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Why Teachers Stay: Building Inspiring, Responsive Leaders to Improve the Learning Experience for All

By: Drew Schantz on May 21st, 2024

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Why Teachers Stay: Building Inspiring, Responsive Leaders to Improve the Learning Experience for All

Teachers  |  School Districts  |  Teams & Culture  |  District Leadership  |  School Leadership

In one of our recent blogs, we noted that some teachers list “weak or uninspiring leadership” as a reason they are leaving their positions. Those who feel strongly that they are not supported by their school administration are at high risk of calling it quits. If we are relying on school leaders and building administrators to reverse this trend, we need to make sure we are equipping them with the skills they need to recognize, develop, motivate, and support teacher growth and development. For many district leaders, summer offers a perfect window to focus on aspects of their own growth and development. 

Even though the summer months are associated with emptier classrooms and slightly less pressing demands, Determining where to focus that type of personal and professional development can be daunting — “where might I begin?” 

Here are four recommendations for areas leaders can focus on developing their own practice to enhance the experience for teachers next school year, as well as in years to come:

1. Develop a Responsive Skillset 

Responsive leadership is about understanding and addressing the needs and concerns of teachers effectively. Leaders must be adept at active listening, showing empathy, and providing timely support. According to Cancio, Albrecht, and Johns (2013), principals who display emotional intelligence and effective communication skills foster a more positive school climate, contributing to higher job satisfaction and lower turnover rates among teachers. By being accessible and approachable, leaders can create a trusting environment where teachers feel valued and heard. This kind of leadership fosters a culture of collaboration and open communication, where issues are addressed promptly and constructively.

Furthermore, responsive leaders are proactive rather than reactive. Research by Tschannen-Moran (2014) highlights that leaders who effectively communicate their vision, provide support, and value teachers' contributions help create a sense of trust and respect, leading to increased teacher commitment and retention. Leaders who anticipate potential challenges and address them before they escalate are crucial. This includes recognizing early signs of teacher burnout and implementing preventative measures. Providing professional development opportunities tailored to individual needs, facilitating peer support groups, and ensuring a manageable workload are just a few strategies. By being attuned to the nuances of their school's dynamics, leaders can create a more supportive and responsive environment, ultimately leading to improved teacher satisfaction and student outcomes.

The New School Rules emphasizes the importance of agility, flexibility, and continuous learning in school leadership. Responsive leaders who adopt these principles can navigate the complexities of school systems more effectively. For example, embracing a culture of experimentation and iteration allows leaders to test new ideas and strategies for teacher support and development, learning from both successes and failures. Additionally, fostering a sense of ownership and accountability among staff aligns with Kim’s rule of "distributing leadership," which empowers teachers to take initiative and contribute to school-wide decisions. Integrating these practices can fuel a more dynamic and adaptive school culture that continuously evolves to meet the needs of teachers and students.

2. Engage in Reflective Feedback

Reflective feedback is essential for teacher growth and development. To achieve this, we can take a page from the Core Four of Personalizing Learning: Collaboration and Creativity, Flexible Path and Pace, Targeted Instruction, and Student Reflection and Goal Setting — our fundamental framework for creating more learner-centered environments. Personalized Learning Core Four Elements

Leaders who prioritize reflective feedback engage in meaningful dialogue with their teachers, focusing not just on performance but on the process of improvement. This approach encourages teachers to work collaboratively, share ideas, and develop innovative solutions — just as personalizing learning encourages students to do. Fostering a culture of continuous improvement and self-reflection can provide teachers a better understanding of their own practices and identify areas for growth, much like how students learn more about themselves through a personalized learning experience.

Moreover, reflective feedback should be a two-way street, aligning with the principles of student reflection and goal setting. Encouraging teachers to share their perspectives and insights can provide valuable information for leaders to improve their support strategies. This reciprocal process not only empowers teachers but also helps leaders refine their approaches to meet the evolving needs of their staff. Just as personalized learning pathways allow students to progress at their own pace towards mastery, reflective feedback allows teachers to set meaningful goals and receive targeted instruction to achieve those goals. By making reflective feedback a cornerstone of their leadership practice, school leaders can build a more resilient and motivated teaching workforce, ultimately enhancing the learning experience for students.


