Making Teachers Stick

School districts across the country are increasingly fearful of losing newly hired, highly talented teachers. In the United States, 8 percent of teachers leave the profession annually, and more than 50 percent quit teaching before reaching retirement. Teachers exiting the profession cite a lack of administrative support as one of the top five reasons for teacher attrition. Teachers’ perceptions of their principals’ effectiveness can influence a school district’s ability to retain their teaching staff. This is particularly evident in high-poverty schools, where teacher attrition is above average.

With an increase of nearly 3 million students projected over the next 10 years and enrollment in teacher education programs dropping 35 percent from 2009 to 2014, many school districts across the country are struggling to fill their classrooms with qualified educators, particularly at the secondary level. Over the past two years, enrollment has continued to decline in teacher education programs. The U.S. Department of Education estimates the need for another 1.6 million teachers across the United States over a 10-year span that began in 2012.

In her article “Why Do Teachers Quit?” Liz Riggs revealed that for those who are enrolled in teacher education programs, 40 percent of those potential educators never even enter the profession, citing a “lack of respect” and describing teaching as a “very disempowered line of work.” According to Sally Weale in her article “Four in 10 New Teachers Quit Within a Year,” prospective teachers who originally entered into teacher education programs decided against entering the profession at a rate three times what it was just six years ago, opting instead for a different career. To compound the issue of teacher shortages, nearly half of new teachers leave the classroom in their first five years, including 9.5 percent in the first year alone. Nearly a third of those leaving their positions chose to leave the profession altogether, opting for careers outside of education.

The importance of a teacher’s effect on student achievement cannot be overstated. Teachers have more influence on student achievement than any other factor. Compared to class size, overall spending, teacher salaries, proportion of teachers to staff, and student background factors—such as socioeconomic status, language barriers, and race—a well-prepared teacher still correlates strongest to student achievement. A study done by Helen Ladd and Lucy Sorensen of North Carolina middle level schools determined that a teacher’s effectiveness continued to increase through their 12th year of teaching, breaking conventional wisdom that teachers stop improving after their first few years in the classroom.

When teachers are more satisfied with their jobs, they are more likely to stick with teaching. Leadership contributes to the job satisfaction of new teachers, and it is the principal’s responsibility to seek out ways to increase overall job satisfaction. Principals can exhibit specific behaviors with their staff to make a difference in whether teachers stay or go. In fact, research reveals that key leadership behaviors from principals have a significant impact when teachers are making decisions about being retained by their school district.

Be Seen

Newer teachers want to interact with their principals considerably more than their veteran counterparts. Through increased visibility, building leaders are more likely to catch their teachers in the act of doing great things inside and outside the classroom. These positive affirmations can lead to small nonmonetary celebrations or rewards that will increase teacher job satisfaction and, ultimately, teacher retention.

Be Honest

Through high visibility, principals increase interactions with students, staff, and teachers. This increased availability gives them a greater likelihood of directly communicating with school stakeholders. By strengthening relationships, student achievement and teacher retention can both be improved. In the article “T.O.S.S. It to the New Teacher: The Principal’s Role in the Induction Process,” Pamela Angelle reports that frequent classroom visits by the principal, while initially intimidating, eventually became part of the culture. Teachers began to invite the principals into their rooms because they were proud of their work with the students. Additionally, timely, honest feedback on teacher efficacy from the principal can be a key determining factor in influencing new teachers to remain in the profession.

Be Human

Newer teachers want to develop relationships with their principals. By having personal knowledge of their leaders’ beliefs and values, it helps to develop a shared value system that defines the culture of the building. While school culture can be predominantly driven by the collective staff, the principal plays a key role. Building leaders need to understand the importance of building cultural norms, spearheading change efforts that drive school improvement, and increasing personal interactions with school stakeholders.

Be Encouraging

Recruit veteran teachers to embrace leadership roles within the faculty, specifically in mentoring newly hired teachers. Veteran teachers typically perceive specific leadership behaviors of their principal to be less important than supporting teacher retention, whereas newer teachers prioritize principal behaviors. If veteran teachers are encouraged to become leaders in the faculty, they will obtain a greater appreciation for effective leadership.

Inexperienced teachers may be more likely to seek out a veteran colleague for advice than their principal. By having veteran teachers trained and knowledgeable about the shared beliefs within the school, those new or inexperienced teachers will receive a consistent message about school culture that may be more meaningful and valid if it comes from a veteran colleague. In turn, the veteran teacher will receive validation and affirmation, which may lead to greater job satisfaction and performance.

Ultimately, relationships matter. The soft skills that we so desperately expect our teachers to utilize with their students are just as important for principals to use with their staff. Gone are the days when the principal focused primarily on management, budgeting, resource allocation, and the master schedule. Today’s principals need to be team leaders and head cheerleaders, focusing on the inclusivity of all stakeholders by creating and maintaining a collaborative school culture in which teachers would not dream of leaving, realizing that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence.


Antonio W. Abitabile, EdD, is the superintendent of Lansingburgh School District in Troy, NY.


Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension: Human Capital Management

Ensure that opportunities exist for staff members to develop their skills through efforts that are job-embedded, individualized for their needs, and appropriate for adult learners. By developing systems and protocols, you and your leadership team can provide regular, actionable feedback to drive improvements in staff members’ practice. Staff members should have development plans that help them fulfill their greatest potential in driving student learning, and you should work to ensure that resources are available for those staff development efforts. Just as schools care for the student as the whole child, you too can care for your staff members’ well-being and work-life balance. Doing so will help retain top talent and anticipate successions and turnover to minimize disruptions in student learning.

Human Capital Management is part of the Leading Learning domain of Building Ranks.