Knowing, Engaging, Celebrating: What Leaders Can Do Now to Retain Teachers

Leader 2 Leader Blog,

By:  Jenna Bartkiewicz, Partner, Education Elements

Ms. Evans had, by most demonstrable measures, a successful year. If you had popped by her classroom on any day of the week, you would have likely marked nearly all the boxes on whatever checklist you entered with: student engagement was high, but not disorderly. Kids supported each other and worked collaboratively as they grappled with rigorous content; and it was clear students had built plenty of endurance throughout the year: they could work long stretches without interruption, enabling Ms. Evans to conference with students at regular intervals. You could often find her after school diligently planning lessons on her own. Unsurprisingly, she quietly saw her student data begin to soar, and expectations were high as state testing came into view. Though scores hadn’t come back yet, students reported the tests being a breeze: “Way easier than what Ms. Evans makes us do”, reported one student with a sly smile.

Then, later that spring, Ms. Evans abruptly announced that she would not be returning to Donovan Junior High the next year. Her principal was shocked; her colleagues dejected; her students, despondent. As news spread throughout the school and community, folks wondered aloud, “What happened?”

As part of the standard exit interview procedure, a member of the district’s Human Resources team asked Ms. Evans why she was choosing to leave.

Which of the following do you think headlined Ms. Evans’ response?

  1. Not enough money
  2. Not enough planning time
  3. Feeling too micromanaged by prescriptive curriculum
  4. None of the above

Would it surprise you to learn that Ms. Evans did not even mention answer options A-C? Rather, she described feeling like an island within her room. Now, this was done with the best of intentions; her principal had tried to honor her expertise by not getting in the way of her craft. But the impact was profound – Ms. Evans was left feeling underdeveloped, unknown, and undervalued in a sea of teachers all striving to meet student needs while expanding their own toolkits.

Before I go any further, it’s worth clarifying that Ms. Evans’ experience does not negate the importance of getting answer options A-C right (or as close to right as possible). The low salaries teachers can wield and the corresponding effect on attrition has been well-documented here and here. And you can likely list several teachers without hesitation who became burned out by not having adequate time to plan high-quality lesson materials or who have complained of feeling like robots, executing on a curriculum that they’re neither invested in nor had adequate training to implement.

Those issues aside, what we are highlighting is the sizable and often under-appreciated impact that leaders can have on teacher retention by fostering the type of environment and relationship that promotes a feeling of belonging. What do we mean by that?

At Education Elements, we’ve devised the Key Three of Teacher Retention: simple strategies that help teachers stay for the long haul.


Know Teachers Genuinely

This concept pushes way past ice breakers during summer training and surveys for Teacher Appreciation Day. Instead, this is about authentically getting to know who your staff is, as individuals, and then positioning yourself to champion their goals and desires. Do you know your teachers’ career goals? What motivates them to teach each day? Their family members’ names? If not, consider how you might carve out 5 minutes of your check-ins with them to not talk about work.


Engage Teachers Meaningfully

Who has the power in your school? Teachers in a high-functioning building feel like they do, because they are brought in to make material decisions that inform the overall direction of the academic and cultural programs. Being clear about what decisions you as the School Leader will make and why, and which ones you will arrive at democratically, can be a useful practice here. If teachers feel like they have a true influential voice, not only will they be more understanding when you must make an unpopular call, but they will also be more invested in the consequences of decisions they’re executing against.


Celebrate Teachers Authentically

In order to do this well, a couple things must be true. First, pay attention! So much of what teachers do with excellence is in brief, passing moments – how they respond to a child in need, how they de-escalate a charged situation, how they offer precise praise to students on academic work. Your recognition of these small acts shows you notice the details and avoids the “Great work today” shoutout that often lands flat. Secondly, learn how your teachers like to be celebrated. A tip: teachers often applaud students in the same way they like to be recognized. Does a teacher write hand-written notes to her students? Perhaps a Holiday card from you should be in the mail. Do they stage big surprise parties when a student demonstrates high growth? Perhaps a PD party is the way to go. Mirroring teacher behavior can go a long way in showing that no detail is going unnoticed.

As the semester comes to a close and you are reflecting on your leadership practice, now is a great time to start anchoring your interactions with teachers using the Key Three - practical strategies you can implement tomorrow. Join us in January and February to learn more about the leadership systems and structures that retain teachers. Sign up here to register for the webinar series, hosted by FASA:


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