How can we retain the best teachers?

//How can we retain the best teachers?

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?

2015-02-28T08:11:20+00:00July 20th, 2013|Featured|


  1. Richard Goodbrand (@DickGoodbrand) July 20, 2013 at 10:13 am - Reply

    I think that the UK model is slightly different in my limited experience. Given that money is increasingly a driving factor in staffing, head teachers are willing to take the risk of replacing experienced and/or good teachers with NQTs. Allied to The Irreplaceables findings, this strategy doesn’t appear to have a significant impact either way.
    I’ve lost count of the number of applications that I’ve made to schools for a permanent position. Most of the time I can’t get shortlisted and on the rare occasions when I do, invariably an NQT is appointed. Even those schools that sing my praises when I’m providing long term cover for English have opted for a cheaper NQT when it comes down to filling a position. NQTs might lack that classroom nous initially but they have enough youth, energy and enthusiasm to make up for that and plenty of them develop into good teachers. Financially and academically it’s a no-brainer for a Head and that’s the reason why I’m leaving teaching (this sort of suggests that it’s my choice whereas it’s akin to me suggesting that it’s my choice that I’m single rather than the fact that I’m grotesque to women).

    • David Didau July 20, 2013 at 4:45 pm - Reply

      I’m sorry to hear that Richard – you deserve better.

  2. Mummystardust July 20, 2013 at 3:11 pm - Reply

    In my humble opinion the best way to retain the best teachers is to allow them freedom to learn as well as teach.
    I was lucky enough to do my PGCE at a highly prestigious establishment which would allow me to do my Masters if I started this within three years of completion of the PGCE. My MEd in researching practice has been amazing. Reading, writing researching, coming across books I would never have read, networking with teachers I did not know before… has been truely enlightening. But…and this is my reason for posting…it has been used by a particular person as a stick to beat me with.
    I was hauled into the office by this person (AST – never shares resources, ex HOD and now an assistant principal – they also have a Masters) and asked why in my gained time I had not written not one but two new schemes of work! Ignoring the fact that they had refused to do one of these schemes, which I then volunteered to do if they were not needed til later in the academic year when my thesis would have been long gone… Mentioning my thesis at this point was like a red rag to a bull…I was told that I “referenced my thesis too much”, and that i was “only doing it for my own gain”!
    I have broad shoulders, an understanding husband and have dealt with, for the past 5 years, the tragic loss of our 16 yr old daughter so I shrugged this off – said the scheme which they insisted with no negotiation was to be delivered in September would be ready (and it will) smiled sweetly and left the office.
    I do not really mind about the extra workload – I love writing schemes and this one will be fun to do. I do not mind the constant “have you done this…?” which regularly spams my inbox at 8.00 on a Sunday evening which needs dealing with before I arrive in school at 7.45am next day, I can even deal with the snide comments….but what I hate is the lack of recognition of the fact that I want to be a better teacher and I need the time to do this. My Masters is the first step – I will continue to learn and I have no desire to go beyond being a classroom teacher but I will strive to be the best and to encourage others to do so too.
    So to retain teachers we should train, retrain, enthuse, encourage and reward by allowing time to do this. And by allowing time to do this we will enrich the profession from within.

  3. David Didau July 20, 2013 at 4:48 pm - Reply

    Maybe teachers could apply for research/training roles within their schools which would allow them timetabled opportunities to do whatever it is they want to develop their teaching? I guess these would have to have some form of accountability where you show the school what it is you’ve done with the time. Could work. And if schools are serious about retaining their best teachers it’s certainly worth trying.

  4. Harry Fletcher-Wood July 20, 2013 at 6:50 pm - Reply

    An interesting post – both for the important points it restates (such as the apparent lack of will on the part of many senior leaders to retain staff) and the surprises (it had not occurred to me how likely it is that a teacher leaving will be replaced by a better teacher – although if recruitment processes and CPD worked first time around, this would be far less likely).

    I share your – and most teachers’ – concern as to the only route of development taking your out of the classroom – and the impact this has on the classroom teachers we have and the leaders we have. On the other hand, I felt pretty envious on hearing about your day a week to pursue other projects in your new school!

