Tag Archives: Teacher Retention

What I Learned About Retaining Teachers From Having Done It Badly as a New Principal

Photo via Flickr user jeffdjevdet

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

As schools across the nation get back into gear, top of mind for principals and leaders is how to keep the teachers they’ve hired. I can tell you now: free coffee in the workroom, t-shirts during teacher appreciation week, “carrot and stick” methods, or other gimmicks by themselves don’t keep teachers. Teachers stay when they experience genuine care and investment from their school leaders and managers. Gallup’s well-known research, which led to the creation of the Q12 survey to assess employee engagement, points directly to the impact of a strong manager. Their research reiterates the common idea that “employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” Similarly, teachers don’t leave schools, they leave principals and leaders who haven’t been able to engage them. I learned this the hard way.

At the start of my first year as a principal, I hired a team of twenty one. By the end of the school year, only seventeen remained. Of the seventeen, only seven continued on into the following school year. While some of the seventeen were let go, I knew that too many of them had quit.

I felt frustrated and exhausted. I remember taking those seven remaining teachers out for dinner and asking them: “Why did you stay?” Their responses became my first leadership lesson as a new manager: They said: “We were the ones you invested in,” “we were the ones you trusted and gave leadership to,” and “we were the ones who you showed that you cared [about personally].”

This was hard to hear but true: these were the teachers who I invested in more, trusted, and encouraged, especially when they were struggling. I was thankful for this feedback. Moving forward, I tried each year to create this feeling for my whole team and not just a select few.

Here are some of the key changes I made and the ones I suggest to leaders:

Know the individuals on your team

No matter how big your school is, you need to know the individuals on your team. Know their strengths, areas of growth, interests, and aspirations. Ask about their significant others, kids, and life outside of the school — take a personal interest in them. Leverage a situational leadership style to tailor your support of them. Use your head and your heart when working with them. If you hired them, hopefully you care enough to see them not just as the teacher who teaches in room 202 but as a whole person.

Coach and develop your team

Make sure they have a coach who is providing personalized development, even if it’s not you. Ensure this is happening on a consistent and regular basis, and regularly make time to check in with them yourself on how their coaching and support is going. This includes joining coaching sessions to offer input and push the quality further. Plan professional development that is tailored and differentiated, whether that includes choice in sessions or structured pathways such as teaching fellow programs. Create stretch opportunities for them to grow in areas they may not even recognize as strengths yet.

Ask questions and listen to them

Be genuinely curious about their opinions and feedback, even if you don’t use all of it. Create the space for them to share constructive ideas and thoughts about improvement. Let them know when you have used their feedback or ideas. Gallup’s research affirms that employees who feel like significant contributors to their organization and believe their “opinion counts” experience a higher level of satisfaction in their workplace. If I had not taken my seven returners to dinner, asked them for their honest feedback, and genuinely listened to it, I would have missed out on a vital leadership growth opportunity for myself.

Be patient with them

Understand that they will make mistakes, drop balls, miss deadlines, arrive late, call out sick last minute, etc. Use these moments as a learning opportunity to reset expectations and plan for the future with them as opposed to becoming annoyed, holding a grudge, or looking for their next mistake. Keep the bar high and provide direction, support, and scaffolds to help your teachers get there.

Empower them

Create opportunities for as many team members as possible to lead and shape aspects of the school. Create opportunities for your teachers to start and lead initiatives that allow them to bring other aspects of their personal life into the school. This spreads leadership and ownership of the school while also enriching it with diverse perspectives and points of view. I remember the day my principal asked me to lead my grade-level team even though there were more experienced teachers on it. He and I didn’t know then that he had sowed the seeds of school leadership by recognizing something in me.

Show your appreciation

You should be your teachers’ biggest fan. Celebrate your teachers’ growth and accomplishments. And just like in an interpersonal relationship, don’t wait for Valentine’s Day or birthdays to show appreciation. Take a page out of the 5 Love Languages and demonstrate your appreciation in a variety of ways, like by saying “it was great watching you in action with your kids today…” or by genuinely spending time with your teachers. I fondly remember chatting it up with my teachers as they headed home after school.

Become the kind of manager our teams need us to be — our kids and communities can’t afford a revolving door of teachers.

