Administrative support and mentoring are key
Teacher retention and teacher shortages weigh heavily on the minds of school leaders. How do you keep the good instructors and continue to recruit highly qualified teachers from an ever-shrinking pool of college graduates? To gather insight from those in the trenches, we conducted a roundtable discussion in June with input from Antonio Abitabile, principal of Hudson Senior High School in Hudson, NY; Matthew Klafehn, principal at New Lebanon Junior/Senior High School in New Lebanon, NY; and Amy Kiger-Williams, AP English and creative writing teacher at Passaic High School in Passaic, NJ. Principal Leadership’s senior editor Christine Savicky moderated the discussion.
Savicky: What is your experience with teacher retention and teacher shortages?
Abitabile: As [principal of] a small urban school district, I’m struggling more to hire people, especially in high-need areas. My doctoral research dealt with the leadership effect of principals, particularly in retaining teachers, so this is what I’ve studied—essentially, what is it that a principal can do to help to retain the teaching staff that they’ve hired?
Klafehn: Fewer students are entering teaching programs; therefore, the pool of candidates for every subject area has [been] reduced greatly, which has made teacher retention all the more important. In the past, people stayed in their district, gained seniority, and remained for their career. Now we see people shopping around, trying to find school districts that are closer to home or in an ideal area. Retention has become increasingly important, and we’ve been trying to figure out ways to make our school more appealing.
Kiger-Williams: Often, my administration will reach out to current full-time teachers to cover classes if we are lacking substitutes and to keep the level of instruction consistent across grade levels. I have noticed a greater emphasis on teacher retention and in helping teachers to not only do their jobs better, but to feel more valued and more rewarded.
Savicky: Why has teacher retention become so difficult, and why have teacher shortages become so prevalent?
Abitabile: About 10 years ago, we had a series of layoffs through a recession period when people were still going to school to become teachers. The problem was, they were graduating and there were no jobs available. Schools were laying off people. Those people waited a couple of years, but in New York, their certifications eventually expired if they didn’t get the required experience. Those people left the field entirely because they needed a job. In the middle of that recession, students stopped going to college to become teachers because no one was hiring, and now we have an aging teacher population. In my school, we have about 180 teachers. One-third of them are over 50, so we’re going to have a tremendous number of retirements soon. We’re finding that—for example—with technology, anybody who knows how to design and draw for production or how to use CAD won’t take a teaching job at $45,000 a year because they can start at a higher salary in the private sector. While the hiring piece may have to do with money, the retention piece, at least from what my research found, does not. Retention has to do with job satisfaction.
Klafehn: No longer can you get into teaching thinking that, at the secondary level, you are going to be responsible for your subject matter and just the education of the students. Now there are the added duties of handling students with mental health issues and character education tasks. Some of our more traditional teachers find it hard to accept the changing face of education. I think that has decreased job satisfaction, as teachers try to make that transition away from the traditional approach to teaching and now take on more of a parental role in terms of the social-emotional issues that present themselves.
Kiger-Williams: There is a lot more to teaching currently than when I started. As a teacher you wear many hats, and it’s challenging. I think that the current political climate and the perception of teaching as a difficult profession may tend to drive away younger people from entering the profession.
Savicky: What are some of the main reasons why teachers leave?
Abitabile: Personally, I’ve seen a little bit of everything. I had one teacher from the private sector—she started teaching and really enjoyed it for four or five years. Her reason for leaving was a financial one. I make sure that I spend extra time and give extra attention to our new hires, because I find that the ones that we’ve hired have been pretty talented, and I want to hold on to them. While I can’t offer them bonuses or performance incentives, I can try to make their experience more enjoyable, and I’m hoping the rest of the faculty and staff embraces the new hires to where this school becomes a place they want to be and stay. When you work in an area like this—high poverty, high diversity—those are the things that you need to do, because we can’t entice them with prestige or salary.
Klafehn: We’re an incredibly small, rural district. What we’re competing with is a desire for a candidate to be closer to home. We have young teachers who aren’t ready to live in the wide open spaces—they need action; they want to be close to a city. If we’re going to lose a teacher, it’s generally due to the desire to be closer to home or the desire to reduce their commute. In some cases, teachers have been looking for a larger district where there’s more department members to work with, and in some cases, less control over the curriculum. Here, one of the outstanding benefits is the amount of professional autonomy that we give people. If you’re teaching grade 7–8 English, you are the grade 7–8 English teacher. Some teachers embrace that. They love that amount of control. For others, it’s overwhelming. They’re looking for some more connectivity with other department members, and they need that hierarchy.
