We Know Why Teachers Are Leaving. Here’s Why They’re Staying.

For many schools and districts, teacher shortages will continue to be a challenge. To flip the script, let’s focus on why teachers stay in the classroom and why it might be the key to retention.
words: sweet home classroom
Blog date
9/15/22
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As school and district leaders, you’ve most likely been dealing with teacher and staff shortages. And even if you haven’t been affected by them directly, they’ve most likely been in the back of your mind. 

Teacher shortages and teacher burnout aren’t new in our profession. Many of the data points and current news stories focus on why teachers are leaving—and with good reason. We need to know those reasons so we can address the shortages, especially in the long term, and rethink teacher retention strategies. But in these headlines, an important point often gets lost: why teachers stay. 

We know teachers stay because they love their students and feel like part of the school community. When their voices are valued and heard. When they have opportunities to grow professionally, develop teacher leadership, and be part of the decisions that drive schools forward. 

We know teachers stay because they love their students and feel like part of the school community. When their voices are valued and heard. When they have opportunities to grow professionally, develop teacher leadership, and be part of the decisions that drive schools forward. 

Many of these considerations fall within the control of school leaders. As you continue to build an environment where teachers are respected, supported, and challenged, here are three actions to consider that will make for a strong foundation. 

Creating a culture of responsive support

Teachers who’ve remained in the classroom often talk about the support they received from their leaders as the key reason behind why they stay. One of the ways this support can be further cultivated to avoid teacher burnout is to be more intentional and individualized when it comes to coaching and mentorship opportunities for your teachers. 

Just as school leadership can sometimes be a lonely place, so can teaching. Even though teachers are surrounded by students and colleagues every day, there’s often a need for a sounding board and an objective ear to help problem-solve. This is where mentorship can come in. Informal mentoring may already be happening within your school or district. Still, there’s most likely a need for an intentional mentorship program that can be an everyday part of school life for your teachers and staff, whether through a cohort program or a one-on-one relationship. 

Just as school leadership can be a lonely place, so can teaching. Even though teachers are surrounded by students and colleagues every day, there’s often a need for a sounding board and an objective ear to help problem-solve.

There are many ways to build out a mentorship program, so don’t be afraid to think creatively on this one—and survey your teachers to find out more about their unique needs. Here are some initial questions to get you started on the process:

  • Is there a way to onboard mentors and coaches and pay a stipend for their time? 
  • Are there affinity groups that can be created, with time built in for group bonding?
  • Are there ways you can be intentional about the pairing of faculty members, keeping cultural and underrepresented identities at the center of your efforts?

Coaching might be another way forward. While coaching is different from mentorship, it’s also a great way to provide individualized support. Hal Harris, New Leaders Senior Director of Program Implementation, shared that one of his greatest teaching challenges turned into a success with the support of an instructional coach—coaching that later impacted how he led as a school principal. While the time with his coach was centered around student work and student achievement, it also encouraged Harris to take ownership of his career growth. That feeling of empowerment will surely benefit other teachers as well. 

Offering opportunities to grow through professional development

Similar to coaching and mentoring, it’s crucial that teacher professional development also be as purposeful as possible. Consider your teachers’ needs in the same way you focus on making sure your students have the instructional support they need. Teachers, like students, need different kinds of support. Adult learners do not learn in the same ways, and they benefit from a combination of different professional learning options to be successful in the classroom.

Consider your teachers’ needs in the same way you focus on making sure your students have the instructional support they need. Teachers, like students, need different kinds of support. 

We know professional development is less effective when it’s a one-size-fits-all, “quick fix” approach. To create more meaningful professional learning opportunities for your teachers, consider the following: 

  • Are you able to meet with your staff individually at the beginning of the year to map out their goals—not just what they want their students to achieve, but what to change or enhance within their own careers? Brainstorm together on the opportunities and how those needs can be met. 
  • Would they like to take on more responsibility and broaden their impact outside the classroom? If so, consider the pathways. 
  • Are there distributed leadership opportunities for them, like being part of a grade level, department, or data team? 
  • Maybe you have teachers interested in a specific topic or initiative—diversity and representation in schools or social-emotional learning—are there ways for them to design their own professional development path? 

Purposeful professional development doesn’t mean you need to create separate PD plans for everyone in your building. Asking the questions above, however, can allow you to be more strategic about how to meet needs and understand what can be accomplished with your entire group vs. when differentiation is necessary. 

Continuing to prioritize equity-focused leadership

Research shows that equity-focused leadership benefits everyone in a school community, although we often think about the practice through the lens of our students. We recognize that historically-underserved populations need specialized instruction and consistent access to grade-level work that’s engaging and meaningful. We plan curriculum and lesson plans with an eye on those populations, believing that all students can learn at exceedingly high levels. 

However, it’s also important that we view our teachers and staff through the same lens. A National Education Association survey released earlier this year found that a disproportionate percentage of educators of color, who are already underrepresented in the teaching profession, were looking to exit the classroom. 

School leaders who are serious about educational equity are continuously learning and pushing themselves to growinto better and more effective change agents for their teachers, staff, and students.

To ensure that you’re always keeping equity-focused leadership at the forefront, check in with yourself through these self-reflection questions

  • Are you creating the systems and processes for your staff and teams needed to build a more equitable school?
  • Are you building capacity among your teachers and staff so that they, too, can make this work a focus within their classrooms and spaces?
  • Is there a common definition of equity that’s known and shared throughout your team?

As New Leaders alum and Program Director Jennifer Kuhr Butterfoss says, school leaders who are serious about educational equity are continuously learning and pushing themselves to grow into better and more effective change agents for their teachers, staff, and students. That’s another reason why teachers, especially teachers of color, choose to stay. 

The foundation: an environment of respect, trust, and listening

Among these reasons, there’s another one: many teachers say having an administrator that offers genuine appreciation, a listening ear, and emotional support was the difference-maker between leaving and staying in the classroom after several years of extremely challenging circumstances. 

Recognizing your teachers for the incredible professionals they are, learning about your own vulnerability as a leader, and being vocal about your value and respect for them might be the most important action you can do to retain your teachers. 

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