Cracking the teacher recruitment and retention code

I teach in a school that is 99% poverty yet has virtually 0% turnover. See if you can figure out which of the following are responsible for so many skilled teachers choosing to teach at Jones Elementary, a school where virtually every child lives in poverty.

A. Hefty performance bonuses are tied to standardized test scores.

B. It’s a charter school, so it’s more innovative than public schools.

C. Salaries are high.

D. Teachers are respected by the principal, superintendent, and one other.

E. There is a culture of collaboration, innovation, and support.

Here’s the answer key:

Nope, not A. No performance bonuses here.

Nope, not B. We are innovative, but we’re a traditional public school.

Yep, C. Our superintendent values talent and knows compensation matters. Despite 40% of families in the district living in poverty, he has prioritized teacher salaries in the budget. Our district has the highest salaries in the state.

Yep, D. Teachers at my school know we are respected as professionals, which translates to a high degree of professional autonomy. Our opinion is sought on changes to school and district policies.

Yep, E. Our principal builds collaboration time into the school day in addition to our daily prep period. This collaboration is dynamic, purposeful, and teacher-driven.

Many of us have chosen to teach at our school for over a decade. It’s not because we couldn’t get hired in a heartbeat at a more affluent school where kids face fewer challenges. Five teachers at our school are National Board Certified and most have a Masters. One of our teachers won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science last year, and both our Principal and Assistant Principal have been named Principal of the Year for the entire state of Arkansas. A report by the Learning Policy Institute from February of this year points to the critical role principals play in recruitment and retention. 90% of the demand for new teachers stems from attrition, and that attrition is directly tied to the absence of factors identified in the report including, “School culture and collegial relationships, time for collaboration, and decision-making input.”

Barnett Berry, founder and CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality, identifies seven conditions necessary for teacher leadership: inquiry and risk taking, collaboration, supportive administration, hybrid roles, adequate resources, redesigned work structures, and a vision co-created with teachers.

The reasons the teachers I work with have chosen to stay at such a high-poverty school have everything to do with these abstract “working conditions” that aren’t as easy to quantify as criteria like class size, salary, or benefits. Deeply felt at a visceral level, these factors include respect, support, professional autonomy, opportunities to innovate, and the chance to collaborate with like-minded colleagues.

While these elements are harder to measure than the “bread and butter” issues that mattered to the Baby Boomers aging out of the teaching profession, they are particularly important for the younger teachers who will make or break the teaching profession in the decades to come. An article on the ten workplace issues most important to Gen Y job-seekers reveals the disconnect between traditional structures in the teaching profession and the kind of profession younger teachers want.

Here are three examples and how they play out at my school:

Job flexibility:

Hybrid roles have increased in visibility, thanks in part to organizations like CTQ, but they’re still incredibly rare. Part of why I have stayed at my school is that my principal has twice worked out a job share for me when I wanted to teach half-time. Initially I sought out that flexibility because I wanted to be home in the afternoons with my three-year old son. This year, now that he has started kindergarten, I use the afternoons to write and plan for school so I can devote my evenings to my family.

Many principals would have responded to my request with, “No way. We don’t have a policy in place for that.” Instead, my principal said, “Sure. We want to keep you here, and we’ll make it work.”

Professional and personal growth opportunities:

I talked with a teacher this week who has taught for 10 years. Every year for the past five years, she has asked for a mentor because she felt her teaching was stagnating. She always receives the same response: “But you’re so good already!” There is a persistent, troubling notion that mentoring is only for new teachers and struggling teachers.

Our school takes an individual approach to ongoing professional growth. Every year we set our own goals and make a “wish list” of teachers we’d like to observe—often in our own school, sometimes elsewhere in the district—who excel at the things we want to improve or refine in our own practice. Our principal makes it happen. It’s not rocket science, but having that kind of individualized approach to professional growth makes it possible for teachers who have taught for twenty years to keep getting better. Not by  flying in high-paid consultants to “deliver” PD, but by mapping the strengths in our school and district, then using those collective strengths to address our weaknesses. 

Advancement opportunities:

Many of us who have taught a long time, developed a reputation as good teachers, and received recognition for our teaching, have gotten baffling comments from friends, family, and colleagues. These comments take the form of, “You’re so good at teaching…you could make more money and enjoy more status doing something else.”

There is still a troubling assumption that if you want to have a systemic impact, or simply move up the salary scale by more than $500 a year, you have to leave the classroom. My principal supports teachers who want to become administrators, but she also makes sure those of us who plan to teach for a lifetime have opportunities to “advance.”

For me, that advancement included taking new ideas to scale. When I started a home library project with my class that showed a tremendous impact on reading development, fostering a love of books, and family literacy, my principal worked with me to scale it to every classroom in our school and two neighboring schools. She also found funds for me to be compensated for additional hours I invested in the project.

That kind of respect and support for innovation does more to keep me at my school than any external incentive, like a one-time bonus for high test scores. Daniel Pink makes the point in Drive that we tend to assume rewards and punishments are the best motivators for human behavior, when research tells us that other factors–like meaningful work that makes a lasting impact–are deeper drivers.

Alfie Kohn had a great quote in a column on the perpetual debates about incentives like merit pay: “So how should we reward teachers? We shouldn’t. They’re not pets. Rather, teachers should be paid well, freed from misguided mandates, treated with respect, and provided with the support they need to help their students become increasingly proficient and enthusiastic learners.”

That’s how my high-achieving, high poverty school cracked the teacher recruitment and retention code.


Justin’s post is part of CTQ’s May/June blogging roundtable on teacher shortages. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on this page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted, and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media.