What is a school without the presence of quality educators? It becomes nothing more than a free day care center for youth while parents perform required daily job duties. Due to the unique conditions that students in urban communities often face because of poverty, domestic violence, and other situations, teachers unconsciously step into the roles of parents, counselors, social workers, and friends to students in need.

The growing stress initiated by these factors creates a need for school leaders to implement appropriate strategies that breed a positive school climate, promoting unity and long-term organizational commitment. Retaining teachers should be a driving force in urban schools.

Critical Need

Teacher retention is a major concern in urban schools across the United States for a variety of reasons. When a quality educator exits the profession, they take their fluency with school practices, instructional capacity, and content curriculum with them. More importantly, the loss of a teacher compromises student achievement by obstructing those relationships that the teacher established with students, parents, colleagues, and school leaders.

Compared with other new teachers, mathematics content teachers are leaving at an alarmingly high rate. With the growing emphasis on state-mandated assessments, math teachers are consistently under pressure from administrators, parents, and district officials to improve proficiency scores of students, regardless of underlying factors. The wealth of knowledge and skills that mathematics teachers possess brand them as crucial assets to urban school environments. Therefore, it’s relevant to determine methods of improving their retention rates.

Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)

So, what are some viable ways of dealing with this important issue? Teamwork makes the dream work! This affirmation heard countless times has the potential to influence the success of school leaders in retaining quality professionals.

The supportive atmosphere created by effective PLCs creates the space for educators to safely share frustrations commonly present in urban schools while working on practical solutions to issues that are strategically chosen to support school initiatives.

Consider building small teams of PLCs around a subject like math. Small PLCs serve as a way to build trust among purposefully grouped teachers in order to create meaningful dialogues, lasting work relationships, and commitments to people (not just an organization). Starting with the math team is critical to schools in challenging environments because these particular teachers carry a lot of responsibility with state-level assessments (which can bring added stress and burnout risk). When considering the bigger picture, remember that losing content specialists—such as math teachers—has the potential to disrupt progress toward overall school reform because teacher turnover alters relational patterns and disrupts the formation and maintenance of staff cohesion. School leaders who desire to profit from the benefits of PLCs must work diligently to engage teachers in reflective, consistent, solution-focused dialogue followed by deliberate actions to improve current school operations.

Implications for School Leaders

School leaders who focus on building positive cultures among smaller teacher communities have the potential to generate a more progressive school culture overall. In high-poverty schools, maintaining effective instructors reassures students that their educators care about them as future leaders and as contributing members of society.

There are several practical ways that principals can retain quality educators in the urban school setting:

Protect strong teachers from burnout. Unique challenges in urban environments make burnout inevitable if you don’t take preventative measures to help teachers cope. Although you may trust some teachers more when it comes to difficult students and tested courses, be careful not to punish your strongest teachers with more stressful and demanding assignments than others.

Encourage productive criticism. Create an open-door policy so teachers feel comfortable voicing their concerns. Foster transparency by showing a willingness to engage in critical, solution-focused conversations, and provide explanations for definitive decisions.

Professionally develop staff from within. A school’s needs are specific to its student population. Identify master teachers within the building that model a classroom reflective of a productive learning environment, given the school’s unique demographics. Then, find ways for these teachers to share their strategies. When other teachers see their own students are capable of displaying desired behaviors, it opens the door for them to be self-reflective.

Ensure safety and well-being. A supportive administration helps teachers feel safe and protected in potentially harmful situations. Enact a protocol for handling student disciplinary infractions—this establishes a controlled and structured atmosphere conducive for teaching and learning.

Celebrate the work. There is value in consistently showing teachers appreciation for their contributions to institutional success. Curtail teacher frustration by using appropriate, and sometimes spontaneous, acts of gratitude for their sacrificial contributions made for school improvement.

Improving Teacher Job Satisfaction

What else can you do to keep teachers in your school?

Of course, school districts should cater their resources toward retaining current teachers with proven skills versus using human and financial assets to recruit novice teachers. Work hard to keep the good teachers you already have. Develop policies dedicated to keeping them healthy, motivated, and fulfilled throughout their teaching careers in order to extend their ability to function successfully in this career field.

But because there will come a time when you need to recruit new staff, district leaders also have the responsibility of building partnerships with colleges and universities to ensure that novice teachers can transfer their academic and pedagogical coursework to the needs of the actual classroom.

Additionally, to increase job satisfaction among teachers in the urban school setting, be sure to build positive working relationships with school staff. In doing so, schools foster shared decision-making, maintain appropriate levels of leader-teacher gratitude, and hopefully develop a collective obligation to contribute to the school’s mission.

Lyndasha Brittian, EdS, is a recent graduate of the Educational Leadership Program at Georgia State University in Atlanta.