4 Leadership Questions to Boost Your Retention Rates
We all know teacher and principal turnover is costly.
First and foremost, it is harmful for students who continually lose access to high-quality instruction and the hidden benefits of consistency, institutional knowledge, and personal relationships. Substitute teachers are rarely a long-term solution. New hires are more likely to be novice teachers and often less skilled. Interim principals are often so overwhelmed that they overlook the value of being in classrooms and providing instructional feedback and support to teachers.
High teacher turnover also diverts valuable resources away from critical initiatives and school improvement efforts and shifts them toward a labor-intensive focus on recruitment and hiring. The same is true for principal turnover. Both have lasting implications for students and school communities as well. Even before the pandemic and the current politically charged landscape of education, research shows that nearly half of all teachers leave the profession within the first five years.
The exodus of teachers, especially now at the mid-year, can be hard to manage, but we must not overlook another key research finding: Highly effective principals positively influence teacher retention. They influence student learning, too, which teachers care deeply about. Investing in school leaders at the same time we invest in teachers can be a path forward to improving principal retention and reducing teacher turnover, both of which most district and school leaders can influence and control.
Investing in school leaders at the same time we invest in teachers can be a path forward to improving principal retention and reducing teacher turnover.
Here are four questions that can guide your approach to retention—as a principal looking to keep your best teachers and as a district leader looking to keep your best principals.
Have you asked?
Teachers, like principals, want their voices to be heard. Many districts employ annual or semi-annual culture surveys for students and staff. That information is helpful, but teachers and principals also benefit from real-time surveys and check-ins that take a few minutes and yield immediate feedback. One district in Texas conducted 30-second pulse checks every other week that asked: How are you feeling about your work? Is there anything you’d like to share about how you are feeling or how your work is going? What resources/support can make it better?
This kind of frequent and actionable data creates a feedback cycle of care and responsiveness that becomes a systemic part of a school and district culture. Even the action of having “stay conversations”—asking teachers or principals to stay—can add to their experience of being heard, valued, and appreciated.
Have you offered avenues for growth?
Principals, like teachers, cite professional development opportunities as a key reason to stay in the field. Inadequate preparation for principals is frequently connected to early exits from the career, so providing school leaders with access to high-quality, job-embedded training is a must. The most impactful approach—be it coaching, mentorship, professional learning communities and networks—offers opportunities for leaders to practice and apply their new learning in their day-to-day work. This kind of learning allows principals to translate theory into practice, to the benefit of everyone in the school community, and student achievement in particular.
The most impactful approach—be it coaching, mentorship, professional learning communities and networks—offers opportunities for leaders to practice and apply their new learning in their day-to-day work.
Similarly, principals play a key role in providing teachers with opportunities to grow and develop teacher leadership. Through a more systemic and personalized approach, principals can offer teachers autonomy over their PD and prioritize opportunities that advance their goals for their classroom as well as the school vision. Designated time to collaborate with grade-level colleagues on a bi/weekly cadence is another avenue to reduce teacher isolation and burnout—and accelerate student learning.
Have you built meaningful relationships?
School and district culture directly impact retention decisions. Underneath the main ingredients for fostering positive cultures—a shared vision, meaningful relationships, school and community engagement—is what education researchers call relational trust. This kind of trust is built via everyday interactions that support principals and teachers in meeting challenges and holding everyone accountable for student outcomes. The more cohesive and overlapping these interactions and communications are, the more a shared vision is spread, reinforced, and owned.
There is no limit to how you can build meaningful relationships with teachers and principals. Humanize yourself as a leader. Provide meaningful and intentional feedback so teachers can hone their craft. Celebrate and appreciate hard work. Motivate and inspire your staff. Tap into more advice from current principals and New Leaders alumni in this EdWeek Special Report, Effective Communication for School Leaders.
Have you tapped into existing potential?
Effective leaders naturally see leadership, or the potential for leadership, in others. As we found in our new publication, The Shoulder Tap: Educators of Color on the Leadership Representation Gap and What We Can Do About It, that “tap on the shoulder—when someone you trust sees your brilliance and leadership potential” can be a game changer for teachers and principals. Baltimore City Public Schools, for example, allows effective principals to take on short-term projects in the district office to gain experience and insights into leading at the system level.
Being seen and heard is a powerful catalyst for teacher agency and often as a result, teachers invest themselves more fully in the solutions—and stay in their schools longer.
Similar opportunities exist for teachers to lead in everyday ways. Encourage them to lead their data team discussions or champion a new initiative they’re passionate about with their grade-level or department colleagues. Invite them to join your instructional leadership team and participate more fully in school-based decisions, including issues of teacher retention. Being seen and heard is a powerful catalyst for teacher agency and often as a result, teachers invest themselves more fully in the solutions—and stay in their schools longer.
The best leaders at every level, from the classroom to the superintendency, need other qualified teachers and effective leaders around them to advance excellence and equity. We’re all in this together. We know the reasons principals and teachers are exiting the field are real—and not all of those reasons are outside of our control. How we respond needs to be just as real and tangible. Our nation’s students are counting on us all.