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?