    I think the KIPP document you quote from is a promising one – many charters and academies having suffered from particularly high turnover of staff. If those three questions can be answered well, we will keep and develop many more teachers. Giving teachers time and support to develop as excellent teachers must be a good investment. As someone who now works at a school with an extended day but with ‘flexitime’ (every teacher has one morning or afternoon off a week), the effect in terms of wellbeing, rest, ability to function (go to the bank or whatever) and to develop (visit other schools) has been spectacular and solutions like this are key to retention given the workload of teaching. The question of recognition is perhaps even more important than the other two: it is, I believe, the most powerful reward of teaching… it’s free, it’s powerful and it just takes a little time to organise (track down a couple of a teacher’s former students and ask them for a comment/note each term, for example).

    Perhaps staff retention and wellbeing should be in the portfolio of an SLT member in every school? I struggle to see how a school which does not achieve some of these things could achieve sustainable success…

    • David Didau July 21, 2013 at 10:15 am - Reply

      You’re absolutely right Harry. I will certainly make it an important part of my portfolio. Thanks

    • SallyS September 27, 2013 at 12:56 am - Reply

      Absolutely agree… some SLTs are doing this and have the well-being of staff in the right balance. Sadly, not all do.

  5. daviddoherty69 July 20, 2013 at 9:41 pm - Reply

    An excellent post David. As always thought-provoking and can’t help but feel a little bit sad that our best teachers spend less and less time in the classroom as they progress. We still haven’t got that right though I’m hopeful that the KIPP document suggests some sensible ways forward… maybe the two Michaels will read it 😉

  6. ACross July 20, 2013 at 11:06 pm - Reply

    The whole point of UPS was to keep excellent classroom teachers in the classroom. This seems to have been totally forgotten now and is used to give classroom teachers extra responsibility.
    To teach excellent lessons you need to have time to plan, and mark and to get enough relaxation/sleeping time, so you are fully functioning. The heavier the workload the more likely something is going to snap, and often it’s the teacher. I hate to say how many times a teacher has told me they have gone home and wept at the thought of their workload. The situation is appalling, but because of most teachers are dedicated to their students they put up with it.
    I would also take issue with your reference to under perfoming teachers. There are structures in place to support teachers who need it and if the management do not use these structures I would say the management needs to look at themselves. Sometimes there is a mismatch between a teachers skills and the school, but it rarely means they aren’t able to teach.
    I learnt a valuable lesson about that in my training year when working with a teacher, who I did not rate. I eventually realised they had other qualities that the students valued highly and were very important. The teacher may not have had outstanding results, but what they taugh the students was far more than subject knowledge and made a positive contribution to the students’ lives.

  7. Glaister July 21, 2013 at 9:02 am - Reply

    Thank you for this article, I too have been consistently rated outstanding within my school. I want to stay in the classroom, I love teaching. I want to keep learning. But in Norfolk the opportunities are zero, definelty no programes available. I occupy myself by running new initiatives etc and offer my skills to other schools in the area in my own time. The students are my reward. I would love to do a masters, the answer is NO as they cannot afford to have me out of the dept! The ultimate driving force is saving money getting NQTs wherever possible, which is fine to keep it fresh, however, the outcome of being competent at your job means those that can, have a massive workload, mostly Exam groups, loaded to the point of breaking. As a colleague stated Friday to me, that’s what you get for being outstanding! I have 16 colleagues leaving the profession or area this year, last year it was 12. All rated good or outstanding teachers, ALL. Unless you want the greasy pole there is nothing, if you genuinely love teaching & want to stay in the class and not behind a phone or desk, it seems to me you have to accept you are on the BOTTOM of that greasy pole, which isnt sustainable enough for me.

    • David Didau July 21, 2013 at 10:18 am - Reply

      Yes, I’d forgotten all about UPS when writing this, and yes: it’s become another stick to hit experienced teachers with.

      The best schools will put together something along the lines of the Ped leaders project that @kevbartle has written about, but maybe there needs to be a nationally structured system for recognising & rewarding outstanding classroom teachers?

      • James Theobald (@JamesTheo) July 21, 2013 at 9:23 pm - Reply

        “recognising […] outstanding classroom teachers” – I genuinely think the labelling of teachers as “outstanding” rather than the lessons/learning they deliver is part of the problem. This leads to fixed mindsets, extra stress and demotivation when those teachers get observed doing anything less than the label that’s been applied to them. I’ve seen it happen and it’s really disheartening to watch.

