Teaching is a hard job, and we all know that it doesn’t pay in proportion to the amount of work that it requires. Sometimes the reality of what teaching really is compared to the image put forth in teacher education programs and movies is too much for teachers, novices and veterans, alike. Every year, teachers leave to pursue other professions, motivated by high pay, less stress, social dynamics, or the desire for change.
What can we do to keep good teachers in the profession?
Start by establishing and maintaining a caring, supportive culture for teachers of all personality types (not all teachers like social gatherings, some do not like to have their instructional time interrupted - even for something positive, some do not like public praise, some are loners).
Remember that campus culture is important. Teachers and students both need to want to be there. Without a supportive, nurturing culture, learning is likely to decline (but be careful not to let the pendulum swing too far toward the opposite direction and to where culture outweighs an emphasis on academic standards).
Campus Culture Matters
One of our writers worked for a principal who frequently stated that the faculty of the school was a team, not a family because family members let each other get away with things, but teammates hold each other accountable so the whole team can advance towards success.
Another perspective states that not all teachers want to view their colleagues as a family - it is a community. Communities are made up of a variety of different people working in a variety of roles. Some community members are stronger than others, but all serve a purpose and contribute in their own way.
Regardless of the philosophy, it is important that teachers feel welcome and wanted. Education is a profession that requires its employees to constantly give and pour into others, and most teachers need to know that they are valued and appreciated for their contributions and hard work. Celebrate their accomplishments, both big and small.
Along with this, teachers also need a way to truly feel heard and know that their voices and opinions are valued. This could be in the form of an anonymous suggestion box, a Google form survey sent out periodically, or scheduled coffee chats with the principal. Many principals say that they have an open-door policy, but their doors are shut more often than not, or the body language of the principal communicates that they don’t actually have time to listen.
A good way to approach a conversation when a teacher comes in crisis, whether they are shouting or crying, is to ask, “Do you just need me to listen, or do you want me to try and fix this?” One of our writers tells teachers, students, parents, and even fellow administrators that his office is always a safe place to cry or cuss. He goes on to say, “I’d rather you come and have a meltdown in a safe place than erupt in a classroom”
It is important for administrators to be real with their teachers. Sometimes they need to relieve the anxieties and stresses of their personal lives in order to be effective in their classroom. Show them the respect of listening and caring for them as a whole person. Know that they are complete, complicated persons with emotions, concerns, stressors, and needs outside of the workplace, and be open to relating to them. Don’t be afraid to ask if they are OK, and actually be willing to listen if they are not. In some situations, it may even be appropriate to let them know that they can call the office if they need someone to cover their class so they can step out for a few minutes to have a good cry.
It is also a good practice to remind teachers that every student who walks into their classrooms is potentially caring at least as much built-up stress and emotion from their own homelives and being asked to put it all on hold to focus on quadratic equations or expository essays.
While there is enough to do each day to keep administrators tethered to their desks all day, staying in the office is actually counter-productive to their goals. The more students see their principals in the halls and in the classrooms, the more opportunities they will have to interact with them and build relationships, and the less likely they will be to act inappropriately which will reduce the amount of time spent on discipline.
It is also very important for teachers o see campus administrators, both formally and informally, in the halls and in their classrooms. They need to know that they are not alone, and just like students, they need to feel comfortable interacting with administrators, not intimidated or threatened by their presence. This will also help teachers to feel welcome in their offices.
Teachers need to know that they are supported when it comes to disciplinary concerns. Most teachers take multiple preemptive measures before sending a student to the office, so they find it demoralizing to have a principal ignore or downplay a referral. It is important for the administrator to take the time to get the full story from the teacher if possible, and to communicate the discipline with the teacher. If grace is shown to the student, take the time to follow up with the teacher and explain why it was handled the way it was.
Teachers are not only required to be masters of pedagogy and experts in their respective fields, but they are also responsible for managing people - in a sense, they are the administrators of their classrooms. Be willing to support teachers by being present for uncomfortable conversations with students, parents, or colleagues. Sometimes they just need you to help think through what to say and how it may go or just present at the meeting. Other times they may need you to facilitate or mediate the conversation.
Keeping Novice Teachers
10-30% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching. While many factors may lead to this, this could definitely be impeded by proper support through mentorship.
First-year teachers need to be assigned a veteran teacher to be their mentor. This mentor does not have to teach the same content or grade-level. Their role is to teach them how to use basic systems and technology in the school. Regular meetings with this mentor should be planned with specific topics/information assigned to be shared. And, make sure that these mentors are supplemented for this extra responsibility.
But, remember that not all of these relationships will be copacetic.
Teachers should also be encouraged to find a mentor with whom they have a natural affinity who teaches the same thing they do. This person can help them with content and pedagogy along with giving them someone they can go to regarding the day-to-day concerns and stresses the first years of teaching always bring.
Don’t drop new teachers after the first year and just throw them to the wolves. While they may not need as much structure in their mentorship, the first 3 years are generally all difficult. Continue to mentor teachers in their second (and possibly third) year.
An important part of this mentorship should be arranging for first- and second-year teachers to shadow veteran teachers with a variety of teaching and classroom management styles (outside of their content areas). After a day of shadowing, meet up to debrief. Ask what they observed in other classrooms: what surprised them, what would they like to implement immediately, what would they like to work towards in the long-term, what things did they realize that they are already doing well?
Finally, at the end of the year, remember to ask first- and second-year teachers what they wish someone would have told them/helped them with. Use this information to inform and guide your mentor program the next year.
Help Them Grow Professionally
While most schools plan professional developments for the entire campus or whole departments, teachers often know the areas in which they need to grow. Many also have things they want to learn more about. Encourage teachers to find trainings and conferences they want to attend. Have them submit a proposal and make an effort to send as many teachers as possible.
Teachers will be happiest and most successful when they are teaching what they are most interested in. Ask teachers what they want to teach, and when possible, arrange for them to teach their requested subject/grade-level. If their request is a major change, work with them to prepare them for the transition by allowing them to observe other teachers and/or send them to some trainings.
Good leaders develop leaders even though that may mean losing some of their best teachers to higher positions. Some teachers will be actively looking to move into leadership positions, but be on the lookout for teachers who have latent potential that hasn’t been identified yet. Encourage them to step into smaller leadership positions. Train them and mentor them.
Little Things Matter
Finally, it is important to note that the little things often matter the most. Time is not a little thing, but it is often taken for granted by those in leadership. Legally, teachers get a duty-free lunch and a planning period, but all-to-often, this time gets compromised. Keep this time sacred - teachers need it! Provide time for team planning, individual planning, parent contacts, and grading. If it is taken away for a specific reason, find a way to give it back at another time.
Teaching can be physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. Do what you can to refill your teachers’ reservoirs. Start by providing a comfortable, desirable space in the teachers’ lounge for teachers to relax during the school day along with a practical, user-friendly workspace in the workroom. These rooms are often surrounded by blank, stark walls, and old, worn-out furniture. Spruce it up a little. Some simple wall decorations, comfortable seating, and a functional workspace can go a long way.
Provide optional opportunities for fun and fellowship like baking or cooking competitions.
Bring in a local massage therapist to give teachers free 15-minute chair massages.
Surprise teachers by delivering little treats or gifts of office supplies to their classrooms.
And lastly, give your teachers (and students) little reasons to smile. Be silly. Dance down the hallways. Wear a ridiculous costume. Play loud music and high-five them as they come to school.
Have fun and be relatable - it will be contagious!