What can Leaders do to Increase Teacher & Staff Retention?

January 18, 2023

Teacher, staff and administrator burnout, stress and turnover can be really costly for schools and districts.

When a principal, teacher or staff member leaves a school district, the cost of this resignation is paid on many levels.

First, there is the most obvious cost. Finding a replacement for this person will require hours of recruiting, soliciting, sifting through resumés, interviewing, and assuming you find the right person, onboarding and training, paperwork and administrative bandwidth. The National Education Association (NEA) estimated in 2017 that the average turnover cost for a teacher was $21,000. Today, that number is undoubtedly higher. Often, the cost for replacing an educator must come out of funds intended for professional development or other district-enriching funds. Turnover makes schools poorer.

Second, there is the less measurable, but very real impact of turnover on the climate of the school or district. In the best of cases, the resigner will make the transition smooth, will give plenty of lead time. Even so, the disruption to the climate is palpable and people will have to pick up the pieces. Students who have mid-year interruptions in their teaching staff are hit the hardest. They are left to learn material on their own, or sometimes with one long-term substitute teacher after another, with little to no communication between the educators to maintain any type of long-term sustained educational plan for the students. In fact, when I started teaching fourth grade, the classroom I taught had been in the hands of many long-term subsitutes over the last two years. Nobody had wanted to work with them for a whole year. And their academic and social-emotional well-being were a testament to this.

On the other hand, when you have a district and school with high retention rates you are in a position to make powerful change. You have the possibility of creating buy-in around long-term programs and initiatives. You have high-quality relationships that have been nurtured over years. You have teachers who know each other and are able to collaborate effectively, feel comfortable around each other, and support each other. And perhaps most importantly, you have teachers who know their students, who have seen them grow over the course of a few years into different, more developed people.

Caring for teacher well-being is insurance against turnover – and a retention-booster. But what does it take to do increase retention? Donut Fridays? More prep time? More materials? Change in leadership style? The answer is, well…it depends. While there are universally helpful interventions, what if there was a simple process to drive up retention rates?

Over the last few months, dozens of K12 school and district leaders and educators have joined Focus Groups for teacher and staff retention. A lot has surfaced in terms of ways to increase retention.

This is the process we’ve been using with schools and districts who are serious about improving conditions for educators (and by extension students).

OBSERVE

Start by observing and listening. Asking questions. Empathizing. Understand what the pain points are. Understand people’s desires, dreams, goals, and aspirations. What are the current strengths of the school or district? Without being modest, what sets it apart from other places? Where do people envision the school or district being in 5 years and what needs to happen for it to get there? I didn’t make up this series of questions. It comes from David Cooperrider’s Appreciative Inquiry model for transformational organizational change, and we apply it in School Well-being Solutions to support schools in achieving their potential.

After analyzing, correlating, visualizing, and digesting the data, move on to iterating.

ITERATE A STRENGTHS-BASED PLAN

Draft a plan by collaborating with a core group of forward-thinkers. It’s also good to have some resistors in the group who can provide perspective diversity about what needs to happen. Doing this might bring up strong emotions, so it is sometimes good to integrate stress management practices such as mindfulness, compassionate communication, and breathing as part of the iteration meetings. Use the myriad of organizational meta-analyses that help drive employee engagement and well-being and sense of voice and mattering when drafting the plan. After all, your goal here is to drive up retention and well-being.

It can be useful to make two types of plans:

1) operational or systemic adjustments (e.g., aligning messaging from top administrators)

2) personal resilience professional development (e.g., mindfulness or high quality self-care offerings).

LAUNCH & MESSAGE CHANGES INTENTIONALLY

Now that you have a plan for improving well-being, put it into action. When you do this, avoid trying to do everything at once. If you want to roll out a weekly voice-sharing session, or a well-being series, or schoolwide meditation, try just running one event, but make sure it’s well organized, thought-out, and messaged accordingly. If it goes well, set a date for the next one, and the next one. Eventually it will become an organic part of the school or district’s culture and climate. You can delegate an owner of the process and move onto implementing the next part of the collaborative plan.

REFINE & OPTIMIZE AS NEEDED

So now you have multiple aspects of the plan operating, and a few skilled managers who are owning them. However, we can’t rest on our laurels. Create a listening culture. A space where it’s ok to express dissenting points of views and ideas and there is a norm of emotional regulation and respect. Keep refining, modifying, optimizing, and improving on the plan. And get ready to rinse and repeat the cycle. After you hear from your staff in your next round of surveys, keep what works well and change what doesn’t.

CELEBRATE!

Congratulations! You’re on your way to creating the conditions for thriving and well-being in a way that is specifically targeted for your environment. You can do this! And if you want help, expertise, references, training, and consultation along the way, we are here to support you.

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