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Why Teachers Stay – Good Administrators

November 6, 2013

Liz Riggs, in last month’s edition of The Atlantic, wrote an interesting piece about teacher longevity and the factors that lead educators to stay in the classroom or leave the profession.  Last week, I wrote a blog that examined how the desire to help students is one of the biggest reasons teachers continue teaching despite the low pay and lack of respect they often receive.  Let’s now explore what school leaders can do to retain good teachers.  In her article, Riggs makes the point “that the way administration deals with both students and teachers has a ‘huge effect’ on teacher satisfaction.” Fortunately, I have been blessed to work with many incredibly gifted leaders who have kindled and rekindled my passion for working with middle school students.  Had my career path been different, I might be selling cars for a living and making a lot more money!

We were all new teachers once, and most of us can vividly remember our first year and how difficult it was to make the transition from being a student to becoming a teacher.  Since nearly half of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years, having a mentor can make a huge difference.  Most schools assign an experienced teacher to introduce new teachers to school life and advise them on how to improve their teaching.  Being able to confide and commensurate with a fellow teacher about the draining workload, difficult kids, or school politics can make all the difference in whether or not new teachers survive (melodramatic but true).  At one school I worked, the headmaster went so far as to hire a psychologist to provide teachers with an opportunity to vent to someone other than their boss.  Such an investment not only increased the retention rate of new hires but also improved the school’s culture and quality of instruction.

Working for school leaders who invest time and effort into helping their teachers grow professionally makes even veteran teachers want to remain in the classroom.  As the article states, teachers “who have even just two small initiatives in place (working with a mentor and having regular supportive communication with an administrator) are more likely to stay in the classroom.”  Early in my career, I had the pleasure of working for Tom Beazley’s who currently heads Promise Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.  He made sure to take time each day to connect with teachers not only in his office but also in their classrooms and the faculty room.  The bonds that he cultivated with faculty members improved morale and decreased teacher-turnover.  One year, when money was tight, Tom not only bought a train ticket so I could be with my family, but he also took the time to drive me to the station.  When employers go above and beyond, teachers are motivated to work harder, which improves the teaching and increases the incentive to stay in the profession.

Administrators, especially department and grade level chairs can retain teachers by creating welcoming environments and opportunities for teachers to connect with one another.  The teacher who did this best in my career was Pat Walsh, the head of the fifth grade team at Harker School.  Pat made a concerted effort to connect with teachers and, more importantly, to get teachers to bond with one another.  On several Fridays each month, our team would get together after school for drinks at a local restaurant not far from school.  These meetings were literally “happy hours” in that they helped us to exorcise the frustration from the week while bringing us together as friends.  During my four years, we became so close that these people became the kind of friends you can call at 3 am when your kids is sick (as I did when my son had a 105 degree temperature) or when you desperately need a favor. At school, Pat’s sense of humor and ebullient personality were infections, and he made it a pleasure to come to work each day.

Helping teachers feel valued is another thing leaders can do to increase teacher retention.  Alissa Benway, the Chair of the History Department at Carroll School, excelled at this.  From the moment she took over the department, she made a concerted effort to let her teachers know they were valued.  She visited classrooms during free periods making sure to focus on what we did well rather than on areas where we needed to improve.  She sang our praises to the other members of the faculty, including the head of school.  Personally, I was incredibly thankful to her because she she made me feel like my passion for teaching mattered.  Having known administrators who made it clear that teachers were expendable, experiencing such loyalty made staying up late grading papers and writing comments (almost) worth it

Finally, administrators need to be willing to step in and help when emergencies arise with members of their faculty.  Ten years ago, my son (who has since recovered) fell out of a third story window.  Roger Jones, the former head of Bancroft’s Middle School, drove home from a school trip and was one of the first people who offered to help support me and my family (the first was Scott Reisinger, the headmaster).  Later in the week, when I was tired and nearing my breaking point, he snuck a six-pack of Yuengling into intensive care so I could take a break from the insanity and watch a Sox game.  The fact that he took the time to help me in my moment of greatest need meant more to me than I can possibly express.  Put simply, I would walk through fire for him.

Teaching is hard.  According to a report by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, the turnover rate for teachers is nearly four percent higher than other professions.  Yet, school leaders have the power and incentive to create environments that induce teachers to return each fall and continue teaching.  Research has shown that “reducing the frequency with which children are taught by a successive stream of novice teachers may be one step toward improving educational quality” (p.343).

Ultimately, teachers want to be respected for all the hard work they do to help their students.  When administrators take the time and make the effort to connect with members of their faculty and make their jobs more fulfilling and rewarding, students learn and teachers have a strong incentive to continue teaching.

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  1. Roger Jones permalink

    And another important factor in teacher retention is for administrators to hire passionate educators who are commited to making the sacrifices necessary to make real changes in students’ lives.

  2. stephanie permalink

    I totally agree, Dave. My first two principals were great all-around people, and it made a huge difference in my “hanging in there” those first few years!

  3. I have worked with some administrators who were incompetent, only out to further their careers, and who wanted to take the easy way out. Those administrators made me (and sometimes still make me) question if I am in the right profession. But then, there are those leaders who reaffirm my passion for teaching. They are intelligent, care about the students, know what works, and they are willing to engage in debate and discussion concerning the profession. These people have kept me where I am and they have pushed me to be better. When I started to realize that I cared a lot more about education than I even realized and I began to make my philosophies known, I also began to seek out like-minded people. I ended up with mentors that have guided me in exciting and worthwhile directions.

  4. Thanks for ‘liking’ and linking to my post — and following my blog!

    Really enjoyed your personal stories about administrators who went above and beyond to make you feel valued as a teacher and a human being. It’s so true that school leaders who invest in their teachers will build a loyal, stable faculty. Thanks for sharing!

  5. To thosewhoteach: I’m glad you liked the recent series on what schools can do to retain good teachers. Believe it or not – a former student sent me a copy of the article and suggested that I dive in and take a took at the concept.

    I’m enjoying your blog as well. It’s funny – I’m doing more thinking about teaching now that I’m on sabbatical then I was ever able to do while in the classroom.

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