How to Rethink Retention Beyond ESSER
“As quickly as we bring new hires in, they’re going back out,” reflects New Leaders alum Brian Ingram. Ingram serves as the Executive Director of Talent Management for Memphis-Shelby County Schools (MSCS) where he oversees the district’s staffing, recruitment, evaluation and teacher induction initiatives. “We are really working to leverage our Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds in a way that makes an immediate impact, but also helps us in the future.”
MSCS has a long-standing partnership with New Leaders. Many principals and senior district leaders, like Ingram, are New Leaders alumni who completed our nationally renowned principal preparation program, now the National Aspiring Principals Fellowship. We have also developed assistant principals and teacher leaders to help build a bench of talent and worked directly with instructional leadership teams to strengthen their capacity to drive best practices at scale.
Independent evaluations of MSCS principals trained by New Leaders found statistically significant gains in their schools, particularly in iZone schools which are traditionally the lowest-performing schools. Ingram, a former principal, has lived this firsthand. During his principal tenure, he piloted Tennessee’s trauma-informed school model, drove a 50 percent reduction in suspensions, and reversed a trend in student literacy: moving the growth score from the lowest to the highest.
“We are really working to leverage our Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds in a way that makes an immediate impact, but also helps us in the future.”
We spoke with Ingram to learn more about the system-level solutions he is leading and how he plans to sustain them long after ESSER funding ends. Districts across the nation are grappling with similar fiscal implications, notes Ingram. “Our initiatives are moving student achievement, but if we can’t afford them, how do we sustain them?” Here are three strategies to consider.
Career pathways + commitment
Through grow-your-own initiatives and partnerships with universities, MSCS now offers multiple pathways for educators to complete their associate degree, teaching certification, or a master’s degree at no cost—and when they complete the program, they make a three-year commitment to remain in the district. “We try to remove that financial burden from our teachers so that we get that investment from them along the way.”
Take, for example, the 750 specialized education assistants the district hired to reduce teacher-student ratios in every K-2 classroom and offer consistent small group instruction to mitigate the learning loss caused by the pandemic. When the ESSER funds sunset, rather than lose employment, MSCS wants to build their capacity and positively influence teacher quality. “Who better to put into an early childhood pipeline to become a K-2 teacher?” Ingram adds. “They’re coming into the role with two to three years of classroom experience.”
Targeted recruitment + investment
Ingram and his team identified two gaps in recruitment. First, a significant need to attract more Hispanic teachers and principals to support the city’s growing Hispanic population. Second, a gap in math and science teachers. Historically, MSCS recruited from the tri-state area. But as Ingram explains, “We have to branch out further into the country to diversify our pipelines. We have to enhance our relocation packages and create a stronger employee value proposition. We can no longer just rely on our local candidate areas.”
Ingram and his team are also researching the top 25 schools where MSCS students are pursuing undergraduate degrees in math and science as yet another way to create a talent pipeline. “We want to bring them back to the district,” he explains, offering them a no-cost career pathway to a master’s degree and in return, gaining a commitment to remain in the district for three years. In this way, Ingram is simultaneously impacting recruitment, retention, and teacher quality.
Weekly onboarding + retention
In January 2022, Ingram and his team launched a three-day New Teacher Academy to better prepare new hires for the role. The three-days are then followed by two days of school onboarding. The academy runs every week to provide consistent and more equitable access to professional learning. Previously, district onboarding happened only one time in the summer. But, as Ingram notes, that model no longer works as more teachers are entering the field from non-traditional paths and more teachers are exiting the field throughout the school year.
Of the 300+ teachers who participated in the New Teacher Academy between January and April 2022, Ingram proudly notes that 95 percent of them returned to the district this school year.
Led by former practitioners, the New Teacher Academy provides an intensive induction into curriculum, instruction, classroom management, trauma-informed restorative practices, and much more. On the third day, new hires observe and debrief model lessons taught by current MSCS teachers. They also tour model classrooms and, via QR codes in those spaces, they can access the resources they need to replicate the same in their own classrooms.
Of the 300+ teachers who participated in the New Teacher Academy between January and April 2022, Ingram proudly notes that 95 percent of them returned to the district this school year. “Principals,” he adds, “are also very appreciative.”
Like many education leaders, Ingram loved being a teacher. He never imagined becoming a principal. Then his principal “tapped him on the shoulder” for an open assistant principal role. He didn’t pursue it at the time, but more people started naming the leadership potential they saw in him, including New Leaders alum and current assistant superintendent Rodney Rowan. “Rodney told me that I needed to be doing more. New Leaders changed my whole trajectory.”
It was during his principal residency that Ingram’s leadership really shifted. His mentor principal, another New Leaders alum and current MSCS executive director Myke Collins, “gave me the freedom to be myself, to make mistakes, to develop and get better.” From his seat now, Ingram views the challenges through the system-level lens he gained from New Leaders. “If everyone is not running in the same direction, we’re not going to get where we need to be. And we’re certainly not going to get there as quickly as we need to.”
Ingram’s advice to leaders right now
“Never forget you are leading humans. When you’re talking about student achievement, you’re not talking about a data point. You are talking about a child. When you’re talking about retention in a district or school, you’re not talking about a graph. You are talking about people who have chosen to not do this work for a number of reasons.
Right now, we have to really understand what people are saying. We need to listen—not to make a poignant response—but to understand. Leadership matters. It impacts people.”