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3. Implement a Retention-Oriented Strategy

Developing a retention-oriented organizational strategy is crucial for creating a supportive and enriching work environment that motivates teachers to stay. Effective strategic planning involves setting clear goals, efficiently allocating resources, and implementing initiatives that address the specific needs of the organization.

Through our work with Canyons School District (CSD) in Utah, for example, several strategic plan initiatives and related success criteria were drafted to speak directly to staff development and motivation. These initiatives include providing support for physical, social, and psychological safety, ensuring that educators have access to effective, collaborative teams like Professional Learning Communities, and offering ongoing mentoring and coaching. By intentionally crafting these strategic initiatives, Canyons School District directly addresses key factors that influence teacher retention, such as professional growth opportunities, a positive and safe working environment, and a clear structure for support and development. This intentional approach not only helps retain high-quality teachers but also promotes a thriving educational community.

Here are some examples from their strategic plan:

Strategic Initiative

Success Criteria

CSD departments and committees will have a clear understanding of their purpose, reporting, organizational structure and support.

  • CSD departments and committees are mapped to align with strategic vision and Board goals.
  • CSD provides the necessary support for individuals to be successful in their roles.
  • CSD departments and committees have adequate tools and resources to do their jobs effectively.

CSD will provide support for the physical, social, and psychological safety of students and staff.

  • Students feel welcome, safe, and a sense of belonging to their school.
  • Teachers provide students with opportunities for connection through inclusive activities and relationship building.
  • Employees are adequately trained to model the skills necessary to provide a safe and supportive learning environment.
  • CSD provides opportunities for parents and employees to engage in discussions related to social, emotional, and mental health supports for students.

CSD will create opportunities for all educators to participate in effective, collaborative teams, such as Professional Learning Communities.

  • Educators participate in Professional Learning Communities that reflect their teaching discipline.
  • Data is used by Professional Learning Communities to evaluate student learning and inform instruction as it aligns with Utah’s and CSD’s standards and characteristics of Utah’s Portrait of a Graduate.

All educators have access to mentoring and coaching to meet their individual and professional goals.

  • All educators participate in ongoing coaching with mentors assigned as needed.
  • All educators set measurable goals and self-reflect to realize their professional potential.
  • Educators have opportunities to provide feedback to mentors, coaches, and administrators, and the Canyons Board of Education.
  • CSD demonstrates high levels of job satisfaction and teacher retention.


4. Engage in Frequent Data Collection and Use

Effective data collection is crucial for informed decision-making and continuous improvement in schools. Leaders who regularly survey teachers and students gather valuable data that helps assess the quality of the teaching and learning environment and identify areas for school growth and improvement. Tools like our 7Cs surveys accurately measure and target instructional improvements within a school or district. This instrument complements and enhances the reliability of teacher observations, providing each teacher with a detailed, actionable pathway for development. data measurement in k12

When principals and professional development leaders work with the results from our surveys, they can quickly gauge how to best support their entire staff. These evidence-based results allow for the determination of specific action steps to either improve or maintain a positive culture and climate in a classroom, grade level, or school overall. Teachers and leaders alike appreciate the clarity and direction provided by these surveys, as they facilitate a more responsive and dynamic educational environment that benefits both teachers and students. By leveraging data effectively, leaders can create a more supportive and effective educational environment.

Consistent data collection and analysis promotes a culture of accountability and continuous improvement. When schools systematically track and review performance metrics, they can identify trends, celebrate successes, and address challenges more effectively. This ongoing process ensures that initiatives are not only implemented but also evaluated for their impact, allowing for timely adjustments and refinements. By making data-driven decisions, school leaders can allocate resources more efficiently, prioritize professional development needs, and ultimately enhance both teacher and student outcomes. The integration of robust data collection practices into a school system’s implementation of teacher retention strategies underscores the commitment to creating an environment where every teacher and student can thrive.

As we enter the summer break, it's an opportune time for school leaders to focus on building inspiring and responsive leadership to improve the learning experience for all. By developing a responsive leadership skillset, providing reflective feedback, implementing retention-oriented organizational strategies, and utilizing effective data collection, school leaders can create a supportive and enriching environment for teachers. This focus on growth and development during the quieter summer months sets the stage for a more positive and productive school year ahead. Investing in the development of school leaders is a critical step towards creating a resilient and effective educational system, ensuring that teachers feel valued, supported, and motivated to deliver their best for students.
Responsive Leadership Services

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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