Teaching, especially now, is a profession easy to leave and challenging in which to remain. What makes it so redeeming, however, is its importance to students and society. It’s up to leaders to make that importance clear to teachers every day and help make their mission accomplishable. Teacher supply has ebbed and flowed now for decades. When teacher candidates are plentiful, there may be no need to fret when an opening occurs.

But when there is a sharp limitation of candidates—as with many places now—any opening can cause panic. Suddenly, seminars and workshops on teacher retention, staff morale, school culture, and job satisfaction driven by the need to retain our current staff abound. At the state level, expectations for certification are often lowered—sometimes dramatically—and salary increases that are much deserved and long overdue, may
finally occur.

These changes may help, but principals can only watch from a distance. What are some things school leaders can and must do to strengthen retention of teachers—especially the best teachers—regardless of the shifting education landscape? I offer five ideas in this article.

Todd Whitaker encourages school leaders to ensure their leadership is of such high quality that their best people want to stay. PHOTO COURTESY OF TODD WHITAKER
  1. Remember that while people always look to leaders, in times of crisis they stare. Businesses know they should advertise in good times, and that they must especially do so in bad times. However, regardless of the current availability of teacher candidates, school leaders should consistently be doing things that build morale and increase job satisfaction. Many things today are hurting the appeal of entering the teaching profession: pay may not be competitive with other jobs, the politicization of education, devaluing the importance of being a teacher, etc. However, one other factor that has changed is the abundance of jobs in so many alternate professions. Since the unemployment rate is currently at a record low with salaries increasing in so many areas, the time is ripe to leave for another occupation.

    Typically, in any economy, our most talented teachers can always leave because they would excel at almost anything. The best teachers would be great realtors, salespeople, and even fast-food managers. As you know, your best teachers have such a deep pool of positive personal traits and talents that they could succeed in any profession they desire. What can you as a school leader do? Ensure that your leadership is of such high quality that your best people want to stay. To that end, strive to be highly effective. I told you it was simple but not always easy.

  2. Leadership is not “getting out of the way.” People often say, “successful leaders hire good people and get out of their way.” If you know anyone who repeats this, or even worse, believes this, then you know someone whose teachers are looking to leave. Great leaders don’t get out of the way, and effective teachers don’t want a good leader to get out of the way. Great leaders pave the way, show the way, protect the way, guide the way, and reinforce the way. Most schools have a few parents, family members, or citizens who continually want to challenge a student’s grade, question a curriculum choice, or regularly disagree with classroom management decisions. Believe me, good teachers who cross their paths do not want their school leaders to get out of the way. Quite the opposite. They want support, guidance, protection, and so on. And when teachers in a school see this and feel this, they have way less interest in leaving as they know other places lack leadership of your quality.

  3. Leadership is not an event. It is always funny when a principal kisses a pig or gets a pie in the face at an assembly. Maybe because the students read a certain number of books, reached an attendance goal, or raised enough money for a new playground. There is always a lot of laughter. But are they laughing at you or with you? It depends on the quality of leadership. No one stays in a school solely because the principal covers their class on their birthday, allows jeans days once a month, or offers donuts in the teachers’ lounge on Fridays. Principals who do fun things are not good principals by virtue of that alone.

    Teacher satisfaction and morale and thus retention come from a daily drumbeat of leader care and concern. How do principals show their care and concern? They make teachers feel important, they remind everyone of the significance of what they do, and they work to continually help everyone on their staff become better at what they do.

    We all like jeans days. It’s nice to have someone recognize your birthday, and believe me, you don’t ever get between me and a donut. But you know the jeans feel better and the food is more scrumptious when you are in a job you like and working with people who make you feel significant. If you as a leader want to retain your teachers—especially your best teachers—make them feel special every day, not just some days. If a parent does not make their children feel loved every day, showering them with gifts on their birthday or Christmas may cause more pain than joy.

    Visit classrooms regularly to celebrate your teachers and help them improve their classroom skills by teaching them, not telling them, how to be more effective. Look for the good parts, even if you have to squint. Classrooms are where teachers and students connect. It is the core of the school. Spend your time where it’s most important and make it a priority.

  4. Compliment your staff. My wife and I have been married for 37 years, and yet she still likes it when I say she looks pretty. Or is smart. Or is kind. Or is an incredible mom. And everyone tries even harder to do positive things when they get recognized and acknowledged. When people feel special, they act special. When people don’t feel special, they don’t act special. You have a school full of talented adults who have chosen to make a difference with their lives. Make sure they are always reminded that they are making a difference every day. Do you know why teaching is so difficult? It’s because it is so important. It’s exhausting because it matters. It’s exhilarating because it matters. You must remember this is your role as a leader. And you must consistently remind your teachers of their significance and impact.

    In a great teacher’s classroom, every student thinks they are the favorite. They don’t think that because they are the favorite. They think that because they are treated in a way that makes them feel valued, loved, and important. Treat your employees like they are valued, loved, and important, simply because they are important every day. Make them feel like there is no place else they’d rather work, because there is no leader that will treat them like you do. There are few things more powerful than a well-placed compliment. One reason they have such an incredible impact is because they are so infrequently given.

  5. Understand the importance of your best people. During great employment times, like now, anyone can leave. However, during any economic time your best people can always leave. Ask them their opinion, get feedback from them on your performance, learn about their vision for the school and its leadership. There are few people that will look you in the eye and tell you the truth without being part of the rumor mill. Treasure these people. They are truly irreplaceable.

    Your best people can never be perceived as your favorites, by their peers, but they had better be your favorites. Your best people always want to improve and want the school to be better because growth is an inherent part of their make-up. They are on your side because they know the school cannot succeed unless the leader succeeds. You can never appease negative people no matter how hard you try, but you can regularly please positive people just by letting them know you care.

Great leadership is always in vogue and always in demand. Great leadership is in you, so let it out. Great leadership is simple, it’s just not always easy. Thank you for choosing to lead and for making a difference every day.

Todd Whitaker is a professor of educational leadership at the University of Missouri and professor emeritus at Indiana State University. A former principal, math teacher, and basketball coach, he is the author of more than 60 books, including What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most.