There are no quick and easy fixes for strengthening the educator pipeline. But there are effective ways to go about recruiting and retaining the teachers our students need. To learn what steps school leaders say we should take to ensure the future of the profession and to understand how their own careers have shaped their perspectives, Principal Leadership contacted Julie Kasper, principal of Century High School in Hillsboro, OR, and co-facilitator of NASSP’s Assistant Principals Leadership Network; Winston Sakurai, president of the Hawaii Association of Secondary School Administrators, instructional practices and curriculum review executive officer for the Hawaii State Department of Education in Honolulu, HI, and co-facilitator of the Principal of the Year Alumni Network; and Ervin Trujillo, assistant principal of Piedra Vista High School in Farmington, NM, and co-facilitator of the Rural School Leaders Network.
Principal Leadership: What has your school’s experience been with recruitment and retention this year?
Trujillo: For us, it was OK. We ended up with 29 hires and many of them were teachers’ aides. We did see a big influx of students, about 250 more than last year. Our school is in Farmington, NM, and our town population is about 50,000. We were scrambling to find enough classrooms, and we had to convert our library into two classrooms as well. I attribute our success in hiring to the fact that we have created an atmosphere where other staff members say, “I chose to work at Piedra Vista High School because we hear good things about PV. We want to be here.” Part of it is the culture. Still, the hardest teachers to find are in special education. They are like unicorns.
Kasper: We have learned that to remain competitive in the Portland metro area, we really need to hire early and pull from pools of experienced teachers and recent graduates. We’ve created our own job fair as a school district. Special education teachers are hard to find. I would add school counselors to that group as well. When COVID became a reality, our state, like many others, implemented flexible requirements around who could substitute in our building and who could be hired outside of licensed areas. It feels like we’re going back to normal a little bit in terms of hiring highly qualified staff in their content areas. We are, however, seeing unfilled positions in our classified staff, which includes special education assistants, bus drivers, custodians, and sometimes kitchen staff. People are choosing to work elsewhere.
Sakurai: Over the last couple of years, classified staff, office assistants, educational assistants, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians—those seem to be the biggest shortage areas across the state. At our school, we’re very fortunate. We only had a few teachers who decided to move on or retire last year, but we do continue to see shortages in classified staff. We cannot compete with a tour company wanting to hire a bus driver for tens of thousands of dollars more than a school bus driver would earn. Hawaii is a tourist destination. There are opportunities for people to go into other occupations. So, with the great resignation, filling these positions has been difficult.
Principal Leadership: Can you share your own experiences coming through the educator pipeline?
Kasper: In terms of becoming a teacher, mine was really good. I will be honest: I never considered being anything other than a teacher. I was raised by an elementary school teacher, and I knew I wanted to be a teacher. It was when I was in high school that I was like, “This is my place.” I went out of state to college but did my student teaching here in Oregon because I knew that’s where I wanted to be. I think the whole thing about grading and how you grade, summative vs. performative, and how you weight grades, was a big missing piece of my preparation. As I work with new teachers, that continues to be an area that they struggle with.
Trujillo: My classes at the University of New Mexico took more of a project-based, holistic approach. I learned to adapt to the kids. Every class was different, so I had to modify what I did as I followed the curriculum and the district guidelines. I always tried to focus on real-world applications (e.g., using a tape measure instead of only rulers to teach fractions).
Sakurai: I didn’t go through a formal program; my experience was more on-the-job training. My sophomore year of college I was appointed to the state board of education to fill a vacancy for one of the board members who had passed away. So, my learning came from the school principals who appeared before the board. They were the best mentors in terms of how to operate and run a small city of a school, and I’m very thankful for them even to this day. But I had always wanted to be a principal ever since I was in third grade. I think it’s because I had eight different principals from kindergarten all the way up to eighth grade. The turnover of principals really bothered me, and I decided in third grade that I needed to stop it.
Principal Leadership: When it comes to strengthening the educator pipeline, what specific solutions do you lean toward? Greater pay? Loan forgiveness? Reducing class size?
Sakurai: I think educators need purpose. They need to have some kind of investment in the community that they’re serving. So, when you try to solve the problem of the educator pipeline you need to start looking at the students you have now. There are some students who would make excellent teachers. We need to cultivate their leadership to become teachers early on, to return to their communities, to serve students who look like them.
Trujillo: Within our school, we have a teacher education program for our students where they go to the elementary school and preschool to help. They’re being taught how to be teachers early on. Like Winston said, you need to look within your own school. We have several educational assistants who’ve become teachers. They’ve gone back to school and earned their degrees. The students see that and it’s wonderful.
Kasper: I would say yes to greater pay, lower loan rates, what have you. If you ask teachers that question, I think they would say greater respect from the community. By and large, worldwide, teaching used to be such an honored position, a respected profession, and I think we’ve just seen that change. Like Ervin’s school, we have a grow-your-own program in our district for teachers and we have a program for our classified staff who want to become teachers. I do really try to recruit alumni not just from our building but from our district—people who want to come back to the community and serve the community that helped develop them as young people and adults.
Principal Leadership: Has recruiting and retaining a diverse pool of candidates been a challenge for you and your schools?
Trujillo: Our teaching population represents our student population, both of which are primarily Anglo, Hispanic, and Native American. I’m especially pleased that we have a teacher exchange program with Germany. A teacher from there is currently on our campus, and he’s learning about the American way of teaching. He’s also been able to share some of his experiences. Ultimately, we’re looking at who is the best candidate for our students, especially those who are struggling.
