All Articles Education Analysis Schools are finally taking teacher retention seriously

Schools are finally taking teacher retention seriously

These days, convincing teachers to stay means getting creative with both data collection and new solutions.

5 min read



Are lawmakers and school leaders starting to learn from the recruitment and retention problems that have plagued the teacher workforce for the past few years? The answer—as always—might be: Yes, no and maybe. But there are encouraging signs that at least some of them are moving away from the failed status quo policies steeped in bureaucratic inaction that were driving teachers elsewhere. And in some places it’s getting results.

In order to solve stubborn teacher shortages, states and districts must get creative in terms of pay, licensing, and—importantly—making teaching an appealing and sustainable profession. So far, these nascent efforts have inched us back to a workforce approaching pre-pandemic staffing levels (not that those were anything to brag about), but the work is far from done.

New data from ERS, a nonprofit that helps districts make data-driven decisions, reveals that 23 percent of teachers left their school (though not necessarily the profession) in the 2022-23 school year, “a slight decrease from last year’s turnover spike,” with high poverty schools experiencing the largest turnover. There’s slightly better news on the recruitment front in that the steady decline of students completing teacher prep programs—which has slashed the new teacher pipeline by nearly a third compared with the 2010-11 school year—started to stabilize during the pandemic, meaning more teachers are entering classrooms.

Whether they’ll stay is another matter.

Part of convincing new teachers to fill staffing gaps and stay in the profession is relatively straightforward, if not exactly simple, and is directly tied to how much we pay them. Research shows that paying teachers extra to work in STEM and special education (two hard-to-recruit disciplines) does reduce turnover. That solution is sometimes hampered by opposition from teachers unions who prefer to pull up all teacher pay together. Regardless, a number of states are making valiant efforts to raise salaries via legislative action, which in some cases means deciding to pay existing teachers more over adding new staff positions.

But it’s not all about pay. There’s another part to keeping good teachers in the classroom once they get there: making them feel valued and professionally fulfilled. Quality mentorship programs have shown particular promise in this area, particularly for new teachers, and can improve both teacher wellbeing and student achievement.

Above all, teachers want to be heard, and they want school leaders to help them solve all the little issues they feel no one is addressing. Lawrence Township, a suburban district near Indianapolis, is surveying its teachers with help from a local nonprofit to find “pain points” and spinning up creative solutions, such as flexible teaching schedules that reflect what teachers really value.

It’s a model more districts should emulate, but it’s not without its challenges. Namely, districts need to invest in robust data collection to find these pain points in the first place.

That’s true for South Carolina’s Richland School District One, which is taking an even more personalized approach. Admins there are anonymously surveying teachers, and tailoring solutions for individual teacher groups. The surveys have revealed, for instance, that some teachers were having a more difficult time managing stress. In response, the district is developing new professional development, but in the process, admins are learning that older teachers expect different solutions from their younger peers who value things like community building when new initiatives are deployed.

For Richland One, developing such targeted supports is huge, and previously unthinkable, as Kwamine Gilyard, a director in the district’s HR department, told me recently. Previously, everyone in the building had been fixated on student success. “This is a different mindset around what do we need to do for the adults in the building.”

Often, it takes dedicated work for school leaders to understand that teacher support is not a one-size-fits-all model. But as Richland One is discovering, targeting HR and professional development support by age, race and gender can prove helpful.

To that end, “gross turnover numbers may not be giving us as much information as we need,” explains Fleur Johnston, the CEO of PeopleBench, a company that helps districts make data-informed HR decisions around staff retention and workforce strategy (and is working with Richland One). The more granular a district’s data set, the better position it will be in to make targeted decisions.

Part of the approach favored by PeopleBench involves collecting data through surveys and measuring factors like resilience the way researchers might.

At one school the company worked with, a principal hypothesized that among his teachers, women who were later in their careers would be struggling the most with resilience. He was surprised to learn it was actually early-career male teachers, especially new fathers, who seemed most at risk for leaving. The school’s solution was to get them talking with administrators about the flexibility and support they’d need to stay. That’s the kind of data-driven decision making schools may need to seriously address an issue as complex as turnover.

From this vantage point, teacher retention is more about long range, structured planning around workforce—not unlike the Fortune 500 companies that hire psychologists and consultants to keep valuable talent from leaving for competitors. In fact, Johnston’s previous background in organizational psychology—she spent years advising Queensland’s state government on workforce strategy in her native Australia—has transferred well to U.S. schools.

“As organizational psychologists, we look at it a bit similar to how educators look at students,” she explains. “We approach organizations from a developmental perspective. We try and understand where they’re at on their developmental journey. And then we think about what they need next.”

This story first appeared on Warning Bell and is reprinted here with permission. 

Stephen Noonoo is an editor and journalist who’s covered education for more than a decade. He has worked at EdSurge, eSchool News, THE Journal, CUE, and SmartBrief.