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TEACHER RETENTION
for District and School Districts

How to recruit and retain teachers during this COVID-19 reality

TEACHER RETENTION GUIDE 

Teacher retention is one of the most challenging issues that face school districts. Today with the COVID-19 new reality, the challenge of teacher retention is getting an extra layer of complexity.

This guide will shed the light on the most challenging questions related to teacher recruitment and retention, will help you understand how to design more equitable recruitment and retention practices and systems, and figure out the initial steps that you can take to improve your district's processes.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

Click on any chapter to scroll directly to it.

- 1 -

Why is focusing on teacher retention critical?

WHY/HOW IS RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION CRITICAL TO THE CORE MISSION OF SCHOOLS, NOW MORE THAN EVER?

While enrollment in K-12 public schools is steadily increasing, enrollment in teacher preparation programs is falling dramatically (NCES, 2019). And now, in the wake of a global pandemic, surveys suggest that this shortage will grow even wider: 20% of teachers reported in a recent USA Today poll that they are not going to return to the classroom next year following the COVID-19 closures owing to early retirement, burnout, and public health concerns (source).

Such a shortage of teachers has major consequences for student outcomes. 

  • Teacher quality is the single most important resource that contributes to student achievement (Darling-Hammond, 2013). In a healthy workforce, those who are most effective or productive stay and those who are least effective leave. However, in K-12 schools, TNTP reports that effective teachers are leaving the profession just as frequently as ineffective teachers, requiring school districts to hire new teachers with less experience and to fill vacant positions with underqualified teachers. 

  • There are more likely to be inexperienced or low-performing teachers at schools with high rates of poverty, exacerbating educational inequities in our school system. Further, teachers are more likely to experience burnout in these hard-to-staff schools earlier than those in suburban schools because of lack training and preparation not only of subject matter content, but also training on equity and inclusion, culturally relevant education, and social-emotional learning, among others. 

  • Teachers of color are underrepresented in the teaching profession – more than 80% of teachers are white educating a student body where more than 50% of students are students of color – despite the fact that research shows that teachers of color are more effective at engaging students of similar backgrounds to increase student achievement, to use culturally relevant instructional methods, and counter negative stereotypes for all students. Teachers of color are also more likely to leave the profession early because of systemic and other retention challenges previously stated. Many states have worked to create a pipeline for teachers of color, however, overall these have been minimally effective or inequitable by design. This suggests that focusing on the pipeline alone is not enough; schools and districts must also focus on retaining teachers of color once they’ve started teaching.

Teacher retention is one of the most complex and challenging issues facing school districts today. Teacher attrition creates ripple effects across a school district. And, while thousands of hours and dollars have been invested in solving this problem, there is not a single or clear solution. External factors such as federal and state funding, changes in the cost of living, local employment opportunities, and the COVID-19 pandemic have had a dramatic impact on teacher retention. The challenge for district leaders is to design innovative solutions to address these external challenges. 

WHAT IS THE IMPACT OF STAFF TURNOVER?

Teacher turnover affects your district in a number of ways. Most importantly, high teacher turnover can cause lower levels of academic achievement among your students. Experienced teachers are, on average, more effective than brand new teachers in terms of student achievement, attendance, and student engagement (Darling-Hammond, 2000). Not only that, but teachers get better over time and are able to better meet the needs of their students. Losing a teacher early in his or her career will mean that you do not get to fully realize the potential learning of your educators. Especially because we lose as many effective teachers as ineffective teachers.

There is also a significant financial cost to teacher turnover. The Learning Policy Institute found that recruiting and replacing teachers costs urban districts $20,000 per teacher and rural districts roughly $10,000 per teacher. Nationally, this problem costs schools $8 billion per year. And two-thirds of teachers leaving the classroom each year are leaving for reasons other than retirement - this translates to $180,000 to $360,000 per year that districts are spending on teacher attrition that could be used in other ways, if teacher retention were improved. 

WHY DO TEACHERS STAY AT THEIR JOB? WHY DO TEACHERS LEAVE THEIR JOB?