Kasper: Hiring diverse candidates has been a huge priority in our district and one that we continue to work on. My school is a minority-majority school. We are a majority white staff. And what we have committed to is making sure that diverse staff members are not just represented in our classified staff but in our faculty.
Sakurai: When it comes to recruiting, you have to be very intentional in terms of looking at all aspects of diversity. In our schools, three-quarters of our teaching staff are women. But only one-quarter of women are school superintendents. We need to do a better job, especially at the top levels, of balancing that out a little more. There are also opportunities for young men to be fantastic teachers in our schools, to be role models for our young men in the classrooms. That’s where we need to get better and be intentional in looking at how we can create a pipeline that allows for more equity and looking at all the diverse populations.
Principal Leadership: In your career, how have you gone about identifying a classroom teacher who would be a good administrator? Have you mentored someone in that way?
Trujillo: I’ve been fortunate enough to assist in mentoring a couple of educators over the last few years. The last one, she’s our newest administrator. She used to be a counselor, and she always had questions about what I do. The ones I help mentor would come and walk with me through the school, or I’d ask them to handle discipline observations. I think a lot of it is just getting to see what you do, what an administrator does, and just see the different aspects of it. Also, the reward you’re getting out of it, too. Some already know they want to become administrators, and some are fence-sitters, and then with some you see the way they interact with the kids and how they mentor others, and you say, “Have you thought about becoming an administrator?” You just start seeing that leadership quality in them, and you plant that little seed to get them to see it, too.
Sakurai: I think it’s about providing low-risk opportunities to lead in my school, because you identify the superstars right away. But there are going to be a lot of very solid, low-key educators who are leaders, and providing opportunities for them to be successful in areas they excel in and providing them opportunities to go about working with their colleagues or working with the community is important. Those opportunities build confidence. A lot of educators might not be that confident that they can take on the role of an administrator. And it’s providing them the opportunity to gain that confidence that they can do it. I believe anyone can be a leader. They need the right opportunity and the right encouragement, the right mentorship and training.
Kasper: Sometimes people just need that attention, be it a compliment or encouragement, where you’re offering positive reinforcement. I like how Winston called them “low-risk opportunities to lead.” I think that’s really important. Our district also has a future leaders’ cohort where our superintendent runs monthly meetings with teachers that principals recommend. It’s low risk, with after-school opportunities to meet and talk. I know I went through our future leaders’ program three different times before I really decided that was the avenue I wanted to take. So that’s another tool that we have in our district.
Principal Leadership: Do you expect this issue of educator recruitment and retention to remain a significant challenge in the years to come?
Sakurai: This has been a hot topic for the last 30 years. We all knew this day was coming where there would be a huge turnover in leadership. It was discussed from the federal level all the way down to the school level—how are we going to support teachers? And a lot of great things were put into place. It’s just that the overwhelming change in society was of not staying at one school for your entire career. Our society is a lot more mobile. In order to attract and retain qualified educators in the classroom, it just takes constant effort to ensure that there are enough great educators in the pipeline that continue to move up and support our schools.
But this is not anything new. I can’t even imagine how much worse it would be without the steps put in place over the last couple of decades. We as a nation would be in a much worse situation. One of the steps that comes to mind is an emphasis on professional development. There was very little funding for it when we were teachers, but funding has increased over the years. University programs have also redesigned themselves to meet the needs of nontraditional students and for bringing them into the university to be successful in entering the pipeline. We still urgently need high-quality educators in our school districts, and we need to redouble our efforts to recruit and retain them so that our students have the best that we can possibly give them.
Trujillo: For professional development [PD] in our district, they use an outside group to do PD for the district and our school. We’ve turned around and started relying on the expertise of our own teachers as well to help do mini-PD that staff rotate through. They’re the ones leading PD within our own school, and I think ensuring they have a voice and a role in professional learning helps with retention as well. It doesn’t have to be PD that’s all day long or about only one topic. It’s about chunking PD and making sure our Professional Learning Communities are solid. It’s going back to the data so we’re cohesive. Even if there’s mobility in the district, it’s the same PD across the board that’s happening. One of the things we’ve been trying to do the last couple of years is instructional teacher rounds. Especially at the high school level, it’s hard to carve out the time to visit each other as colleagues and learn from each other.
Kasper: There’s been such a movement toward taking care of our people, especially in the last few years since COVID became part of our lives. As the demands on teachers really changed (e.g., adapting to online instruction, hybrid instruction, leading contact tracing, etc.), there was such a push to make sure that our people were taking care of themselves and each other. I will say that, in my building, we did not see a mass exodus from the teaching profession. A huge positive I’ve noticed is sort of a reframing of what we do and what we ask of ourselves and each other, even in the smallest ways, that I think are helping people to create more work-life balance. And it’s helping us to retain more people. For example, even something as small as not sending emails after 5 o’clock each workday. There’s been this reframing of what we do as administrators, where we also ask our teachers to reframe what they do and make sure that we all understand that educators are people, too, and their families come first. That’s a big trend I’ve seen over the last few years that is sticking, which I think is a really positive thing.
Sakurai: When you look at the NASSP survey from August, it’s not the salary that people say is No. 1 for deciding whether to stay in the job—it’s work-life balance. And Julie’s school district might be doing that kind of reframing around work-life balance, but it’s not happening at all schools across the nation. If that’s the No. 1 thing school leaders are saying they want and need, then that’s actually something policymakers can take a look at and try to see what can be done to better support school leaders. That’s our superintendents, that’s our principals and assistant principals, that’s our district leaders—everyone at the school really. They will stay if we help them find that balance.