Do we face a crisis in teacher retention?

A few months ago I wrote a post which asked, why so many teachers left teaching. In it I considered the possible reasons for the shocking statistic that 50% of teachers leave the profession within their first 5 years of teaching. Lots of people got in touch to tell me why they had left, or were considering leaving teaching, and they had some terrible and depressing stories to tell. Every time a teacher is forced out of their job though stress, bullying or poor leadership our heart sinks further and we beat our breasts with righteous indignation.

But possibly, we’ve got teacher retention all wrong. The truth is, no one wants crappy teachers teaching their children; every parent wants their kids taught by a great teacher, and every student wants to avoid those teachers they know to be failing. Maybe we should only get upset when good teachers leave?

Interestingly though, retention rates for low performing and high performing teachers are strikingly similar. The Irreplaceables is a beautifully designed little pamphlet which explores some of these issues as well as some possible solutions. According to the authors,

Screen Shot 2013-07-20 at 00.17.16Two deeply rooted fallacies about teacher performance help explain why the misunderstanding of teacher retention persists.

First is the conviction that most low-performing teachers will improve to an acceptable level in the future. If struggling teachers can generally be expected to improve, there is less reason to treat them differently than Irreplaceables when it comes to retention. Principals could simply focus on retaining and developing all teachers.

Second is the assumption that new teachers will almost always be less effective than experienced teachers. If principals believe that a new teacher is unlikely to achieve better outcomes than a struggling but seasoned teacher, they will understandably be hesitant to invest time and energy in replacing one with the other.

Both assumptions encourage a simplistic and hands-off approach to teacher retention. But both assumptions are wrong.

They reckon that in most cases a newly qualified teacher will out perform an experienced, low performing teacher. Retaining low performing teachers may not be a good move. The chance that a replacement teacher will be an improvement is surprisingly high:

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 23.49.46

The real problem is not that teachers leave the profession, it’s that excellent teachers leave their schools to work somewhere else. And over 75% say they would have stayed if the principal had addressed their reasons for wanting to leave. That seems crazy: wouldn’t you slice your fingers off to keep your best teachers? Apparently not.

The problems that lead to this sorry state of affairs are listed as:

  • Principals don’t make enough effort to retain their best teachers
  • School culture & working conditions drive great teachers out
  • There aren’t enough incentives for heads & principals to change their practices

This leads to 2 consequences:

  1. School Turnaround Is Nearly Impossible – “Current retention patterns lock our lowest-achieving schools into a cycle of failure, because they have proportionally fewer Irreplaceables and more low-performing teachers to begin with.”
  2. The Teaching Profession Is Degraded –  “It sends the dangerous message that great teachers are expendable, and it devalues real achievement”

Finally, the report recommends that we make the retention of outstanding teachers the top priority and that we strengthen the teaching profession through higher expectations of teachers who are unsatisfactory.

These issues would seem to be ones that need addressing in the UK too. While the capability process has been tightened up and school now have far more power (and accountability) for dismissing low performing teachers, there isn’t much on offer to retain the highest performing teachers. The Advanced Skills Teacher route is in its death throes and, apart from Specialist Leaders in Education, there is little that’s being done to reward our best teachers and keep them in the classroom.

Performance related pay? Don't make me laugh!

Performance related pay? Don’t make me laugh!

Speaking for myself, as I relaxed into teaching and behaviour stopped being the nightmare it used to be, I had more time to sharpen my skills. As I got better, I wanted to do more and started applying for positions of responsibility. Over the course of the past 6 years, I moved from leading Media Studies to being assistant head of English, to running my own English department, to senior leadership. And with each promotion I’ve had an increasingly lighter teaching load. This past year I’ve been allowed out to work in other schools, and next year I’ll be working in school part time in order to do more of this. Bully for me. This ascent of the greasy pole is well established and I’m not alone in teaching less as I become more experienced; this is still the only real way to progress within the teaching profession.

But this brings us to a bit of a thorny issue. As Harry Webb recently wrote, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that those who run schools, though once full-time teachers, have forgotten what it is like to teach a full load.” This being the case, do our school leaders have their eye on the classroom ball enough to really value great teachers? Possibly not.

But does it need to be this way? Is there a way to keep our best teachers teaching?

US Charter School chain, KIPP, put a lot of work into retaining their irreplaceable teachers. Some of the issues they’ve identified are:

  1. How do we satisfy the need for teachers to advance without having to leave the classroom? Teachers want to develop in their careers, but a lot of the time, that means stopping teaching. We want to make a big deal of folks being effective teachers. For example, we have selected highly effective teachers to be “featured” teachers, and that group is leading designing new curricula for the entire network, to be aligned to the Common Core. We honor them, give them a stipend, and they get some special development and the opportunity to collaborate with highly effective colleagues. That will extend into a curriculum fellowship we’re running next year.

  2. How do we provide teachers with more flexibility and time without sacrificing outcomes for kids? Our students need a lot. They need a lot of our time, and they demand a lot of our teachers. But teachers need to pick up their dry cleaning and get their cars fixed. Balancing a demanding work environment with a personal life is a challenge for our teachers, many of whom come to us when they are young, and feel stretched as they grow older and have kids. Some of our schools offer two salary tracks: a higher track associated with longer hours, and a more traditional track, associated with a more traditional teaching schedule. Others try to chip away at this issue in small ways, such as giving teachers one late-start morning or early-dismissal afternoon each week. These small things are highly valued.

  3. How do we provide teachers with meaningful recognition? This was what surprised me most: little things mean a lot. We spoke with someone from Pixar, which has asked how to keep engineers engineering over the long term. They give every engineer who has been there for 10 years a bronze Buzz Lightyear statue—which blew our teachers’ minds. They just couldn’t get over it, a tangible recognition that is small, but really cool. They also talked about how, at our annual summit, which brings together everyone at KIPP, we have a gala on the last night and Dave and Mike have all the teachers stand based on how long they’ve been teaching. Those who teach the longest stand the longest and get the most applause. It’s now a tradition that our teachers told us means a lot to them.”

    Are these solutions universally workable? Can it really be as straightforward as this? If it is, it would be terribly embarrassing to not do these things. It certainly couldn’t hurt to try, could it?