3 ways to promote teacher retention

Brookwood Elementary has a high teacher turnover rate, but not for the reasons you might expect. Last year I had two teachers leave for administrative positions. Two others went to middle schools because they wanted to empower kids at that age level. We’ve also had teachers leave to follow their passions of owning businesses and moving states. One of my goals as a leader is to inspire my teachers to learn and grow. When you do that, you can have a higher teacher turnover.

Another reason some teachers leave is because they don't feel like anybody but kids are relying on them. They suffer from what I call “just a teacher” syndrome. We’ll be trying to address some issue and they’ll say, “I'm just a teacher.” Every time I hear that, I say, “You have the ability to completely change lives every single day. You’re a superstar.” To make them feel appreciated and supported, my admin team and I are on a mission to build collective teacher efficacy, which John Hattie calls the most powerful influence on student success. Here are three practices that reinforce how amazing our teachers are.

Viewing Leadership Through Three Lenses

Teachers have so much to share with each other, but it’s hard to do that when time is so limited during the school day. Our leadership teams help teachers learn from each other and make decisions about important aspects of the school. Every grade level has a leadership representative who is in charge of the nuts and bolts of nurturing their team. Then we have a curriculum team that looks at everything we do from an instructional standpoint. We also have a positive learning environment team that maintains school culture. Using the 7 Mindsets, they lead professional development that builds connections with students and each other.

Within each team, we talk about how to build trust, belonging, and significance within your team, and how to build collective teacher efficacy. We choose a mindset for the year, and for 2019–2020, it’s “Live to Give.” One of the four tenets that support that mindset is “stretch yourself,” so we’ll have each leadership team discuss what it means for teachers to stretch themselves when it comes to leadership, curriculum, and positive learning environment. Each team will share their ideas with their grade level and then have each teacher address “stretch yourself” in their classrooms. This approach creates a common language and set of goals that unites every teacher in the building.

Creating a Culture of Open Communication

Teaching is a very personal profession. We all do it a little bit differently. When we’re in front of our kids, we bare our soul to them, so if we’re going to help each other improve, we have to trust one another.

As a principal, I build trust by maintaining an open-door policy. My teachers know that they’re welcome to come to me with ideas or questions such as, “The schedule is not really working the way it is, and we’re not able to do everything we need to get done. Could we put a committee together and review it in January instead of waiting until next year to change this?"

Some teachers may still be shy about coming to me in person, so we also send out anonymous teacher surveys every year. Last year’s survey had two questions:

1)    Tell me three things that you loved about this school year.

2)    Tell me three things that you wish you could have changed.

To gather more informal feedback, I’ll write questions on the whiteboard in the teacher lunch area. I’ll write something like, “When do you want to do the reading program kick off? Would you rather do it during the day or at an evening function?” This gives everyone the chance to weigh in and respond to each other’s suggestions.

Connecting Outside of School

Our positive learning environment committee is in charge of helping teachers connect who might not otherwise meet. For example, there may be a 5th-grade teacher who has a student reading at a 2nd-grade reading level. We want to create opportunities for the 5th-grade teacher to say to the 2nd-grade teacher, “Hey, I've never taught 2nd grade, so I don't know how to help this student. What are some strategies that you use with your kids that I could try with him in a small group?” Those teachers then become partners—and their sense of teacher efficacy goes through the roof.

We bring teachers together in different ways. We’ve had painting parties. We’ve played trivia. Once a month we meet at a restaurant down the street and just socialize. Sometimes we play team-building games. My favorite starts with everyone writing their name on a piece of paper and taping it to their back. Then they walk around the room for 15 minutes writing notes of encouragement on each other's backs.

People write things like, “You're always so helpful,” “You're a great friend,” or “I really love how you talk to your students -- you are always so positive.” Those are things that people don't normally say to your face. It really makes teachers feel appreciated, because they end up with one piece of paper with all of these words of affirmation on it.

No matter how much team-building we do, schools will always have turnover. Part of the principal’s job is to help teachers find their next place, and it’s our responsibility as administrators to grow the next generation of leaders. Because in eight years, when I’ve retired and am on the beach full-time, I want to know that my school is in great hands.

Tracey Smith is the principal at Brookwood Elementary School in Forsyth County, Georgia, where they use the 7 Mindsets portal to help choose their mindset for the year. Follow her on Twitter: @tbsmith01.

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