Kiger-Williams: One reason teachers have left is that they have earned their master’s degree in educational leadership and have gone on to admin positions. There are some teachers who may feel that they have less autonomy and want to have more control over what they do in the classroom. Also, Passaic is close to New York City, so it’s a very expensive area to live in. My district pays well, but it’s expensive to live here. Oftentimes, there are money considerations. However, in the time that I have been here, a lot of people have stayed because my administrators have given us a lot of autonomy in the classroom. We’re free to take risks and feel supported in doing so. I think administrative support is key to retaining teachers.
Savicky: What types of retention strategies have you seen as successful?
Abitabile: I spend a lot of time with my new hires. I want to make sure that they are getting absolutely everything they need to succeed. In New York, we are required to have a mentoring program for first-year teachers, but we extend that out to all new teachers up to their third year. That’s the formal mentoring, but it’s the informal mentoring by effective veteran teachers that makes a big difference.
Some of the new teachers that we’ve had are in co-teaching situations, and I’m very strategic on who I partner them with. I want to make sure I partner them with a veteran teacher who completely understands the mission of our district. I have found that a new teacher will first go to a colleague before they come to me with their questions. I need to make sure that they are interacting with the people in this building who represent our vision and mission.
Klafehn: Pairing with a mentor, a veteran who really understands what we’re trying to do as a school, is essential. However, for the first month, the untenured teacher meets one on one with me to establish trust and rapport. Then I have a group untenured meeting so that the new teachers can form a cohort where they can bounce ideas off of each other. I try to capitalize on teacher leadership opportunities; we encourage new teachers to be involved in our athletics and our extracurricular programs. We don’t push them off in favor of the veteran teachers, because getting them involved in the school is important. Finally, we have also increased our wellness effort in order to combat the level of stress the teachers experience. One of our conference days every year deals with the effective management of stress. I use faculty meetings a couple of times a year to do activities. For example, during one meeting, we had a staff volleyball game. This month, we are going to do a 5K walk/run in place of the faculty meeting as a way to build community and reduce stress.
Kiger-Williams: I think that administrative support is crucial. At Passaic, I feel very supported by my administration, and it has contributed to my job satisfaction, and it has made me a more effective teacher. My district has also made an effort to involve teachers in the day-to-day workings of the school. We are putting together committees for next year to address various aspects of school life, and teachers are part of that conversation. They are active members of those committees, and there’s a wellness effort at our school, too. We have a student meditation club that has shown itself to have a great effect, so we extended that initiative to the faculty as well.
Savicky: What resources have you utilized that help you cope with retention?
Abitabile: I’m a big culture person. I make extra effort to bring those new hires into our culture and include them in as many activities as possible. I make an extra effort to stop and see them, pop into their room during their preps and ask them about not just how teaching is going, but how life is going, so I know them a little bit more. I want to know what they like to do outside of school so that I’m not just their boss. I try to create a very comfortable environment here, a place where they like to come. That’s part of my leadership style, and I hope that people realize that not every place can be like this. Hopefully they’re sticking around because they know that they have a comfortable environment.
Klafehn: Another resource that I have utilized is a principals’ collaborative that meets in Albany, NY. We bounce ideas off each other. Learning what other administrators are doing is huge for me. You need that collegial network to stay fresh.
Kiger-Williams: As a teacher, having open lines of communication and feeling as though I can go to an administrator with my concerns is vital. Feeling that I am supported in my teaching and that I’m part of a family—that has been key to my feeling of satisfaction at Passaic.
Savicky: Within your schools, are the teachers assigned to their areas of certification or expertise?
Abitabile: In New York, they have to be. The standard teaching schedule is five classes in the secondary level; they’re allowed to teach one out of their certification area, so we don’t have too many. There was a time when we did have a couple who were teaching out of their area. Particularly, that tends to happen in our sciences or foreign languages.
Klafehn: We’ve been successful in being able, for the most part, to assign people to their areas of certification. With the teaching shortage, I had an elementary teacher teach seventh- and eighth-grade science this year. But that is more of an outlier than something that is a regular occurrence. In my district, we link teachers with the grade level that they would ideally like to teach. I believe that has had an effect on overall satisfaction. If a teacher requests a transfer within the district, and they have been teaching for us for 10 years, I take that request seriously. The teacher has higher job satisfaction, and it helps keep them fresh.
