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Recruit and Retain the Best Teachers by Tapping into Teacher Agency

By: Chris Summers on December 12th, 2018

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Recruit and Retain the Best Teachers by Tapping into Teacher Agency

Leadership  |  Teacher Retention

Are you a district or campus leader who struggles to find highly qualified or highly talented teachers? Do you find yourself losing out to other districts when it comes to attracting the best and brightest? Do you have a plan in place to recruit and retain those fantastic teachers who can not only impact student learning but help build the dynamic and innovative culture you desire in your district or on your campus?

The National Center for Education Statistics reports 8% of the nearly 3 million teachers in the U.S. leave the profession each year. Additionally, over 41 percent of all new teachers will leave the profession within 5 years. Most alarming, 45 percent of all teacher attrition occurs in just 25 percent of all public schools: high-poverty, high-minority, urban, and rural. While attrition and staff turnover are common among all industries, the rate is noticeably higher in education than in other highly socially respected professions such as lawyers, engineers, architects, and several medical-related fields. Moreover, repeated staff turnover and teacher attrition can negatively affect a wide range of educational practices, including professional development, class assignments and scheduling, curriculum planning, and collaboration. Combined, these factors create a significant amount of disorder to schoolwide operations and potentially reduce student learning across a campus or district.

We know that students learn best when they are in a school with highly skilled, highly competent, and highly motivated teachers. We also know that many of our most disadvantaged students attend schools where teacher turnover is rampant. The inability of high need campuses and districts to recruit and retain highly competent and highly motivated teachers is a primary reason why these educational institutions struggle to perform at high academic levels on a routine basis.

At Education Elements, we believe teacher retention is closely linked to practices for teacher recruitment and training. We’ve identified 8 Elements of Teacher Retention, and one of these elements is Teacher Agency. We believe there are some very specific actions district leaders can engage in that will increase the likelihood they retain their most talented educators. Creating systems that empower teachers to be innovators and decision makers is one such action, and your district can improve teacher retention through establishing Teacher Agency.

Teacher retention - 8 elements

Educational researcher Mark Priestley shares that social structures and professional relationships have a profound impact on teacher agency. Agency is not something teachers have but, instead, is something teachers do! Agency is about the quality of the interaction among teachers and a common purpose for that interaction. Agency is about interacting in the present with an eye for the future – a better future. Beista notes “[agency] both produces and transforms [school] structures in interactive response to the problems posed by historical situations.”

Teacher agency is about building the capacity of teachers to purposefully and constructively act in a way that allows them to grow professionally while also contributing to the growth and improvement of colleagues and the district as a whole. Agency is important because we need teachers who are critically engaged in the demanding work required of educating our students. Teachers who stay at tough schools do so because of a positive climate, supportive leadership, trust, colleagues, continual learning, and a culture of collaboration.

It turns out there are some very concrete actions leaders can take to improve the likelihood of developing teacher agency in their districts and on their campuses. Let’s discuss how leaders might implement structures that promote and value teacher agency.

  1. Restructure the Campus Improvement Plan (CIP) process. Most districts require their campuses to develop improvement plans each year. They tend to focus on initiative implementation and academic targets. Leaders can build teacher agency into the CIP process by ensuring the CIP team is made up of at least 50% practitioners (teachers, aides, instructional coaches). Giving practitioners responsibility roles within the CIP structure will also develop teacher agency. Furthermore, set goals and objectives around collaboration and adult learning behaviors to ensure a focus on system-problem solving and capacity building.
  2. Rethink organizational input structures and hierarchical responsibility structures. Most district organizational charts (including at the campus level) have a traditional top-down structure with clearly defined roles around supervisor and subordinates. Districts can become more nimble by having a flatter organizational arrangement where teachers are empowered to solve problems and offer solutions to academic and system needs in a district. The NEW School Rules: 6 Vital Practices for Thriving and Responsive Schools is a fantastic resource for leaders seeking innovative ways to transform the organizational structure and responsibilities for their campuses. We spent the past seven years studying the practices that have the biggest impact on how organizations function and how work gets done, which informs the 6 rules in the book. These rules can be used in any order based on your team needs or organizational priorities. Reach out to us and we’d be happy to talk with you about how the NSR tools might help your district.
  3. Develop learning communities focused around particular Problems of Practice (PoP). Most districts are utilizing the concepts around professional learning communities (PLCs). PLCs are not a new concept, but most PLCs tend to focus on student academic performance and social-emotional learning needs. These professional learning communities should also be used to address evolving district or campus needs as practitioners often are on the front line and understand the genesis and evolution of many challenges facing districts and campuses.
  4. Implement a systemic Professional Learning Plan in the district. Most districts (and campuses) offer professional development (PD) to teachers and leaders but rarely is PD implemented systemically and aligned to a master professional learning plan. If districts are implementing Personalized Learning for students, it is critical that the professional learning offerings for the adults in the organization be personalized as well. By doing so, the district is developing teacher agency through choice, voice, and critical engagement. Don’t forget to align any teacher induction program with the overall district plan as well since you will want to develop and coach your new teachers on how to build their own agency and ability to contribute to the organization.
  5. Implement a Teacher Leadership Academy. This academy model would support and develop teacher leaders who wish to remain in the classroom but serve their campus in leadership roles. The idea is to provide the necessary coaching and learning structures to allow teachers to move towards instructional leadership while building a broader scope of leadership resources to address district and campus needs.

For school districts and campuses to ensure they have the necessary highly qualified, highly talented, and highly engaged teachers to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of students, they will need to recruit and retain as many of those types of teachers as they can. Teacher Agency is one aspect of teacher retention that can have a long-lasting, deep impact on district culture, climate, and performance.

Be sure to read some of our other blog posts on retention, like 40 Ways to Celebrate Teachers and Impact Teacher Retention or How Clear Communication and Defined Career Pathways Can Boost Teacher Retention and continue to follow our blog for more ideas on teacher retention and personalized learning!

Invest in your development as a leader and join us at the Personalized Learning Summit 2019 to meet and collaborate with other innovative leaders from across the country, share perspectives and ideas, and learn from a range of workshops and tours of innovative companies.

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About Chris Summers

Chris Summers is an Associate Partner with Education Elements. Prior to coming to EE, he was the Director of Curriculum and chief academic officer for a South Texas school district. He has been in education for 23 years, including 5 years in central office, 12 years as a campus principal, and has taught at the elementary and secondary levels. His successful leadership led to him being selected for the Lexington Institute’s LELA Fellowship in 2015 and he was twice chosen to attend the Harvard Leadership Program: National Institute for Urban School Leaders and Improving Schools–The Art of Leadership. He was also selected as a 2013 HEB Excellence in Education State Semi-Finalist Elementary Principal. Chris has worked in urban as well as suburban/rural schools. His work to build a multi-year teacher induction program in West Oso ISD led to the district being one of twelve recognized in the 2016 Texas School Business “Bragging Rights 2016-2017” issue highlighting innovative practices in education. Most of his career has been spent working with low income or Title I campuses and communities. He has a real passion for students and families in this setting and is a champion for equity and excellence in education. He also has great interest in developing educators and empowering educational leaders to be effective instructional leaders for their campus.

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