Want to Keep Great Teachers? Listen to What They Say.

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

Last Monday was the first day back for DC Public Schools (DCPS). Luckily, many DCPS students entered classrooms led by teachers rated “effective” or “highly effective.” In fact, the district retains 92 percent of these in-demand educators.

But what about the high-performing teachers who leave the district? There is a common misconception that a punitive evaluation system is the main issue driving out great DCPS teachers. Yet, when you actually ask teachers, this narrative doesn’t seem to tell the whole story.

DCPS surveys all teachers exiting the district to ask about why they left, where they went, and what would have made them stay. In a recent report, we took a closer look at these data and focused on high-performing teachers’ responses to better understand how to retain these teachers in particular.

Analyzing why great educators leave can be a touchy subject, so when we released the report, our approach was not appreciated by all:

Kaya and Dan are right in that, compared to other urban districts, DCPS does not have a problem retaining its high-performing teachers. We know that because of the district’s evaluation system, IMPACT, which meaningfully differentiates teachers’ performance:

But we still thought it important to review these findings. A rigorous evaluation system such as IMPACT makes the resulting data on what high-performing teachers want much more valuable than data from systems that struggle to identify outstanding teachers. By focusing on good and great teachers, our report aims to provide DCPS and other urban districts with strategies to intentionally retain these high performers.

Differentiating teacher retention by performance speaks to a larger research-backed theory: not all teacher churn is bad. Yes, in general teacher turnover is harmful to students, but when districts can replace teachers who leave with higher performing teachers, it is better for student achievement. DCPS is a shining example of this approach.

In case you missed our original report, here are the key themes we found in our analysis:

These findings give DCPS and other similar urban school districts data to consider when making changes to retain their best teachers. They could give experienced, high-performing teachers more options for extended leave and part-time employment. They could address how school leaders show encouragement and recognition to high performers or think about systems for behavioral and instructional support. On the flip side, trying to retain potential career changers might not be a promising strategy since most of them say there was nothing the district could have done to change their mind.

Although DCPS already retains a large majority of its effective and highly effective teachers, we hope that our report will help the district continue to do so and potentially influence other urban districts that are considering retention strategies.

How Can DC Public Schools Keep Its Best Teachers? Give Them Encouragement, Flexibility, and a Chance to Lead.

It’s National Teacher Appreciation Week! Time to celebrate and thank teachers across the country. Weeks like this are important, but they are not enough to keep our best teachers in the profession. Retaining great teachers also requires targeted efforts by school districts to make teachers feel supported and engaged. In a new Bellwether analysis, we looked at teacher exit survey data from DC Public Schools (DCPS) to better understand why their best educators leave the district and how to retain them. cover of new Bellwether analysis, "Retaining High Performers: Insights from DC Public Schools’ Teacher Exit Survey"

It turns out, commonly promoted retention strategies such as better pay, more classroom resources, or reforming teacher evaluation aren’t the most promising ways to address the turnover of DCPS’ high-performing teachers. Here are three areas to focus on instead:

  • Work-life balance: For high-performers in DCPS, work-life balance was the top job-related factor in leaving DCPS. But directing all efforts towards decreasing teacher workload might not be the most effective solution. Instead, get creative with scheduling. High performers who left for better work-life balance said more schedule flexibility, especially part-time and extended leave options to spend time with family, would have made them stay.
  • Recognition from school leadership: Of the high-performing teachers who said DCPS could have retained them, 45 percent said more encouragement or support from school leadership would have made the difference. In fact, one in three high-performing teachers who left due to school leadership said they would have liked more recognition and encouragement.
  • Opportunities for teacher leadership: After work-life balance and school leadership, the most common reason highly effective teachers left DCPS was to pursue a leadership opportunity elsewhere. Notably, teachers of color reported more leadership and growth opportunities as the top effort that would have kept them in the district. While most teachers continued working in a traditional public school after leaving DCPS, high-performing teachers who left for a leadership opportunity were more likely to switch to a charter school.

The recent turmoil surrounding DCPS makes retaining teachers as crucial as ever. But the district needs to be strategic in targeting its most effective teachers. And these lessons on teacher retention can also indicate strategies for other urban districts.

Check out the full analysis here.

