Recruit and Retain Teachers

Kate, a teacher I know, described a recent staff meeting where the assistant superintendent and her school principal described the new program they were planning to roll out in the coming school year.  The program, which was focused on competency-based and personalized learning would be launched K-5th grade across the entire district with the goal to improve the reading and math outcomes for all kids.  Kate’s response was predictably negative because she had seen this before.  The district invests in a new textbook or software suite or professional development program and is surprised several years later when nothing has changed.  At that point, the leaders (typically brand new) attribute the lack of results to a failure or implementation fidelity and then select a new textbook, software suite, or professional development program.  Kate expressed that she often feels like teachers are seen only implementers of ideas, not professionals capable of solving these difficult problems. 

Kate is not alone in this feeling of frustration and lack of respect and it is starting to have a significant impact on schools as the rate of teachers leaving the field is vastly outpacing the rate of entry.  Over the past couple of decades there has been an erosion of the feeling of prestige that used to come with a career in teaching.  And now, this is starting to impact on recruitment and retention of teachers. In fact, between 2009 and 2014 there was a 35% decrease in the enrollment teacher preparation programs (citation).  What’s more, teachers continue to leave the field at 8% annually, most before retirement, and one of the leading causes is not enough support and a lack empowerment (citation).  Over 85% of superintendents report that hiring is one of their top concerns.  Schools and districts need a new way to empower teachers.

One of the primary drivers of this emerging recruitment and retention problem is that teachers don’t feel like leaders consider their ideas and feel a lack of autonomy solve challenging problems.  A Gallup survey of professionals found that teachers ranked last when it came to feeling like their opinion mattered at work.  Studies have repeatedly shown that classroom autonomy is a major factor in determining level of job satisfaction, which indicates whether educators are treated as professionals, notes Richard Ingersoll.  Not surprisingly, teachers that feel empowered have greater work satisfaction

Here are four ideas to increase teacher autonomy and ensure that teachers are engaged in critical problem solving and decision-making. 

Idea #1 – Stay focused on the problems that are worth solving.  Too often school and district leaders bring solutions to teachers to implement and never engage in a discussion about the problem that needs to be solved.  By focusing on the problem, you open a door for teachers to share their ideas.  To do this well, you should be framing problems as “How Might We… (HMW)” questions.  Framing problems as HMW questions engages and invites all staff to participate in the solving process. 

Idea #2 – Train teachers in a problem-solving or innovation process (and follow it as a school).  Design thinking, Lean StartUp, and improvement science are just a few of the potential processes that your school could adopt.  The Innovation Box process combines these three different approaches into a four-step process that emphasizes clear problem-framing, developing testable ideas, running experiments with real stakeholders, and only scaling ideas that show evidence of effectiveness (Innovation Box Four-Steps below).  The important point is that teachers are included in the problem-solving process as designers of solutions, not as implementers of an idea from elsewhere. 

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Idea #3 – Invest in teacher ideas.  Once you have a process in place for testing teacher-driven innovation, remove barriers by giving teachers money to test these ideas.  When Innovation Box is launched, we recommend including $100 of seed capital.  This money is included before we ever hear the teacher’s idea or see a plan.  This isn’t a mini-grant awarded because the idea sounds good.  This is an investment that encourages teachers to test ideas to determine if the idea is any good.  It’s not a lot of money, but it sends a powerful message of trust and belief. 

Idea #4 – Celebrate experiments that result in learning – succeed or fail.  The goal of being problem-focused, following an innovation process, and investing in ideas is not to come up with the perfect solution to all our problems.  The truth is, most ideas teachers test will fail to achieve the outcomes they are hoping to achieve.  But we should be celebrating the process of experimenting because we are learning what does and does not work in our local context.  Memorialize the experiments that teachers are conducting, regardless of success, because others may see the idea and the results and learn something important.  When we celebrate success and failure we encourage innovation and make teachers feel empowered.  During the Innovation Box process we share everyone’s results and talk openly about what worked and what didn’t. We share these results online for anyone to look at (see below).

Current trends suggest that our current labor shortage in schools will continue if we don’t make changes.  We need to change the way we compensate teachers, but we also need to focus on treating teachers more like the professionals they are and ensure they have autonomy and impact on school decisions.  I have provided practical ways that leaders increases autonomy and teacher decision-making.  I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.