hybrid roles for motivated teachers to fill.

Point in case:  Two of my best friends approached their principal a few years ago about a job-sharing idea that they’d had.  They wanted to split a class of students—one teaching language arts and social studies in the morning and the other teaching math and science in the afternoon.  During their free time, they wanted to serve as instructional resource teachers, supporting other educators in their buildings.

Great idea, isn’t it?  Most schools already have instructional resource positions that principals can allocate in almost any configuration that they’d like.  By splitting the position, the principal would have gained two motivated teachers with different skill sets and different spheres of influence within her building.  She would have also retained two phenomenal classroom teachers.

The answer was a short no.  “I just don’t know how that would look in action,” they were told.  Both left the classroom before the end of the school year.

The solution: Let’s start being inventive about teaching positions.

Why can’t teachers working in year-round schools serve as professional development providers during their track-out sessions?  Why can’t job-share positions be created that allow teachers to keep one foot in the classroom and one in the professional world beyond the classroom?  Why can’t part-time advisory positions be created for classroom teachers who aspire to something more but who hate the thought of leaving what they love the most:  Daily interactions with students?

A little creativity in district staffing departments could create the kinds of conditions necessary to hold on to the most motivated members of our profession who often leave the classroom looking for new opportunities.

Find us the best principals you can lay your hands on:

I won’t lie:  I want to be paid more for the work that I do.  I struggle to make ends meet for my family, and that drives me nuts.  Shouldn’t America be embarrassed by the fact that teachers have to work multiple part time jobs to support their own children?

But I’m also a realist:  There’s NO WAY that significant pay increases are possible for classroom teachers.  There’s just too many of us for across-the-board raises to happen without crippling district and state budgets.

And I also recognize that my gig has a ton of advantages that workers in other professional fields don’t get.  My pension gives me a measure of security after retiring that carries a value I can’t explain.  I’ve got months off every year, and I love the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children.

What I don’t understand, though, is why we do so little to invest in the principals leading our schools.  After all, principals make-or-break most buildings.  Survey after survey here in North Carolina reveal that school leaders play a greater role in teacher satisfaction ratings than any other factor—ranging from salaries to release time.

The solution:  Pony up some serious cash—both to attract motivating leaders to the principalship and to better prepare those individuals who are currently serving as school leaders.  We’ve got to move beyond the idea that teacher retention starts and ends with a focus on teachers simply because any effort to change the work life of 6 MILLION people is going to cost too much to make sense.

But investing in principals seems doable to me—and investing in principals will result in positive working conditions for classroom teachers.  Good principals allocate resources intelligently, maximizing educational impact while minimizing workload and burnout.  Good principals inspire talented teachers, resulting in motivated faculties willing to work together on behalf of students.  Good principals create systems and structures that organize the work of buildings.

Crazy isn’t it?  A classroom teacher arguing AGAINST increasing pay for teachers and FOR increasing pay for principals?  Maybe, but good teachers care more about working in schools with synergy than they do about making a heaping cheeseload of cash, and good principals are the key to creating that synergy.

So there you have it:  Three tricks to retaining teachers that are informed by nothing more than classroom experience.  And while I may not have the “professional qualifications” of some of the other talking heads wrestling with teacher retention, I teach, and that has to count for something.

Any of y’all have tricks you want to add to the list?

9 comments

  1. LPH

    Principals do influence teacher retention. My dissertation was titled “Beginning science teachers’ perceptions of administrator support.” The emotional support index (as measured by the summative index of 15 statements) had the highest Pearson’s product-moment correlation coefficient (.591, p < .001, N=145), with high perceptions of emotional support provided by the principal is associated with a teacher’s intent to stay. Keep up the great postings.

  2. Taylor Ross

    Thanks for such a re-affirming vocalization of my own thoughts. I couldn’t agree more about the fifth and sixth year teachers who are flocking because of the reasons you mentioned. I’m only in my fourth year at a high-needs school and I’m already feeling the wind sucked out of me! I love reading your insights and am always refreshed by your honesty. Thanks!

  3. Clix

    I liked this post and chose to include it in this week’s EduCarnival. If you would like to have it removed, please email me at uncomfortableadventures (at) yahoo (dot) com to let me know, and I will delete the link.
    You can submit an article to the next issue of EduCarnival v2 by using the handy-dandy carnival submission form. Past carnivals and future scheduled editions can be found on the blog carnival index page.
    I love getting to read posts from people I’m not familiar with, so it’d be awesome if you’d put up a quick note on your blog or website encouraging your readers to submit as well!