Alexander Brand was an intern at Bellwether in the spring of 2018.

Two Graphs on Teacher Turnover Rates

I have a new piece up at The 74 this morning arguing that, contrary to popular perception within the education field, we do not have a generic teacher turnover crisis. Why do I say that? Two graphs help illustrate my point.

First, consider this graph from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It shows job openings rates by industry from 2002 to 2017. I’ve added a red arrow pointing to the line for state local government employees who work in education (this group is predominantly public school teachers). As the graph shows, public education has consistently lower job openings rates than all other industries in our economy.

As I write in my piece today, “public schools have much lower rates of job openings, hire rates, quit rates, and voluntary and involuntary separations than every industry except the federal government. Across all these measures, public schools have employee mobility rates that are roughly half the national averages.”

Instead of having some sort of generic turnover problem that applies to all teachers nationally, we actually have problems that are unique to certain schools, districts, and subject areas. To illustrate this point, take a look at the graph below from the annual “Facts and Figures” report from BEST NC. It maps teacher turnover rates by district in North Carolina. Overall, the state has a teacher turnover rate that’s lower than the national average. But some districts have turnover rates about half of the state average, while others are twice as high as the average.

For more, go read the full piece in The 74 for my thoughts on what this means for the education field.

Looking at Leadership to Combat Teacher Turnover and Sustain School Improvement

This is the third in a series of blog posts and resources to offer lessons and reflections for school leaders, district officials, and education policymakers using data and stories from the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. The series is supported by a grant from the McKnight Foundation.

Photo by Eric E. Castro via Flickr

In recent blog posts, I’ve been looking at the impact of teacher turnover on school improvement efforts and ways schools, states, and districts can address this challenge. But what about turnover in leaders, such as principals, district leaders, and superintendents? Leaders can have a huge impact on the culture, priorities, and strategies of their schools and districts. Recent studies have found that principals had a significant effect on teachers’ overall job satisfaction, and that the quality of administrative support could strongly influence teachers’ decisions to leave or stay. Given this reality, efforts to address teacher turnover should not overlook leaders.

Despite the demonstrated importance of strong, stable leadership, leaders in urban schools and districts continue to turn over at high rates. Leadership turnover can be caused by some of the same factors as teacher turnover, such as retirement, performance issues, or competitive offers elsewhere. A single change in leadership can reverberate through a school or district, for better or worse.

Principals in the Pathway Schools Initiative were fairly stable over the course of the Initiative. Of seven schools participating in the Initiative, three retained the same principal throughout all five years of the initiative, and two experienced only one change in principal leadership. This is unusual for high-poverty, urban schools, where principals turn over even faster than teachers. Nationally, 22 percent of public school principals and 27 percent of principals in high-poverty public schools leave annually. Two schools in the initiative, however, experienced more frequent leadership transitions — including one elementary school that had a new principal almost every year of the initiative.

Even when principals stayed the same, changes in district leadership had an impact on schools. All three of the traditional school districts in the Initiative changed superintendents and reorganized district leadership at least once. This is not surprising based on national trends: The average urban superintendent lasts barely three years, and the role of an urban superintendent is increasingly high pressure and politicized. These people were key liaisons between the Initiative partners, schools, and districts, and every time a district leader changed, it took time for their successors to build working relationships and learn about the Initiative.

Churn in district leadership is also frequently accompanied by changes in district strategies, and teachers and principals in Pathway Schools reported to SRI International evaluators that this sometimes hindered progress at the schools. Especially in the larger districts involved in the Initiative, Pathway Schools had to negotiate for the flexibility to pursue their goals differently from what other elementary schools in their districts were doing. With changes in leadership and accompanying changes in district strategies, this process had to be repeated, creating potential uncertainty and mixed messages for principals and teachers.

A change is leadership isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a district or a school — like teachers, leaders change for all kinds of reasons. Still, districts should take every possible step to retain high-performing and high-potential leaders where they can, and to simultaneously plan for succession and create a pipeline of new leaders from within their staff. Potential solutions to consider include: building a complete district framework for principal talent management, instituting school leader residencies to create effective new leaders, and facilitating smooth transitions with extra support for new leaders. Schools and students shouldn’t start from scratch when leadership changes occur.