George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

Building Teams That Stay

Appreciating teachers and helping them cultivate resilience can help administrators reduce turnover in their schools.

May 25, 2018

The end of the school year can bring celebration and joy, and also anxiety and unwanted change. I always spent spring wondering which of my colleagues would return the following year. In the district where I worked, Oakland Unified in California, we lost about 50 percent of teachers within three years.

I stayed, but as colleagues left I lamented the loss of relationships I’d built. I recognized that high turnover made it hard to develop initiatives and programs, and I knew there was an impact on the learning and achievement of kids. I’ll never forget that in my first week as a teacher a fourth grader asked me, “Are you going to leave after this year? Teachers only stay here for a year or two.”

As an instructional and leadership coach, I focus a great deal on stemming the flood of teachers from our schools. There’s no question for me that retaining and developing teachers is a top focus and goal for every educational leader.

In order to retain teachers, we need to understand why they quit. The 2017 report Teacher Turnover: Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It presents useful data. The findings detail the reasons why teachers leave:

  • Dissatisfaction with testing and accountability pressures
  • Lack of administrative support
  • Dissatisfaction with working conditions
  • A lack of opportunities for growth and advancement

The authors of the report make important suggestions related to compensation, teacher preparation, and school leadership. With school leadership in mind, I’d like to offer five things administrators can add to what you’re already doing to address teacher turnover in your school.

Taking Action

These aren’t necessary big moves (they don’t address teacher compensation or testing, for example), but they are significant, and they’re actions administrators can begin to take immediately.

1. Create systems for communication and feedback: Conduct an end-of-year survey so that you can hear from teachers. Ask open-ended questions about their experience. Ask them for concrete suggestions about what you could do differently. Important questions to include on your survey:

  • What would it take for me to keep you here, at this school?
  • What could I do, that is within my sphere of influence, to make your experience here better?
  • When you say you need more support, what kind of support would that be? What exactly do you need help with?

2. Routinely appreciate your staff: The majority of teachers (and people everywhere) feel unappreciated. Ask your staff (perhaps on the survey) how they like to be appreciated. This will help you better understand which staff members feel most appreciated through words of affirmation or a cup of coffee.

Once you know how your teachers like to be appreciated, schedule days and times to meet with them and listen to concerns, or drop by their classroom with a coffee for a chat. Given how much you have to do, it can be hard to remember unless it is calendared. Using a Google document might be a good way to keep track.

3. Get your own support: The efficacy of a site leader has great impact on teacher retention. Principals often get the weakest professional development (although they attend a lot of meetings). If you’re a site administrator, advocate for real PD (focused on leadership, not curriculum or content or administrative tasks).

Also vital: Work on getting yourself a coach and a mentor! (Coaches and mentors are different things, and both can have a very positive impact on you). The more support you have, the better you’ll be, and this will contribute to retaining teachers.

4. Continue to build your teams: You can’t do everything by yourself. When teachers say they need more support, it often means that systems in the school aren’t working optimally. Alone, you can’t meet everyone’s needs.

Continue developing a plan that builds the skills and capacities of people in support roles like front office staff, custodial, counselors, and deans. In his book The Principal, Michael Fullan argues that principals should always prioritize building effective teams. Schools with high-functioning teams have lower teacher turnover rates. Spend some time this summer reflecting on how to build effective teams and setting in motion plans to do so.

5. Cultivate emotional resilience in yourself and in teachers: When I ask teachers how they’re feeling, the most common response is, “I’m so stressed.” Yes, teaching is stressful, and we can do something about how we experience and respond to our stress.

Resilience is the ability to learn from challenges, to bounce back after adversity. The good news is that it can be cultivated, and school leaders can offer teachers time and space to learn how to do so. Administrators need to consider the ways they can offer high-quality PD that includes support on building resilience and preventing burnout.

It’s more necessary than ever to figure out how to retain teachers. To create the schools our students deserve, we know we need consistency in teaching staffs.

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