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Retaining Teachers Requires a Belonging Strategy

By: Drew Schantz on March 26th, 2024

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Retaining Teachers Requires a Belonging Strategy

School Districts  |  Teacher Retention  |  Teams & Culture  |  District Leadership  |  school climate

Post-pandemic data shows that teachers are leaving the profession in higher numbers than they were before the pandemic and for reasons other than retirement or inadequate performance. These high turnover rates have many impacts on the school community, not the least of which is a detrimental effect on student growth and achievement. Why are teachers quitting, and what can be done to stop this troubling trend? 

Aside from compensation, teachers say they are leaving their positions due to frustration and even exhaustion from managing unreasonable expectations while feeling overworked and undervalued. Some cite weak or uninspiring leadership as a factor while others point to political pressures interfering with how they do their jobs and serve their students. This level of dissatisfaction is contributing to the unhealthy state of the teaching profession overall.

And what does a school lose when it loses a teacher? More than creating a spot to fill and added work for those who remain, the loss of a teacher means a school community loses: 

  • Experience - with students and classroom management
  • Gained knowledge - curriculum and organizational
  • Relationships - with peers, specialists, administrators, parents/families
  • Mentoring - sharing gained knowledge with new teachers

While teacher attrition is always going to exist at some level, there are purposeful strategies we can employ to increase the likelihood of retaining our top talent. In our years of working with schools and districts across the country to improve employee engagement, we have identified that leaders who know their teachers genuinely, engage with them meaningfully, and celebrate them authentically build stronger teaching communities. These three actions can help leaders create the conditions for teachers to feel heard, valued, and supported – to feel they belong where they are. 

To purposefully bolster belonging, leaders should also consider the following factors:

  • Agency - Teachers feel autonomous, empowered and included in decision-making.
  • Development - Leadership provides meaningful feedback, recognition and opportunities for growth.
  • Equity - Work environments are equitable, inclusive and representative.
  • Wellness - The district prioritizes social, emotional and physical well-being.

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Ponder these four elements for building a sense of belonging, then look again at the reasons mentioned earlier for why teachers are leaving: 

  • managing unreasonable expectations [Agency, Equity]
  • feeling overworked and undervalued [Wellness]
  • uninspiring leadership [Agency, Development, actually all four!]
  • political pressures interfering with how they do their jobs/serve their students [Agency]

Districts that focus on these elements can make considerable improvements in areas that are troubling teachers, which will in turn strengthen relationships with teachers. Let’s look at some ideas for building or strengthening teacher agency and development, which in turn will improve equity and teacher wellness overall.

Get input and source ideas

One way for district leaders to build teachers’ sense of belonging through improved teacher agency is to ask them questions, listen to the answers, and consider how to purposefully incorporate their feedback into actionable solutions. Get their input about what’s working well, where they need support, and what suggestions they have for improvements. Once some issues or opportunities are identified, leaders should involve teachers in drafting ideas for possible solutions or next steps. Teachers are asked frequently about what isn’t working, but they are asked less often for their thoughts about what might be done differently, even though they might have the best-info insights into workable solutions for their classroom, grade level, and/or school community. 

Provide Agency Over Professional Development

Another way for leaders to encourage and support educators is to offer them more opportunities to exercise agency over their professional development. Making a shift from general, compliance-based professional development to offerings that are highly personalized and supportive of teachers’ individual growth and career goals demonstrates a district’s commitment to–and recognition of–a critical asset: its teachers. Not only can this boost morale and incentivise continuous professional learning, it encourages long-term teacher commitment to the school community and district. 

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Embrace Continuous Learning

Continuous professional learning for all teachers, regardless of the level of experience, is powerful for everyone. The teacher, the students, the school community, and the district as a whole benefit. Applying ideas from Adam Grant’s recent book, Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things, here’s a brief outline of ways for district leaders to guide teachers to harness the power of continuous learning at all levels:

  • Start Before You Feel Ready: Don’t wait for the perfect moment to embark on new ways of doing things. Encourage teachers to leap, even if it feels premature. But more importantly, let them know you’re there to support them and that small, calculated risks are okay to take. At Education Elements, we like to call these types of ideas “safe enough to try” — from one of our other favorite books, The New School Rules.    
  • Model a Growth Mindset: View challenges and setbacks not as failures, but as opportunities to grow and learn. An organization that learns together grows together. Making the shift in your language as a leader from words like “never” to “not yet,” can be a small, but powerful way to show that you value progress over perfection. 
  • Set 'Learning' Goals, Not Just 'Performance' Goals: Encourage teachers to set goals that emphasize skill development and learning, rather than just performance metrics. It’s important to measure what matters — and if your organization values learning, that should be measured just like performance. 
  • Embrace a Spiral Approach to Progress: Understand that progress is often non-linear. Sometimes you need to revisit and revise your strategies. Iteration is a critical component to improvement. Encourage your team to resist defaulting to completely tossing out an idea and moving on to the next one if it’s not working right away — simple tweaks might be all you need. 

Ultimately, teachers spend a great deal of time, both in and out of the classroom, doing their jobs, collaborating with colleagues, and continuously learning. To remain motivated, they need to feel and to know their value as strands in the fabric of the school community. Research conducted a year ago looked at both why teachers choose to leave a district and why they stay. The data about why teachers stay points to the importance of collegial engagement. “Community and colleagues also play a key role in teacher retention. Among those citing these two factors as reasons for staying, 87 percent say their coworkers show genuine concern for one another, 83 percent say their coworkers help one another to achieve their work goals, 85 percent say they fit in with the culture of the organization, and 84 percent say they can be themselves at work.” The more teachers feel valued for what they do and supported in achieving their personal growth goals, the more they will assimilate into their school community. They will reach out and support each other, further building a sense of belonging for all.


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About Drew Schantz

Drew Schantz is an Associate Partner at Education Elements. He is passionate about solving complex problems through an entrepreneurial lens and working with others to develop innovative, student-centered, and equity-driven practices that improve outcomes for all students. Drew began his career in Washington, D.C. where he worked with several organizations, including Family, Career and Community Leaders of America; the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; and DC Public Schools. Immediately prior to joining Education Elements, Drew served as founder and executive director of VentureSchool — a Detroit-based organization dedicated to creating groundbreaking learning opportunities to prepare all students to become capable, curious, and courageous entrepreneurs. Through his past experiences, Drew has developed expertise around educational program creation and management, design thinking, communications strategy development, and group facilitation and training. Throughout his time at Education Elements, he has supported districts from New York to Hawai‘i and dozens of places in between, primarily around competency-based education implementation, strategic planning, and responsive data culture development. Drew holds a B.A. in political science from the University of Michigan and an M.S.Ed. from the University of Pennsylvania in Education Entrepreneurship. He is a Michigan native and currently lives in San Francisco with his Shiba Inu, Kenji.

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