School principals play an important role in whether teachers thrive and remain in their jobs or leave. In schools where the principal provides support, and allows for teacher autonomy, and clearly communicates with teachers, teachers are then less likely to leave the profession. Culture, with an emphasis on creating a culture of inclusion and belonging, and collegiality within a school are paramount in teacher satisfaction. 

Opportunities for growth and extended influence are also important to teachers’ decision to stay. Teachers want opportunities to improve their practice and take on additional responsibilities. This might include teacher leadership and instructional coaching opportunities or opportunities to attend or share at conferences.

Teachers want to feel celebrated and supported. Teachers feel unappreciated and undervalued in today’s climate so taking opportunities to elevate and celebrate successes in the community is one way to promote teacher retention.

While there is a growing number of educators of color in teacher preparation programs, teachers of color leave the profession at a higher rate than white teachers (19% v. 15% annually) meaning that there is a growing shortage of educators of color. Educators of color are often one of the only people of color in their school. Their unique experiences in school are often riddled with frustration, fatigue, persistent negative interactions, and feelings of isolation. In 2015, Minnesota surveyed teachers of color to understand the obstacles that existed. They found the main reasons teachers of color left were:

  • Dissatisfaction with administration;
  • Dissatisfaction with test-based accountability systems;
  • Lack of mentoring and support;
  • Racial isolation; and
  • Lack of autonomy and influence.

Interviews with educators of color also show that they face persistent racial discrimination and feel that their expertise is not valued except for in the case of discipline. As a result, they often get classrooms filled with students who have many academic and disciplinary needs and are often the resource for disciplinary needs school wide. These anecdotes of discrimination have been supported by research. A Michigan State University study found that more than 2.5 times as many educators of color received a low evaluation rating from their principal than white educators. This trend was even more pronounced when a white administrator was conducting the evaluation. 

One teacher of color in a study of Minnesotan teachers captured the essence of this by writing, “You’re held under a different standard, you’re under a ton of scrutiny and you are made to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing and your education is subpar.” These inequities in support, evaluation, and assignment between groups arises from both systemic bias and individual implicit bias, which over time can compound in a multitude of ways including lower teacher salary, and fewer advancement opportunities.  

- 2 -

How can districts approach improving teacher retention?

HOW CAN DISTRICTS DEVELOP A SENSE OF BELONGING IN CURRENT AND PROSPECTIVE EMPLOYEES?

According to Harvard’s Center for Talent Innovation, high belonging - mattering, identification, and social connection - is linked to 56% increase in job performance and a 50% decrease in turnover risk. Creating a sense of belonging - one which is not a facade of conformity (Hewlin, 2003, 2009), where authentic self-expression (i.e. expression related to one’s cultural background) is not constrained -- is no small feat. Doing so may require a closer look at the overall organizational culture (Roberts, Cha, Hewlin, and Settles, 2009). In fact, a common underlying barrier is a school or district culture that honors and perpetuates a dominant culture rather than making space for everyone to feel included or having their identity valued and understood. To help understand this employee experience, districts can look across the various phases of a teacher’s lifecycle to consider the perceived level of belonging.

It is important that a sense of belonging is prioritized in every phase of teacher engagement, from initial attraction to long-term retention. Attracting and recruiting a more diverse and talented workforce won’t transform your organization if there aren’t effective onboarding, development and promotional pathways in place. Below, we provide an overview of and key considerations for establishing this line of belonging

