How Clear Communication and Defined Career Pathways Can Boost Teacher Retention
Teachers love their jobs.
That statement may strike you as untrue, simplistic, or ill-informed, given the current state of the teaching profession, in which many teachers will leave the classroom in the first five years, and teacher retention is a crisis on the horizon for schools, districts, and state boards of education. I stand by it, though. In my fifteen years in education, working in and with schools and teachers, I have had many conversations with teachers about their job satisfaction. On balance, teachers I’ve encountered love their students. They talk about “their” kids with pride, concern, and (sometimes) exasperation. They seek professional development to improve their abilities to reach students, and they sacrifice their personal time (and often money) to ensure their students get what they need to succeed in school.
Many are frustrated by aspects of their jobs, but the actual experience and craft of teaching and the relationships with their students are usually the reason they stay in the profession. For many teachers, though, this is not enough to keep them in the classroom for the long term. I’ve heard teachers express frustration with several aspects of their role, and the stories I have heard align well with the research on how teachers are feeling.
I have heard stories from teachers who thirst for professional growth, but do not want to leave the classroom. I’ve heard from teachers who are frustrated by their fungibility within a school–feeling like all teachers are treated the same, and their unique strengths and contributions are not recognized. I’ve heard from teachers that administrators do not spend enough time in classrooms to understand the work they are doing, and that decisions that impact their daily lives and workloads are made by administrators who are disconnected from the work of teachers.
In a recent survey of over 1,000 teachers*, teachers reported that they are seeking more opportunities to lead, but stay in the classroom. Many teachers reported feeling pressure to move into administration for career advancement. Fewer than half of the respondents in this survey felt supported by administrators to take on leadership roles, with many seeing the only path forward as one that leads them out of the classroom.
At Education Elements, we work with teachers to help them shift their classrooms to be more student-centered, to create the conditions under which students can understand and own their learning, and in which student voice is valued. Often, we are working with teachers to create the conditions in their classrooms that the teachers wish existed in the schools and districts that surround those classrooms. One of the ways we assist teachers is to help them frame the experience they want to create and break it down into components that will guide the path to a more student-centered classroom. We have done the same for school leaders, with our 8 Elements of Teacher Retention.
Administrators and district leaders are well aware of the looming teacher shortage, and few would voluntarily count themselves among those who are limiting career pathways or not communicating effectively with teachers. They are educators, too, and, as such, are inclined to want to be a part of creating the conditions in which teachers can grow, develop, and understand and own their careers. The question is, how?
There is an opportunity for schools and districts to develop clear pathways for professional growth for teachers. The majority of respondents in the teacher survey expressed interest in serving as mentor teachers, instructional coaches, lead teachers, and other hybrid positions that would allow them to stay in the classroom, practicing their craft. Doing so enables teachers to use their experience to increase capacity by training and mentoring new teachers, or to help the leadership make more informed strategic decisions. Reconsidering the roles within a school or a district to allow for more hybrid positions would address teachers’ concern that the only pathway to professional growth is to move into a strictly administrative role.
Hybrid positions within a school could also help tackle another challenge highlighted in the survey. The hectic pace of the school day makes it difficult for administrators to communicate clearly and effectively. Consequently, most teachers reported feeling that their perspective is not represented in policy decisions at the school or district level. Often, communication between leadership and teachers is a one-way street, with decisions communicated after they are made, sometimes without explanation of the rationale, specific goals, and available support. The opportunity is for schools and districts to incorporate teacher voice in decisions throughout the process, by building in a more consistent feedback loop in regular meetings, and in individual formative check-ins.
Teacher attrition is a complicated problem, and there is only so much any one initiative can do to solve it. However, if school and district leaders can shift their approach to ensuring professional growth, and build a consistent, clear communicative process that incorporates teacher voice, these internal shifts could be the deciding factors for many teachers weighing their options.
Educators For Excellence developed a survey that was administered by Gotham Research Group. The survey was conducted online between April 14-May 6 2018, and 1,000 teachers across the country responded to the survey.
Check out the 8 Design Elements of Teacher Retention, and follow along as we continue the series this fall.
About Megan Campion
Megan Campion is an Associate Partner on the Design and Implementation Team. Megan came to Education Elements with extensive experience working in schools as a teacher and administrator, and with schools as a program manager and consultant. Megan began her teaching career as a kindergarten teacher at an independent school in McLean, Virginia. She transitioned into teaching middle school history in her second year of teaching, and spent her time as a teacher creating student-centered, inquiry-based learning experiences for students. Megan’s career in education has been centered around the question of what is effective, scalable, and measurable in education, and supporting the development and engagement of all stakeholders in a school community.