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.


  • JonEckert

    Such a great reminder about what matters most

    As always, Justin, you remind us about what is most important in schools. Someday I have to visit you and your school to see what is happening there. Maybe we will have a lot more schools like yours when we start to focus on the things that matter for retention. Thanks for the reminders.



  • ReneeMoore

    So What’s Stopping Us?


    Working across the River in the Mississippi side of the Delta, I am thrilled to know that a school with demographics so similar to those around me has figured out what it takes not only to retain good teachers, but to create a truly high quality learning environment for students and teachers. 

    So what's stopping us from replicating this at every public school? Why do your local community and administrators have the political courage to implement and sustain these types of policies and practices, while others cling to approaches that produce continual failure and frustration?  I have my theories, but would love to hear from others. 

    What have been the results of these practices with teachers on student learning at your school? What are the reactions from the various segments of your community? 


    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Replicating What Works…

      "So what's stopping us from replicating this at every public school?"

      I love this question, Renee. I love how Justin unpacks that there are many factors that contribute to staff retention, autonomy and professional respect as the cultural norm at his school. Replicating these things isn't easy — but it sure seems like it would be mega worth it. I love that you call out there's a lot of "political courage" at work in this community. That type of courage seems hard to come by with high-accountability, high stakes policies in the mix, and yet this very courage is at the heart of how and why the staff is able to serve students and the community in meaningful ways.

      Raised in a rural CO community, I wonder if this type of courage is easier to replicate and scale in small(er) communities? I know so many stakeholders were involved in our public schools because they were the (only) "choice" and where everyone's kids went. Is it the large, top-down districts that make this hard to scale? Or places where charters and choice are crowding out our public schools? Are lots of rural communities doing what Justin's school is doing and we just don't hear about it? 

      Would love to know more about what others think about geography, size, district/school demographics, and the challenges (and celebrations) of stakeholder engagement in schools at different levels. 

      • ReneeMoore

        What Makes the Difference?

        Your thought about smaller, rural communities perhaps being better sites for generating the political and moral courage necessary to create the type of learning environment Justin describes got me thinking. Justin's school is in a smaller community. However, so am I, and we are no where near coming to this level of support for truly high quality teaching. Also, I know of schools in large urban areas that have settings similar to what Justin describes, but only within their school–not necessarily system wide. 

        From Justin's piece, I couldn't tell if his school was the only one in his district that functions this way. What has been the reaction from his administrator's peers at other sites? Will this work fall apart if his principal leaves?  What would make this model systemic rather than iconic? Looking back at Barnett's article about why we seem to fail to sustain support for teacher leadership and highly accomplished teaching. 

        • JustinMinkel

          Leadership and respect, systemic thinking + autonomy


          Renee and Jessica,

          The balance my district strikes is between coherence across the system and professional autonomy, or "standards, not standardization." Principals in my district, like the teachers, are trusted as professionals. At the same time, the schools tend to be like an archipelago, looking different on the surface but connected beneath. There is a strong degree of shared best practices across the schools: Gradual Release of Responsibility to meet the needs of ELL's and keep teachers from lecturing too long, CGI math that develops true conceptual understanding, and now a focus on building a love of reading with a shift toward actual books on the kids' levels rather than a lot of worksheets and one-size-fits-all textbooks.

          My district isn't perfect–I was troubled recently to look at the school zones and see that they one or two look like gerrymandered political districts, like an oddly shaped one that has a little jag to capture an affluent country club neighborhood where the students would otherwise to go to a school with a poorer and higher Latino population. But the stability of the leadership–my superintendent has been there for 35 years, my principal for 13–combined with systems thinking that balances autonomy with coherence is responsible for the strong stability in the teaching faculty across the district.

          Thanks for reading!


  • AnthonyColucci

    Great article!

    This is a great reminder to local policy makers that despite federal and state statutes they still control many important things.  I will be sharing many of these ideas at our school board meeting next week. 

  • JohnHolland

    The Power of the Leader(s)


    One thing I took away from your post is the power of the adminstration to make you want to work there. They do it through providing opportunity to grow and enough autonomy to help you and your colleagues find your agency. Kohn's perspective on reward is caustic to me. It misunderstands why teachers do what they do. Reward is the wrong perspective. It puts the emphasis on the completion of the action as opposed to the potential for the action. It is one of the ways that teaching, what I consider an action (in the sense of Hannah Arendt), is constantly being pushed down the hierarchy to work (what we do for tomorrow), and in some cases labor (what we do to survive).

    Here is a link to the basics of what I am talking about. Essentially, the more technical teaching gets the less it is an action in that it makes the performer (teacher) and the audience (the students) more human. You have really fostered that in your school and I think a lot of it has to do with your school leadership and a committed group of colleagues.

    • JustinMinkel


      John, I have thought a lot about Daniel Pink's thesis in Drive relative to intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards. Salary matters, of course, as do benefits, class size, and other tangibles. At the same time, we humans are driven so deeply by factors you allude to in "work" rather than "labor"–building something of lasting value through collaboration with our colleagues. In a way, it's the same notion at the heart of constructivist education. When students build something, they understand it more deeply and they value it more highly. (Example: Constructing their own skyscraper from straws, different from every other group's skyscraper, vs. completing a worksheet.) When teachers build our own professional realities–through shared leadership with principals, autonomy to make decisions about our own classrooms, collaboration through PLC's with colleagues–we understand and value the systems we have built.

      Thanks for the insights!

  • TriciaEbner

    Great questions!

    The questions posed so far are ones that resonate with me, too. What is keeping us as a society from implementing these kinds of strategies in our schools? How can we invite local school boards, state legislatures, and voters to consider these ideas and take a few moments to see how meaningful and powerful they are? 

    How can we use our voices in our own settings to make those around us aware of what attracts and keeps teachers in these schools? 

  • BrianCurtin

    Growth Opportunities

    Couldn't agree more with your sentiments, Justin.  As a new educator coordinator at our school, I have the awesome opportunity to work with some of our most passionate and energized new teachers.  I fee like every teacher enters the profession that way.  So how do we harness that energy for the long haul, not only to retain them, but to grow upon that energy?  It needs an outlet.  And as you say, growth opportunities is one of the best ways to channel that eagerness to learn, teach, and grow.  Without it, stagnation can take over, and along with it, potential pessimism, indifference, and burn-out.  Let's feed that early appetite with growth opportunities, and continue to build our teacher base exponentially!

  • KristaGalleberg

    This is exciting!

    As an aspiring educator, this is a very exciting post for me to read. I am hoping to work in a high-performing/high-poverty elementary school in California (I'm not sure in which region yet). The environment you describe in your school is exactly what I am looking for, and the dynamic learning/relationship-building that you describe is the reason I want to become a teacher. From personal experience and others' insights, I know that what you describe is not the working environment found in every high-poverty school. However, it is wonderful to know that this type of school exists, even on a small scale, and that my career aspirations are possible! Thank you.