  4. ina

    bill01370,
    Your school sounds great. Do any of Bill Ferriter’s issues resonate with you? Do the solutions he proposed help you feel more motivated as an educator? What would you like to see changed in your school in particular?
    Thanks!

  5. Mason McDaniel

    Mr. Ferriter,
    Big fan of your work and this is no exception. Administrators today have to be financial planners, masters of multiple subjects, HR professionals, resource managers, human capital recruiters, etc. It is an amazing person that can do that job and still have the wherewithal to appreciate their staff and respect them. A thing of beauty is to to see a school environment where an administrator praises instead of razes. Having worked for both types of bosses I have been pushed by one to succeed and grow, and I have been pushed by the other to close my door and hope for the end of the day (not letting it hit me on the way out). There is a motivation for the former that makes one actually think you can spend thirty years in the profession, the latter you want to get out in thirty minutes. I think specifically to technology administrators have high hopes and dreams for integration of 21st century skills, but many lack the knowledge and background to understand how it should be used in a classroom effectively. Buying a new shiny piece of technology does not mean it is any more effective than an overhead. It really takes a savvy teacher to pick up a new technology and make it integral to classroom learning (or teacers that are very well trained). So many administrators jump from one technology to the next without truly understanding how the older one could enhance their program. Budgets get wasted, and equipment so quickly ends up in a closet. Principals have to seek out training in technology, or surround themselves with savvy teachers that can offer suggestions and counsel. Otherwise, the magic of 21st Century Learning is never realized. One may brag about having 50 interactive whiteboards in their school, but often there are ancient computers that won’t even support the software to run the boards. 5 boards that are used effectively are better than 50 any day.

  6. Susan

    As usual, you are right-on with your three suggestions. I feel like teachers have no voice and that decisions are imposed upon us with absolutely no input from us. As for principals, yes, they do make or break a school. We are currently experiencing that at my school where we have a new principal who is only concerend about whether or not our lesson plans are out and accessible and if they match the schedule we’ve posted on the board. As he walks through our rooms he has a disgusted look on his face which leaves us wondering if he hates everything we are doing. There’s never a comment about the good things we are doing with kids. Simply encouraging us as he walks around and praising kids and teachers would make us want to work even harder than we already do. That and the unrealistic expectations from the district have me thinking about leaving teaching and falling back on my finance degree. In the end I’m sure the lure of helping children solve problems will keep me in the classroom, but the thought of leaving is ever-present. By the way, the new principal has told me not to teach science or social studies. Where is that finance degree?

  7. Pat

    These were great suggestions. I can’t understand why the policy makers seem to make decisions without including the stake holders. And leadership will got a long way to teacher satisfaction! I worked for an awesome principal who treated us like professionals. I worked longer hours (with no extra pay) and harder for him because he constantly let me know how much he noticed and appreciated my hard work as well as giving me leave time when I needed it. When I first applied to the school, I saw teachers smiling and laughing in the hallways which told me that they were happy to be there. This spread through the student body also. It was a wonderful place to work and I was saddened when he moved to a different school district. Our school then turned around into a much different kind of place.

  8. Andrew B. Watt

    I think you’ve got some good points. I think the other thing that would do well it institute is sideways mobility. It seems like a lot of teachers settle down in one school and stay there for most of their careers. They get comfy dealing with one kind of students, and one set of colleagues. But that contentment is dangerous in the long-term.
    So maybe, after five or six years in one school, a teacher’s contract is automatically opened to a wide range of other schools, and that teacher HAS to go on a tour of the other schools. The other schools have a chance to lure them to a new district, the teacher has to see best practices at work in other schools.

  9. bill01370

    I teach in an independent school where all three of these things are happening in one form or another. Via our Curriculum Committee, Department meetings and Middle School Team meetings, teacher voices are included in most if not all decisions we make about evolving our practice and moving forward together. As the leader of the middle school team, my job description specifically includes a charge to keep abreast of developments in the field and share them with the team. And while I don’t know about my school in particular, I know that over the past 10 years in independent schools, the salaries of Heads of School have risen 30% as opposed to 5-6% for teachers.
    Our middle school is a dynamic, student-centered program with a high degree of pride and sense of ownership among both teachers and students – in short, the kind of environment I would wish for all schools.