  8. missmcinerney July 21, 2013 at 2:51 pm - Reply

    David – so much to think though here, and Harry FW’s response in particular gives thought around the importance of well-being and time for teachers to do more development.

    One of the things that seems to work in other European countries is an approach which thinks of teachers more akin to surgeons – with a set number of hours available that are ‘contracted’ to schools. In doing so teachers are more likely to set an amount that works for *them* – i.e. I will work x days of the week, or x number of hours – and then ‘timetabling’ is literally done to fit the situation. This means that people with caring duties (for children, partners or parents) are more able to balance their careers, other people use that time for development or other work (e.g. one colleague ran a cabinet-making business on the other two days – which increased their skills and credibility as a tech teacher).

    Unfortunately we are still in a mindset that thinks of teachers as belonging to one school, as having to give all their power to one timetabler who sets their hours without due regard for their workload, and as a group who should want to (and be able to) spend 60 hours every week fully focussed on their classes. Changing this perception could do a lot to stem the flow.

  9. Jill Berry August 4, 2013 at 7:20 pm - Reply

    David: I found your blog and the ensuing discussion interesting. Thank you.

    There was a #ukedchat discussion about the issue of teacher retention last Friday, 2nd August, which I contributed to (as one of a small but thoughtful band, I think!) so I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently.

    A couple of things I said then: It saddens me when teachers who aren’t settled in their first job leave the profession completely. My advice would always be to try a change of school first. It may just be that the school/dept doesn’t suit you, so don’t assume it’s definitely the job that doesn’t suit. A number of contributors to the discussion talked of being unhappy in their first school but much more settled in their second, so I’m sure it’s a message worth promoting.

    I also think that serving teachers and school leaders on different levels need to think about how they model the job to others. Many teachers do enthuse about the job (or certain elements of the job) but if they always give others the impression that the pressures outweigh the joys of it, they’re unwittingly putting others off. I feel the same about school leadership. I’m sure it’s possible to be realistic and not to mislead others while still accentuating the positive.

    And lastly, I do understand the issue about the best teachers moving on and teachers moving into leadership doing less teaching. But in my view often the best leaders benefit from having experience in a range of schools across their career and so movement is good – I was a head in my sixth school and am sure I was a better head for having taught in six (very different) schools. And yes, I did do less teaching in each role, but I felt each role offered me the opportunity to make MORE of a difference to the pupils’ experience. It’s all about parameters – as a class teacher my sphere of influence was the children in my classes. As a Head of English I was able to influence the experience and achievements (indirectly, through the team) of all those studying English. As Head of Sixth Form my responsibility meant I could impact on the experience of students across the Sixth Form, then as Deputy Head and as Head – you get the picture. So yes, by the time I was a Head I only taught a few lessons (all the Year 7 classes, one lesson a week each) and that was more about getting to know them, and them getting to know me – about building relationships rather than being the best English teacher in the school (I wasn’t…) but as a head I felt I could make more of a difference to the education of the 800+ children in the school than I’d ever done before.

    Does anyone else feel that way?

    Sorry this has been such an epic….

  10. […] massive amounts of teachers who leave the profession within the first five years. the idea behind this post however, was somewhat different. The author makes the point that the real crisis we are facing is […]

  11. SallyS September 27, 2013 at 12:46 am - Reply

    A really insightful post that very much echoes a lot of my experience. Having been graded as outstanding from my NQT year, I was thriving and hungry for promotion. Every position I applied for I got with ease. I was hardworking and enjoyed my job- head of year, head of Media, second in faculty and then six years ago became an AST.

    Teaching and learning had always been my passion; training, coaching and leading are my strengths. However, I moved schools to take on an Assistant Head post. Right from the word go, I began struggling. I should add that my teaching load increased as an Assistant Head compared to an AST… 17 hours a week! So teaching 17 hours, in charge of CPD, teaching and learning and literacy, not to mention line managing, I struggled. My role had changed several times within the space of a couple of months, and it wasn’t until the holiday that I took stock. I can’t be outstanding… I’d struggle to be even good on some days.

    But the biggest deciding factor was that I joined a senior leadership team (not all but some) that did not support their staff, and uses data, observations, anything that shows teachers and some leaders that they are useless. I had to leave… feeling like a failure after 10 years and four schools of being outstanding.