Kiger-Williams: To my knowledge, I have never seen a teacher who has been assigned to a subject outside of their field of expertise. I am certified in English, and that is all that I have ever taught.
Savicky: Do you have any additional thoughts on teacher retention?
Abitabile: The most important thing I’m finding is just making sure that veteran teachers understand what the new teachers need. Our new teachers are coming in with a different skill set. They have been trained in some of the social-emotional learning that the veteran teachers didn’t have as part of their coursework. The new teachers are more prepared for the cultural and social-emotional issues. Sometimes they teach the veteran teachers something new, which is interesting because it wasn’t that way when I first started teaching 20 years ago. It’s getting the veteran teachers to understand what it is that the new teachers need and making sure that they’re happy and they’re satisfied. So far that seems to be working for us.
Klafehn: I also focus the majority of my time on new teachers, but as I reflect on my own practice, I wonder—from the perspective of my veteran teachers—am I not giving them enough attention? Generally, my veterans’ attitudes are, “If you’re leaving me alone, you’re demonstrating to me that you like what I’m doing; I appreciate you leaving me alone.” That said, I sometimes worry that I am not checking in on them enough, and I need to focus on my veterans as well, so that they don’t feel like they’re being neglected or unappreciated.
Kiger-Williams: I would just reiterate the value of support for teachers cannot be underestimated. I think that the more supported and valued a teacher feels, the more likely they are to stay in their position.
Savicky: How difficult is it to hire quality teachers in your area and why?
Abitabile: We are struggling to hire in high-need areas. Off of the top of my head, I can tell you technology is huge. We have a technology teacher retiring this year—we can’t even attempt to replace them; they’re just not around anymore. Due to new regulations in New York, we have had to hire more ENL—English as a new language—teachers. That department has almost tripled. Special education is high-need right now. The sciences are incredibly difficult to hire for, because there are five different types of science teachers that you can hire. They have to teach within their certification, so we’re not short on biology teachers, but we need earth science, chemistry, and physics teachers. We don’t have a physics teacher, so we don’t have a physics program. I’m also hearing that health teachers are needed. That’s usually not a high-need area, but even that candidate pool is drying up. We have an Italian teacher retiring this year; can’t replace her, so there goes our entire Italian program. In those high-need areas, you’re losing entire programs if you can’t replace one person, and that’s just not a good position to be in.
Klafehn: Foreign language is huge, because anybody who possesses a second language skill or certification is getting picked up by the ENL requirements. Ideally, we’re trying to get our students to advanced designation, which includes a mandatory foreign language component. If we don’t have foreign language programs, we can’t get them there.
Kiger-Williams: One thing we have in our favor is that we have a number of colleges and universities in the area that have strong teaching programs. There are a lot of candidates who come out of those programs, but we compete with a number of other local schools. Some of those graduates will leave the area. That it is probably a challenge across the board for a number of schools.
Savicky: What are some of the ways that teacher shortages have been dealt with, and what role do substitutes play in your school?
Abitabile: We’re a high school with about 500 students, and there are some departments that are a one- or two-person department, so when we can’t replace them, the entire program goes. Our substitute pool, in some respects, is even more limited than our teaching pool. Right now I have seven teachers out and I have only two substitutes. Now I have to rely on our full-time teaching staff to use their own prep periods to cover the absent teachers. That throws a monkey wrench into their whole day. I know teacher absences are double what they were about 15 years ago, and there is a myriad of reasons for this. I have really tried to make accommodations for my teachers. I encourage them to [schedule] appointments at the end of the day instead of noon. Then I let them leave directly at the last bell. We are truly at our best when we have our full-time teachers in front of our students. The more absences we have, the weaker we are.
I try to limit my reliance on substitutes by thinking creatively to keep my teachers in the building. One of the strategies that we’re using is the utilization of teaching assistants. Teaching assistants are typically recently graduated certified teachers seeking a job. We’ve had great success bringing them in; it gives them a great opportunity to get into a school environment. They usually wear many different hats. They substitute, co-teach, and monitor after-school detention or lunch detention. We provide them with great experience without giving them the complete responsibility of being a teacher. We have had great success transitioning them from teacher assistant to teacher when a position becomes available.
