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Stopping teacher turnover in its tracks

How do you retain the best educators? Observation and feedback, says one school

turnover-teachersGetting new teachers into the classroom has been a major focus of districts across the country during the last 30 years, as turnover has increased, especially in historically underserved communities. School leaders at high need urban schools and elsewhere have resorted to signing bonuses, merit pay, and strong benefits in an attempt to lure teachers in. One public school in Arizona even advertises a four-day work week as a selling point to get them in the door.

Recruitment is important. However, the retention of high quality teachers is equally, if not more, crucial. More organizations are realizing the necessity of developing ways to support teachers to raise retention. Keeping effective teachers in classrooms, particularly in a high needs school, is becoming more of a focus for administrators. One way to achieve retention is through building a common mission and vision. Teachers want to be part of a high quality organization dedicated to a common goal for success.

Milwaukee College Prep, where I serve as COO, is a high achieving urban K-8 charter management organization with four campuses and 2,000 students. The campuses are located in the most poverty-stricken areas in Milwaukee. As a successful urban CMO, one of the most important questions often asked is, “How do you train and retain outstanding educators?” To which I often reply that giving teachers support through observations and feedback is perhaps the most vital piece. Teachers who are passionate about education pursue opportunities to perfect their skills. They appreciate feedback and specific action steps to guide self-improvement.

Next page: How feedback leads to retention

Several years ago, my organization adopted and implemented a cloud-based teacher observational tool in an effort to improve the way we provided teachers with actionable feedback. The program (we use observe4success) allowed us to individualize our observations, brief classroom walkthroughs, and evaluations at each campus. On average, staff received two or three observations per month. Importantly, the staff members who were new or who we could tell were struggling received multiple observations each week, providing us with invaluable data, which helped us determine a given teacher’s areas of skill and places where they perhaps needed some work. The data collected during observations was the focus for coaching meetings and developing action plans for staff.

Data was extrapolated from a number of walkthroughs (each conducted for a different purpose) and then shared with staff. The Instructional Walkthrough, for example, had topics such as academic rigor, instructional artifacts, lesson components, student engagement, and teacher actions. Below is a sample from one section of a Culture Walkthrough that was used. The other key areas in the Culture Walkthrough included Classroom Appearance and Classroom Culture.

In 2014-15, Milwaukee College Prep Campuses averaged 512 observations per campus with a total of 2,047 observations, combining academic and cultural observations and feedback forms. The retention rate at Milwaukee College Prep averages over 92%. Typically, we see one, maybe two teachers leave from each campus during the year, often due to reasons outside of our control, such as moving or starting a family. Often times, our retention rate is higher if a teacher’s contract is not renewed based on performance.

This strong retention rate is primarily due to the positive work environment and support teachers get in their professional growth. Here are some comments from staff as recorded in their June, 2015, teacher end-of-the-year survey. Love her (dean of students) feedback and visits to the classroom!” “The dean was great with feedback and helping with behaviors when needed.” “It’s nice that we have immediate feedback about our performance.”

Our classroom observation platform is an efficient tool that aligned with the Common Core Standards as well as with our own behavioral expectations. We utilized data and graphs to monitor improvements in teaching and to provide solid data for teachers and administrators. A combination of quick walk-throughs and more detailed observations were used to provide immediate feedback. Classroom teachers and educational assistants felt well supported and we were all proud to see Milwaukee College Prep named one of the top workplaces in Milwaukee for the past two years.

Professional educators understand the importance of coaching and feedback. They seek out administrators and colleagues to observe them and provide strategies for improvement and growth in order to be most effective in the classroom. The steps to improving teacher behavior include:

  1. Provide teachers with a copy of the observation rubrics and review.
  2. Request feedback regarding the observation form and make adjustments as needed.
  3. Develop a schedule with the entire administrative team regarding who/when observations will take place with staff.
  4. Ensure you work with teachers when evaluating their observations forms
  5. Review observation with staff; providing specific data, glows, grows and action steps.
  6. Provide necessary resources, professional development or peer mentor.
  7. Observe the teacher again, reviewing areas of grow and action plan. Monitor items on the action plan and note growth or lack of growth.
  8. Continue the observation cycle throughout the school year.

The difference between successful urban schools and failing urban schools rests on us educators. Since many urban schools obtain newer teachers right out of college or with few years of experience, it is imperative that observation and feedback is a norm at the school. How do you obtain the best educators in some of the highest needs schools? You observe and coach the heck out of them!

Dr. Kristi Cole is the chief operations officer and talent recruiter for Milwaukee College Preparatory School. Reach her at kristi.cole at

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