  • Attract (Brand, Message, Market) - Before a position is posted or available, your school or district’s branding, messaging and marketing is the first opportunity to visualize a sense of belonging. It is essential to clarify who you are and what you offer, and tailoring this messaging toward desired candidate profiles. In the Attract Phase, leaders can consider how recruitment campaigns target desired demographics, ensure equitable access, and clearly communicate your district’s unique value proposition. To develop a deep pool of candidates, the attract phase should help candidates envision how your organization will align with candidate needs and values. That said, districts must also clearly define their mission: their why -- and be able to connect this mission to the need for specific candidates (e.g. teachers of color). 
  • Recruit (Engage, Interview, Hire) - Recruitment is often the first point of two-way communication between district and teacher candidates, and there is a lot to be gained or lost in this transaction. According to LinkedIn, 83 percent of job-seekers report that a negative recruitment experience can change their mind about a role or organization they once liked. In this phase, leaders can focus on developing structured and equitable evaluation practices, develop interview experiences that create a sense of connection and community, and prioritize the assessment of the most important qualities upon hire. 
  • Immerse (Onboard, Inboard, Connect)- Research shows that the degree to which leaders make new hires feel welcomed and prepared, the faster they will be able to contribute, and more likely they will be to stay. In the Immerse Phase, leaders should focus on getting new hires adjusted and comfortable in their new positions by clearly outlining expectations, creating opportunities for mentorship and relationship-building, and collecting data on the transition of new hires. 
  • Develop (Manage, Learn, Grow) - Research suggests that two of the top factors related to a teacher’s decision to remain in a given school include school leadership support and opportunities for professional collaboration. To create a sense of belonging in this phase, your organization should focus on providing flexible and collaborative work settings that allow for a range of working styles to thrive, provide multiple professional development pathways guided by teacher readiness and input, and increase collaborative working and learning opportunities among staff members. 
  • Empower (Recognize, Promote, Retain) - Only 36 percent of teachers believe that American society values the teaching profession - an alarming rate considering 79 percent of people who leave their jobs cite ‘lack of appreciation’ as the top reason for leaving. To increase and incentivize the continued growth and retention of your employees, school and district leaders should consistently and equitably celebrate team members who embody organizational values, provide clear and equitable pathways for leadership roles within and beyond the classroom, and provide opportunities for teacher voice in decision making.

We recommend that you consider opportunities to collect teacher voice (especially from teachers of color, if increasing teachers of color is one of your recruitment goals). And, ask how strategies within each phase are being/have been perceived. This feedback provides an opportunity to connect and empathize, and allow your organization to pivot based on learnings.

HOW MIGHT WE DESIGN MORE EFFECTIVE SYSTEMS FOR TEACHER RETENTION?

 

8 Design Elements of Teacher Retention, by Education Elements

While the five phases are a pathway that every employee travels, each can be tailored based on a common set of design variables. Our 8 Design Elements of Teacher Retention exist across every phase, and can be used to assess strengths and gaps, and act as the basis for solutions-based design. For example, elements such as Career Pathways, Energized by Purpose, and Teacher Agency can bring a school or district employee value proposition and branding to life, as seen in the example below:

preview of the office of human resources webiste at Atlanta Public Schools

 

Identifying these design elements allows for common variables and values to be promoted along every stage of an employee lifecycle. And while one element alone will not address systemic challenges and needs, when implemented and practiced together, districts and school organizations are better positioned to create a sense of employee belonging, value and loyalty.

- 3 -

How can districts design more equitable recruitment and retention practices and systems?

WHY SHOULD SCHOOL DISTRICTS INCORPORATE DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION GOALS WITHIN TEACHER RETENTION?

 

  • Creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace is critical and a must do for all districts across the country. If we want students to embrace diversity, we must model it, we must show them how through their school experience. 
  • A more diverse team is a more effective team. A range of life experience, points of view and abilities adds depth in knowledge and skill, but more importantly creates a place where all people feel welcome and cared for. 
  • School districts must start by making an effort to understand what is meant by diversity and inclusion. It cannot be assumed that staff are aligned and have a shared understanding. Diversity is very broad and includes race, gender, religion, age, nationality, physical and cognitive capabilities and sexual orientation. Inclusion refers to the behaviors and social norms that ensure people feel welcome.
  • To create a more diverse and equitable workplace – this desire must be at the heart of the organization. All teams and departments must be aligned and invested in this commitment.

WHAT INITIAL STEPS CAN SCHOOLS AND DISTRICTS TAKE?