    I now work as a consultant and work with leaders in schools. But I do miss the teaching!!

  12. […] UPDATE 20th Oct 2013 : this has become my most viewed post by far (about 20,000 hits and counting!) so it’s very clearly touched a chord that resonates with many teachers feeling under the cosh. I wrote a follow up a few months later which might also be worth your time: How can we retain the best teachers? […]

  13. […] How can we retain the best teachers? […]

  14. Mary Anne ConnerySimmons February 26, 2014 at 2:21 pm - Reply

    I also “moved” up the ladder from classroom teacher to instructional coach to positions as school and district administrator. I often thought about having all those great teachers working in a district office in a struggling urban district.

    In the work I am now doing in urban Turnaround schools, I have come to believe that the key question is the one you are asking – how can we attract and retain the best teachers (and administrators). The challenges in these schools are so significant and the demands made on teachers unrealistic. Your article made me think about how more flexible schedules might help.

  15. sophie ashton September 8, 2014 at 10:55 pm - Reply

    In my own experience, I have found that the induction year is impossible to get finished. I am an nqt that has spent five years trying to complete induction and because of the laws around supply, I have been forced into a level 2. Teaching Assistant role for the last 3 years. I have privately tutored small groups in private classes at the weekend just to keep my teaching going as i.teach full lessons in english. I am unable to find a school to take me on for one term eventhough I am good cover occasional ppa. I have now almost resigned myself to giving.up.on ever teaching in a mainstream school again and to just be a level 3 teaching.assistant for the rest of my life. I even asked at my current school to see if they would help me complete my induction but they refused to help due to financial reasons then proceeded to take on.a outstanding student, two.students from a pool and several other teachers. I can not even get hired on supply now as i haven’t been teaching enough and the tutoring is recognised So if you want to retain teachers,get rid of the induction process.

  16. CP December 22, 2014 at 11:09 am - Reply

    A thought on workload, which is, for many a serious issue. As noted in a post above, it can seem as if those in management have forgotten what it is to teach a full load – 44 of 50 hrs in a 2 week cycle for example. The issue of workload is inextricably linked to the efficiency of the systems and processes in place in an organisation to enable efficient delivery of policy. In my experience understanding of systems and process in schools is very limited. How many of us have worked in organisations where departments are asked to track student progress, to monitor performance of certain sub groups against the cohort etc? How often has such an edict been issued but so system provided with which to efficiently implement the policy? So each department head sits down, opens Excel and wonders how the heck to produce the necessary all singing all dancing spreadsheet. The inefficiency of it all is staggering. The additional, completely unnecessary workload is enormous.

    To take another example, a policy might be put in place that all students complete personal learning checklists for each topic they study aiming to embed whatever it should embed and having a learn gin dialogue with the teacher. All very fine and dandy and we get to use some current teaching buzz words too. But, in practice, how does a teacher teaching a dozen KS3 and 4 groups make this happen in a way that does not take a vast amount of time to achieve? That policy, for all it’s pedagogical value, will, unless a very slick system is put in place to enable its implementation and delivery, simply fizzle out having caused huge stress to the teachers concerned. The failure to implement adequately will then be used as a stick to beat them with when in reality the fault lies squarely with those who failed to consider in detail how the policy could be implemented and provide systems for it to be done. Too often each teacher is just left to try to work out how to achieve policy implementation. Hugely inefficient and time consuming.

    Coming from the world of business, these failings are jaw dropping. It is not that people in business don’t have bad ideas. They do. It is just that there are generally enough people in the meeting who think systems and process and politely give the suggester that ‘ are you ***kin’ joking?’ look.

    At the end of the day organisations succeed or fail on the efficiency of their systems and processes. The classroom teacher needs systems around them that enable them to spend the maximum possible amount of time on delivering high quality teaching and learning. Anything that distracts from that, an inefficient detention system, inefficient data recording and handling systems etc prevents them from doing their job and detracts from the effectiveness of the organisation.

  17. chris sparks (@chrisztweetz) March 2, 2015 at 5:27 am - Reply

    A fine blog post, thank you. It’s so good to have a couple of positive suggestions about what to do about the issue, and these comments are a great continuation of the discussion.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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