This summer, I read many articles from and about teachers leaving education for myriad reasons. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, teacher turnover is about 16 percent, compared to about 12 percent a quarter-century ago. In one specific post that resonated with me, a much-loved and well-respected teacher articulated five reasons why she was leaving the classroom. As I reflected on each of these reasons, I couldn’t help but think about what our leadership team is doing well and what all of us as school leaders can do better.
It seems simple enough: keep it low. But how exactly do education leaders influence this? There’s only so much money to go around, right? What can we do in a school corporation or district where low class sizes aren’t kept a priority? To start, we should be working with our central office staff to ensure careful long-term planning and projections. Since every district is different in terms of population shifts; assessed value; urban, suburban, or rural composition; commercial-residential mix; property tax caps; and grant funding, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to school funding and stretching our educational dollars as far as possible.
Because there isn’t one formula, we must be strategic. We must use data to help make projections for the future. We must project growth or declining enrollment, make the adjustments to staff, and include the money in this long-range forecast. Through all of this, we have to focus our dollars on teachers. Teachers are the single greatest determiners of student success. Maybe our floors only get vacuumed once a week and our kids spend 10 minutes longer per day on their bus rides home. If this gives us money back to hire more teachers in order to bring class numbers down, isn’t it worth it?
We have to know and trust our teachers, and they need to trust us. Can we identify special people in our teachers’ lives by name? What are their interests outside of school? When a teacher comes to us with an idea, do we answer with a “Yes, have you thought of…?” When our teachers talk to us, do we listen intently and hear them? Do we ask them about students? Do we show them on a regular basis that we count on them to be the primary assessors of their students’ learning? Do we engage them in rigorous dialogue about their student data? Do we support our teachers when things get sticky with students and parents? Do we deliver the company line as a team that accomplishes goals or initiatives together? Do we close feedback loops and follow up when we say we will?
There are so many simple ways day in and day out that we show respect to our teachers. It is imperative that we are consistent and unwavering in this basic responsibility of educational leaders. To read more about how we support our teachers to build trust and respect, check out this post from last year.
What can we do about standardized testing? A good starting point is to limit testing to what your state requires. Beyond the required standardized assessments, build capacity in your staff to spend the majority of their assessment time in formative ways. Effective lesson planning builds checks for understanding into the curriculum. Teachers must bring these data to their professional learning communities for discussion and growth which, in turn, brings about student growth. If our respective states determine that our teachers must be assessed based on their students’ performance on a standardized test, make sure your teachers know this is just one measure. However, if this measure is tied to performance evaluations or pay, be sure to work with your teachers to build a guaranteed and viable curriculum and establish what elements are tight versus which ones are loose. Here’s how we focused our teaching and learning.
The departing teacher whose post inspired this blog said she “felt like she was drowning.” I hear this commonly from teachers; I would venture to say that this could be the most common cause for leaving the profession. We must fight to cut out the hoops that our legislators or other leaders outside of our school building may want to impose. We must minimize new initiatives. We need to limit our schools to the essentials, and then stick with these same research-based best practices year after year, allowing our teachers to become experts in what works.
We cannot keep asking teachers to do more with less time. We need to build time into their workdays for peer collaboration. We must make time for fun and connection. As a leader, I say “yes” anytime I can. However, one area where I am quick to say “no” is anything that means putting more on our teachers’ already full plates.
Teachers make about 20 percent less than individuals with college degrees in other fields. This gap widens to about 30 percent by mid-career, according to the Learning Policy Institute. This is another area, like class size, that may seem a bit out of our control as building level leaders. However, we can make a difference through advocacy and managing up.
We must work with our central office staff to ensure we are managing our tax rate at an efficient level, maximizing our debt service expenditures, and keeping money in operations. (Again, states have varying funding laws.) Lastly, along with doing the most we can with the tax money we have at the district level, we can and should be advocating with our local and state lawmakers for increased funding for teacher compensation. To learn more about advocating for public education, read here.
Which of these five reasons that teachers leave resonates with you? Where can you envision getting your greatest leverage for change? We probably can’t tackle all five domains at once, but we can start somewhere. Which one area will you commit to improving for your teachers this year?
Amber Schroering serves as an assistant principal at Brownsburg East Middle School, one of the highest performing middle level schools in the state of Indiana. She considers it a privilege and honor to work with such amazing students, teachers and parents. Amber has taught and led for 18 years in public education. She is the 2017 Indiana Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter at @AmberSchroering.