  • Start with Yourself
    • Understand your own biases. How have your beliefs and biases manifested in unspoken cultural norms within your school?
  • Connect 
    • Make diversity and inclusion a priority. Commit to building a more diverse team and inclusive workplace is the first step.  This is an evolution that may take years, it will not happen overnight.
    • Become clear on a ‘why’ for attracting and recruiting a more diverse workforce is as important as the strategies that you employ to achieve it. We often hear of districts talking about needing new teachers, often those of color, but when we probe on why this is important, they don’t have a clear answer. When this happens, districts develop a shortsighted approach to attracting talent. 
  • Include
    • Assess the current state of your team.  Do you have a diverse staff?  Does the staff reflect the students and communities you serve?  Where are you strong?  Where are there gaps?
    • Engage in empathy exercises to get a better understanding of the current state of your team.
    • Listen to, and seek out, teacher voices particularly those from marginalized groups including but not limited to teachers of color.
    • Determine what qualities and experiences show preference in your hiring process? How does it uphold an inequitable culture for applicants of color?
  • Create
    • Create opportunities for voices at the margin to be included in the design process of new systems.
    • Consider - Investing in staff training to reflect upon and name biases that might prevent creating a more diverse and inclusive working environment; Posting open positions to job boards that are designed for diverse audiences. Evaluating your onboarding process. What assumptions do you make intentionally or unintentionally about a new hire’s background, past experience and knowledge?  Does it value a specific employee profile?  Are there entry points for a board range of life experiences and needs?

CAPTURE THE OPPORTUNITY:
STEPS TO REDESIGN SCHOOL-LEVEL SYSTEMS FOR EQUITY

A GUIDE TO PLANNING AN EQUITABLE PATH FORWARD IN K-12

As districts design and implement plans for the next school year, we must redesign education with equity at the center. Explore this paper to reflect on the ways you can redesign for equity on a personal, cultural, and systemic level. 

Download the third part in a series focused on planning your return to school to learn ways that you can center equity and Capture The Opportunity

Capture the opportunity cover

 

Download the guide

- 4 -

How has COVID-19 and return to school planning affected recruitment and retention efforts?

WHAT SKILLS/COMPETENCIES MAY BE DIFFERENT NOW?

Shifts to virtual and socially distant learning have directly challenged the knowledge, mindsets, and skills of our teacher workforce. Formerly ‘nice-to-have’ skills in digital integration have become more universal skills we must train and develop, and traditional competencies such as classroom management or instructional design methods will require significant adjustments given CDC guidelines, smaller class sizes, and a significant number of teachers and students who do not return in the Fall. 

 

These changes will require a significant upskilling and reskilling along both new and existing competencies:

  • Teacher Upskills - Skill enhancements within existing competencies or functions given new conditions. For example, training teachers on socially distanced seating arrangements, teaching and learning with PPE, or no-contact student collaboration. 
  • Teacher Reskills - New competencies or functions previously not applicable or universally required. For example, all teachers will be required to develop skills in virtual instruction, social and emotional learning, and embrace a high level of ambiguity. 

We recommend that you take time to revisit teacher competencies to determine both the upskills and reskills given new normals of your school or district. With these in hand, determine the desired and existing skills, and the barriers that exist between these two states. Finally, plan how you will address each barrier within and across the various phases of lifecycle development. 

TEACHER RETENTION CONSULTING SERVICES

Teacher retention is closely linked to practices for teacher recruitment and training, and we need to bring in best practices for employee engagement and retention from other sectors if we are going to create meaningful and lasting change.

 

Get in touch to know how we can help you develop dynamic solutions based on your specific needs and goals.

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HOW WILL COVID-19 AFFECT TEACHER RECRUITMENT

COVID-19 poses new challenges and opportunities to the ways in which we staff our classrooms. Fewer opportunities for in-person recruitment may shrink an already depleted candidate pool, shifts from in-person to virtual interactions may change the way we assess candidates, and new demands on access or resources may introduce new biases and/or obstacles to efforts to develop diverse candidate pools. 

You might start by reviewing their candidate journey map to determine impact and adjustments in a shift to virtual recruitment. We recommend the following considerations within the Attract and Recruit phases:

Attract (Brand, Message, Market)

  • Candidate Awareness - Consider the venues and status of the platforms used to build virtual awareness. How up-to-date and user friendly is your website? What platforms do your ideal candidates use and how are you creating two-way communication with these demographics? Where do they live and would an investment in virtual direct marketing be feasible? The shift to building virtual awareness can feel less overwhelming once targeted around specific candidate profiles. 

