07/07/2021 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Leadership Attention for Faculty Retention

illustration of a school contract

A recent survey conducted by the RAND corporation reveals that teachers this year are more likely than other American adults to experience symptoms of depression. The struggle has been so intense, in fact, that in the middle of the 2020-21 school year nearly a quarter of all teachers said they were likely to leave their current teaching jobs by the end of the academic year. These survey results highlight the toll of a school year “rocked by the coronavirus pandemic, in which many teachers say they’ve been pushed to the brink.”

Meanwhile, an Education Week Research Center survey, conducted in the spring, found that 54% of teachers say they were “somewhat” or “very likely” to leave teaching altogether within a year.

If you need more proof of concern, a separate survey from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence reveals that, in the last academic year, teachers were primarily feeling “anxious, fearful, worried, overwhelmed, and sad.”

Teacher anxiety, exhaustion, and worry have risen directly from the immense challenges associated with simultaneously teaching both in-person and remotely amid a pandemic taking hundreds of lives every day. Teachers also specifically noted the disorientation that comes with the sudden shift in the instructional model as well as their concerns about their own health and the health of their families.

Indeed, school leaders are finding that they are losing teachers this year at higher rates than in any previous year. With their low student-teacher ratio, independent schools may have fared better than their public counterparts. Still, independent school teachers have also reported feeling the weight of the pandemic-related demands. As a result, independent schools are finding a higher than average teacher turnover rate this year — with many schools still scrambling late in the hiring season to fill positions. As of late June, the NAIS career site still listed more than 3,000 jobs. While this number no doubt represents more than the actual openings, it’s a clear indication of the pandemic’s impact on the profession.

More Than Just a Problem with Stress

Parallel to this general concern about teacher stress is the particular concern for supporting of BIPOC teachers. A separate Education Week report reminds us that the teacher turnover rate is especially high for Black men. This is deeply disconcerting given that fewer than 7% of teachers nationally are Black, and just 2% are Black men.

In the independent school world, notes James Greenwood, Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Western Reserve Academy (OH), all teachers of color carry a particularly heavy personal and professional weight. Beside finding themselves in a racial minority at their institutions, they “bear a disproportionate burden when it comes to mentoring and advising students of color while still performing their standard roles of teaching, coaching, advising, and maintaining their own personal lives and families.” Greenwood also points out how BIPOC faculty not only serve as role models for students of color, but also “simultaneously carry the responsibility of teaching and mentoring a majority of students as well, often serving as the first or only teacher of color a student may have.” Viewed through the added lens of the pandemic, the need to prioritize better support for teachers of color becomes crystal clear.

As we cross the starting line this July into the opening months of the 2021-22 school year, schools that want to build and retain a strong community of teachers need to make teacher retention a top priority this year. Indeed, in our work with teacher candidates at Carney, Sandoe & Associates, we are hearing from teachers that, more than ever, they seek the kind of support that will not only help them survive in schools but enable them to thrive.

“This year, like never before, candidates at all levels are looking for schools that will offer a high levels of support — on both the personal and professional levels,” says CS&A President Devereaux McClatchey. “So it’s very important for schools to think carefully about the depth and range of their support systems for both new and returning teachers.”

It Starts with Empathy

A couple of steps, in particular, will help with faculty retention this year. The first, of course, is to encourage all current teachers to chill out this summer. We like Crystal Frommert’s advice in Edutopia in which she asks teachers to truly let go — to turn one’s attention fully to the “break” in summer break and not replay the past school year or worry about the coming school year — at least for a month. All reading should be for pleasure. As much as possible, time should be spent on one’s personal interests and with family and friends.

The second, more detailed step is for schools to carefully examine and upgrade their systems of support.

Lorri Palko, a former independent school educator now working as an executive coach, makes the point that if school leaders want to keep faculty from leaving, attention must be paid to teachers’ needs like never before. To that end, she says, school leaders need to exude empathy.

“But empathy,” Palko writes, “doesn’t mean being understanding and warmhearted. Empathy is our ability to understand what someone else is experiencing, and to put aside our own judgment and perspective. When leaders move fast, especially under stress, it’s all too easy to overlook the way that our unconscious biases and beliefs can get in the way of our ability to really see things from someone else’s perspective.”

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways for school leaders to support teachers is to develop their own empathetic skills — especially the skill of listening. “When we save space and time for wisdom and intuition to come forward,” Palko says, “we give ourselves permission to choose a higher level of thought and take inspired action.” When a leader listens deeply this way, she adds, “real professional trust can be earned and rebuilt.”

Plan for Teaching Success

Peter Gow and Sarah Hanawald, the Independent Curriculum Resource Director and Assistant Head of School for Professional Development at One Schoolhouse, respectively, make the added point that schools shouldn’t be content with simply filling positions or getting teachers to resign their contracts for another year. The goal, they say, should be to focus on teacher success — especially for all new teachers, including both first-time teachers and those coming over from other schools.

What does a program for teacher success look like? In the long run, it involves a wise mix of autonomy, engagement, and steady growth. But at the start, it requires a well-planned system for “on-boarding” new teachers. And the process should be a yearlong one — not an August pep talk followed by a vague promise to stay connected. Gow and Hanawald also tell us that the best way to center success for new teachers is keep the end goal in mind — to define in detail what a “successful teacher” looks like at your school. Doing so enables you to establish and track key “markers of success.”

