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Retaining Effective Teachers (11/1/14)

It is no secret that retention of effective teachers is one of the keys in developing and/or maintaining an effective school. In the current age of accountability in education, this problem is exacerbated in remote rural and in urban areas because of the contexts in which schools in these settings often exist. As a result, the challenge for education leaders in schools with significant staffing needs in rural and urban areas is to understand the factors that influence teachers’ decisions to “stay” and leverage them to increase staff retention.

In the 10/10/14 Education Week article Researchers Offer Prescriptions for Retaining Teachers, Jordan Moeny shares some perspectives from research on what factors influence teachers’ decisions to remain at their current schools and/or in the education profession at all. While I do not agree with all of the article’s perspectives on its reasons for the staffing issue facing high needs schools, its perspectives on the reasons that influence teachers’ decisions to leave are relevant to practice and worthy of further exploration.

The article details the summations from a recent institute held by the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The four panelists involved, including three university professors and one member of the AFT, offered the following as the major areas of job dissatisfaction reported by teachers: lack of prep time, heavy teaching loads, poor salary and benefits, large classes, student behavior, lack of faculty influence, lack of parent support, lack of opportunities for career advancement, and lack of time for teacher collaboration. These factors are the points that I will explore more deeply in the remainder of this article.

All the factors cited in Moeny’s article can be categorized in four domains of school leadership practice: organization and management, human resource management, communication, and maintaining a positive learning environment. By understanding teachers’ most pressing needs in context and as a function of their obligate leadership responsibility, school leaders are better positioned to effectively address them.

Lack of prep time, heavy teaching loads, large classes, and lack of time for teacher collaboration are all organization and management issues that must be addressed through master scheduling. If a school’s master schedule is designed appropriately the distribution of courses as well as built in time for planning and collaboration are appropriately addressed. Further, in instances where schools have experienced schedulers, these potential weaknesses become strengths because the work load and the school day are strategically distributed and designed. The major obstacle preventing this from being a reality in schools where it is not present is staffing; schools simply do not have enough teachers to execute an effective schedule. This concern is relevant to the next domain, human resource management.

A lack of appropriate staffing, poor salary and benefits, and the lack of opportunities for career advancement are human resource management issues. More than 80% of a typical school district’s budget is encumbered with personnel. This is appropriate use of the money, as the core business of school’s is teaching and learning. The key in making sure that the 80% is being used effectively is to ensure that the lion’s share of the funding is used in school based positions that directly impact or work with students. If this is the priority that drives staffing decisions and if it is supported by student needs, adequate staffing becomes less of an issue. In addition, school systems must make commitments to offer teachers competitive salary and benefits along with clear career advancement pathways to substantially influence them to remain in position.

The lack of parent support and lack of faculty influence are largely communication issues. School leaders, from the building level to the central office, must constantly reach out to parents to engage them in the life of the schools. This is especially important in schools/systems where parent support is historically low. Often times this involves reaching out into the community through churches, businesses, and civic organizations to make contacts in arenas where parents feel comfortable. Once the rapport has been established and parents have had the opportunity to express their needs, schools can implement programs to address those needs in efforts to establish long standing relationships. Also, at the central office level, it is imperative that community advisory groups that provide a direct pipeline for communication with district leaders, including the superintendent, be established and maintained.

In regard to teacher influence, building principals have to be willing to distribute the leadership in the building. While the principal is the captain, it takes a whole crew to run a ship. Distributed leadership leverages the talents of the collective. It ensures that teachers are represented in the decision making process on important decisions that affect the entire school, which impacts job satisfaction because it gives teachers true ownership in their working environment. The first step for schools that do not have this in place is to develop the organization and meeting structures for the communication to begin.

Finally, but certainly not least in the areas of concern identified in Moeny’s article is student behavior, which is in the domain of maintaining a positive learning environment. In large part, student behavior at school is a direct result of the learning environment of the whole school. Are the expectations at school clear? Are rules consistently enforced for all student groups? Are supports in place for teachers who struggle with classroom management? Do students feel welcomed at school? Do teachers reach out to students to determine their needs and address them? Do parents and school staff work together to address concerns, even if there are closed door disagreements on situations? Do the students know that the parents and the school staff are in communication and working together? Are students recognized and rewarded for good conduct? These questions are at the heart of the matters that must be addressed in efforts to establish a positive learning environment, school wide.

To close, K-12 education is like any other profession in regard to major factors that influence employee satisfaction. Adults in the work place must feel that their work is meaningful, that they have ownership in decisions that impact their work environment, that they are supported by those they work with/for, and that they can be rewarded, in ways large or small, for a job well done. This is not a magic formula however, as attrition is inevitable for factors beyond our control. However, it will serve as a strong buffer. As education leaders work to create the type of environment in schools described here, the potential for retention of effective teachers will continue to increase.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO
ABCTE

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