  • Candidate Consideration - Teams can revisit and clarify their employee value proposition (EVP) - the unique sum of the benefits that your employees receive. One simple way to develop this EVP is to ask your staff three questions about your school or district: 1.) Why did you join? 2.) Why do you stay? 3.) What would make you leave? The collective answers can be used to form the headlines you should amplify, and will allow you to audit existing marketing materials using these headlines. By conducting this audit, you can brainstorm ways to incorporate your EVP headlines.

 At Education Elements, we created a one-pager and Day in the Life video to explicitly communicate what new team members might expect. In the absence of in-person moments for candidates, schools and districts must determine opportunities to bring the best parts of the job to them.

Recruit (Engage, Interview, Hire)

  • Candidate Application - The transition to virtual interviews provides an opportunity to revisit your candidate profile and how you evaluate positional and organizational competencies. Start by revisiting the specific skills and attributes needed for the role and your organization. How has your definition of teacher readiness changed in a post-COVID-19 world? What demonstrated experience or preparedness around digital platforms need to be included in this assessment? Crosswalk these with your hiring rounds (application, phone, video, etc…) and identify what question(s) or task(s) will be used to assess each competency
  • Candidate Selection - As you outline your virtual evaluation process, look for questions or demonstrations previously evaluated in person that may need virtual adjustments. For example, are there more predictable questions that a candidate might be able to answer based on scripted notes? Would utilizing a custom browser that restricts other windows be appropriate for any part of the interview? Could an in-person demo lesson be substituted with a virtual lesson with real students or the interview team playing this role? Despite the loss of many traditional in-person components, the virtual interview presents new opportunities to get a sense of candidates’ virtual readiness. You might include tasks that require your candidate to engage with a district platform like Google Classroom or Canvas in ways that will be expected of them as a teacher. 

HOW CAN SCHOOLS AND DISTRICTS BUILD AND SUSTAIN A REMOTE WORK CULTURE?

As organizations across the world pivot in response to the current crisis, using responsive practices to support a remote work culture is critically important. Whether it’s keeping up with rituals, streamlining communication, or encouraging employees to take care of themselves and their families, it’s essential for schools and districts to cultivate and sustain healthy community and culture while working online and remotely. We recommend the following guide for initial steps for Building and Sustaining a Remote Work Culture

- 5 -

What initial steps can a district take to improve teacher retention?

HOW TO GET STARTED?

Because retention efforts should exist within every phase of the teacher lifecycle, every organization will have a unique starting point and areas of focus. One way to assess this individual starting point is to identify your organization’s ‘line of belonging’ - or, the point at which an individual sees their role on the team as part of their identity. Establishing (and maintaining) this line is critical, because research suggests that a sense of high belonging is directly linked to increases in job performance and decreases in turnover

To determine this line of belonging, teams should assess systems, structures and employee experience, particularly for marginalized groups (i.e. employees leaving at a high rate, groups of employees most likely to not be promoted, among others), along the five phases of teacher lifecycle: Attract, Recruit, Immerse, Develop and Empower. For each phase, consider the strengths, opportunities, and weaknesses. Which phases intentionally build a sense of belonging, and which phases may be lacking? You might further analyze each phase by surveying new and veteran employees who represent different lifecycle phases. This should include specific questions around their level of belonging, and the specific strategies that contribute to this sense. Understanding the line of belonging across each phase can help identify the initial starting point for your team’s efforts to improve retention. To get started, we recommend the following white paper as a way to get started with this redesign for equity on a personal, cultural, and systemic level. 

HOW DO YOU DEFINE SUCCESS FOR RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION?

While teacher retention success indicators will be unique to each organization, common metrics focus on attrition rates, diversity goals, and teacher satisfaction levels, among a long list of variables. It is important that these metrics specifically name marginalized groups they intend to address (i.e. decrease attrition of Black males across all school-based roles), or they risk gearing toward your organization’s averages, maintaining or furthering inequities. Ultimately, each organization must define these metrics based on unique community needs and strategic priorities. Regardless of focal point, we recommend teams define success via a few criteria: 1) defining a clear vision and purpose for retention efforts, 2) collecting stakeholder feedback on current needs and ideal future state, and 3.) auditing existing employee engagement structures on strengths, opportunities and weaknesses. 

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