Klafehn: We have seen increased rates of teacher absenteeism, which has proved to be very problematic in terms of day-to-day operations. My TAs are being deployed because substitutes often aren’t filling our needs, and the substitutes that I have, though they are good people, are not trained in education or with all the different challenges that students with social-emotional needs have presented over recent years. I’m trying the same tactics as Tony—being lenient toward the end of the day, allowing teachers to leave 30–45 minutes early. If it means keeping them for the majority of the day, I’d rather do that than have that classroom be abandoned and instruction and learning not occurring because they’re absent.
Kiger-Williams: We have a number of substitutes who work exclusively at my high school. The kids know them; they are comfortable with them. They are a consistent presence, which I think is really important to have. Sometimes absences are unavoidable, and I like the idea that it’s not a complete stranger who’s coming in to work with my classes. We have had situations where we have more absences than substitutes, so in those situations, the administration will draw from the teaching staff to cover during a prep period or a lunch period. That’s not ideal, but I think that develops the collaborative feeling that we have.
Savicky: Overall, are there programs within your school that allow teachers to vent or blow off steam about their students and teaching difficulties in a safe atmosphere? Do you feel that that’s an important thing to do?
Abitabile: I feel it’s incredibly important, and we do it as principals, too, but there’s a time and a place for it. While I don’t have a formal structure built for that to happen within my building, I can guarantee that when the teachers are eating lunch together, with a closed door and without interruption, I’m sure there’s quite a bit of venting. I just ask that that’s done in a professional manner and in a confidential manner. But I think it has to happen. In some respects, venting can be healthy, but you need to be careful of when and where it happens.
If we go back to mentoring, that is a structure that gets built in, and that’s an example of why it’s so critical to make sure that we’re picking the right people as mentors. If a new teacher’s going to come in and they need to vent—and that’s going to happen, especially that first year—they will, hopefully, go to their mentor, so it’s incredibly important that the veteran teacher structures that conversation in a healthy and positive direction.
Klafehn: The parking lot conversations, the faculty room, closed classroom doors—I’m certain that this happens, and it needs to happen. When I am facilitating discussion, I always attempt to bring it back to, “What are the circumstances that we can control?” We can’t control the home life; we can’t control that the student is not coming to school on time. It’s very difficult for us to influence those outside factors. But what can we do when the students are here? We can complain; we can vent about various situations, but in the end, we want to be strategy-based. What are we going to do to make this better? What are we going to do now? We can focus and vent, but if we’re not looking to improve the situation, that can only go so far.
Kiger-Williams: My school has nothing formally in place for venting. Any time that I’ve had concerns about a student that I felt I needed to take to a higher level and get others involved, the feeling that your concerns are being heard and validated and listened to and followed up on, I think, is of paramount importance.
Savicky: Do you think that the college graduates are ready for the classroom when they graduate? Are colleges doing enough to prepare students for the social-emotional side of teaching?
Abitabile: I believe that colleges are preparing new graduates for the social-emotional needs of our students. They’re graduating being curriculum experts or instructional strategy experts, but they are realizing that they need to be able to build and establish relationships with the students if they want to be successful. We have students who sign up for electives based on who the teacher is, not what they’re teaching, and that speaks directly to the relationships that the teachers are able to build with those students.
Klafehn: I think [new hires] are naturally better equipped to handle some of the new issues in education: the distractions of cellphones and social media, the mindfulness initiatives, handling the social-emotional aspects of students in teaching, not just content area. They are better prepared for that because they haven’t seen the big change over the course of their career; they’re living it. They generally come with technology savviness, which I think can benefit them in their teaching and their use of technology in the classroom.
Kiger-Williams: I believe that teacher education is better than it had been in the past, but I’m not sure that you can really, fully, adequately prepare in a teacher training program. You just need to be in the classroom, and perhaps more time as a student teacher might help facilitate that. You have to be in it and experience what the classroom is like to understand that.
Savicky: What do you think needs to be done to keep good teachers in the classroom?
Abitabile: For me, the big two are affirmation and visibility. I make a point to be in new teachers’ classrooms more—not for formal evaluative purposes, but I think that they need to hear that they’re doing a good job or to stick with it, or “I know it’s difficult these first couple of years. It’s going to get better.” They need the constant affirmation and the constant motivation to keep going, and that comes with high visibility and strong relationships.
Klafehn: Taking that extra step to show they’re appreciated and to provide encouragement, to be collegial, to get to know them outside of their educational world, to be interested in their interests—all of it is really important.
Kiger-Williams: I believe, primarily, it’s the feeling of support from the administration, feeling that my concerns are being listened to and followed through, and also having some autonomy and being able to teach.