An earlier piece we posted about a new study from researchers Simon Burgess, Shenila Rawal, and Eric S. Taylor also underscores the value of establishing a system for teacher peer observation. “Evidence from a field experiment in British secondary schools,” the authors write, “makes it clear that both the observed and observing teachers benefit from the process of low-stakes observations.”

Another valuable step is to set up a professional learning community (PLC) format for all teachers for the coming year. According to education consultant Rick DuFour, PLCs embody three key “big ideas:”

  • Ensure that students learn;
  • Construct, develop, and live a culture of collaboration; and
  • Stay relentlessly focused on results.

A PLC format for teachers can include monthly meetings, presentations, sharing challenges, making connections, or walking through key transition periods in the school year. These transition periods include the start, middle, and end of each term.

Aligning Support to Specific Challenges

For school leaders, it’s essential to anticipate the kinds of questions young teachers ask themselves. Don’t assume that any new hire will intuit their way to success. Early-year questions tend to be fairly elemental: How do I teach my class? How do I serve as an advisor? How do I connect with this community? But the middle of the school year presents a whole new series of challenges — i.e., speaking in front of parents, presenting to faculty, setting grades and writing comments, dealing with the inevitable discipline issues, and managing one’s own energy and engagement. Teacher questions become more complex and nuanced as the year evolves: How do I deal with unmotivated students? How do I work with students across race, gender, and other differences? How do I relate best with parents? How can I improve the use of educational technology?

It’s important to know that many new teachers also find themselves near exhaustion by mid-year. Acknowledging this fact and finding ways to ease the pressure will go a long way to ensuring teachers return for a second year. To this end, some schools reduce the teaching load or the extracurricular work of new teachers so they can get better established in the classroom and community without feeling overwhelmed.

Overall, teachers want to feel confident, competent, and connected. To assist with this process, school leaders need to help new teachers build points of contact so they can learn what they need to know and know who to turn to with questions. To this latter point, if your school includes experienced teachers as mentors, it’s best to require weekly check-ins with mentees. There are too many stories about young teachers who rarely see their mentors because the mentors assume the teachers are doing fine. Whether or not they are doing fine, the contact and connection matters.

Additionally, if you can, have someone serve as an instructional coach for new teachers — focused on nonevaluative observations. Gow and Hanawald also encourage senior administrators to personally check in with all new teachers. In a true community of educators, school leaders establish their relationship with new teachers before reaching the evaluation period. It’s particularly important to connect new teachers with the learning support team, DEI leaders, and education technology specialists.

With teachers coming in from other schools, it helps to know what sort of successes and challenges these educators faced in their previous schools. Writing for ASCD, Jennifer Padua and Rayna Fujii offer good advice for supporting experienced teachers working at your school for the first time. Among other things, they encourage you to ask incoming teachers:

  • What were your experiences at your previous school?
  • What practices from your mentor teachers’ style helped your growth?
  • What suggestions do you have for our collaboration?

Meeting the Needs of BIPOC Educators

With educators of color, it’s most important for them to know that you, as school leaders, are there for them on every level. For independent schools, this means a clear commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion — in both policy and practice. It means a commitment to diversifying the faculty and staff, bringing in more BIPOC students, actively supporting BIPOC families and employees, and ensuring more racial diversity on the board and in leadership positions. The school must also have a culturally responsive curriculum and an inclusive culture that is measurable.

Being a teacher of color in a predominantly white school community is difficult enough. Dealing with the race-related challenges as well as the daily minutia of teaching and adjusting to a school culture can get exhausting quickly. When school leaders think about empathy, part of this work is listening to the needs of BIPOC teachers and part of the work involves making related institutional changes as a way to demonstrate an institutional commitment to antiracism — and indeed, to meet your school’s overall mission. To put it another way, the schools with the highest percentage of BIPOC teachers who are able to retain those teachers are schools in which teachers of color are seen, respected, and supported through action and practice. They are also schools that require white teachers to develop the skills to teach well across race, to learn how to support BIPOC students, and work well with BIPOC colleagues.

Hiring Outside the Box

The final advice we’re hearing from folks in the field, especially regarding hiring at this time of year, is for school leaders to be open to a range of candidates — from young teachers coming out of undergraduate programs to experienced teachers looking for a new position to knowledgeable professionals looking to make a career shift to the world of teaching.

This also means casting a wider net when reviewing resumes and narrowing the applicant pool. Excellent teachers are found everywhere, not only in the usual places independent schools tend to look. What matters most is finding adults who want to work with children and adolescents and who will thrive in a collaborative learning environment. A thoughtful, flexible support program will meet incoming teachers where they are and bring them along as needed.

We are certainly hoping that the 2021-22 school year is calmer and more manageable than the last two academic years. The good news, we believe, is that the past year has drawn all of us in education closer. Through the challenges and pain, we’ve grown. We understand better than ever before that we need each other. School leaders know, in particular, that teachers need to be given the kind of professional respect and support that will enable them to thrive in the classroom and adapt to the inevitable changes. We’ve learned a great deal about how this done, too. Our hope is that all of us in education can all demonstrate this learning in the coming year and restore our sense of balance and purpose in serving the children of this world for 2021-22 and beyond.

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