teacher retention

How to retain great teachers: Start with leadership opportunities

An assistant superintendent shares his district’s multi-layer approach to developing and empowering teachers at the classroom, building, and district levels

Finding and retaining effective teachers is one of the surest ways to improve student outcomes, according to research published in the Elementary School Journal and the Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education. But tight budgets take obvious solutions, like increased compensation packages and aggressive recruitment campaigns, off the table. So what options remain that won’t break the district budget?

At Colonial (DE) School District, we’ve focused on offering our most effective teachers clear, cost-effective opportunities for various leadership roles and paths for advancement.

We recognize that not all great teachers want to become administrators. They may, however, make great leaders in other roles. Providing leadership opportunities and options for these educators allows us to build a leadership pipeline to meet a variety of needs.

Continuous recruiting
For Colonial as for other districts, teacher turnover is a continual challenge. Whether we lose them to other districts, other professions, or personal reasons, teachers are going to depart for reasons outside the best administrator’s control. Our solution is simple: Always be recruiting.

But recruiting and hiring new teachers is only part of the solution. Retention is a key element. The more teachers we can retain year over year, the fewer we need to recruit.

3 forms of retention through leadership opportunities
Research suggests that one low-cost strategy for retaining the most effective teachers is putting teachers in charge of something they’re passionate about and that holds a level of importance. Here are three ways we do this in Colonial:

1. Create instructional coach positions at the school and district level.
We have coaches at both the district level and school level who play an important role in staff development. Some incredible instructional coaches have moved into administrative roles. Others have told me, “I have no desire to be an administrator. I love my work as an instructional coach because I get to connect with teachers and help grow and support the staff.”

This dual-track approach allows teachers who are interested in developing their capacity to take on a leadership role without becoming an administrator. It also lets us offer a teacher who wants to take an administrative position an immediate leadership role, even if the administrative position they are seeking isn’t available. Together we set to work developing those skills and preparing the teacher for the position, rather than losing them to another district that has an immediate opening.

2. Launch an aspiring leader program with a clear pathway for a wide variety of leadership opportunities.
What started out as our aspiring administrator program has broadened over time. We made an intentional shift to include more teachers who, again, may not be interested in becoming administrators but still want to strengthen their teaching and leadership muscles.

At the beginning of each school year, we begin promoting this program. We let teachers know what the focus of the year will be, and we invite them to join us with the support (formal or informal) of their principal. Throughout the program, they build their leadership skills and knowledge. Last year, we asked them to identify a problem, research solutions, and come up with an action plan aligned to their school’s success plan, leading every step of the way.

The aspiring leadership program has changed its focus over time. Last year, for example, we had a large group and we began with a topical approach. But midway through, we felt like it was a group of teachers who could make an even greater impact and we tasked them to solve some really big challenges, switching to a more problem-solving approach for the cohort.

With support from Empowering Educators to Excel (E3), a grant from the U.S. Department of Education led by Insight Education Group, we’re working to strategically improve this program over the long term by better identifying the competencies and other characteristics we’re looking for in leaders. From there, we’re mapping out a curriculum to support instructional leaders for various roles and levels, such as principals, assistant principals, student advisors, or aspiring leaders. Additionally, those characteristics will inform our recruitment and evaluation processes.

In addition to improving our own processes, this approach provides each member of our faculty a better understanding of where they need to excel to grow into whatever position or role they desire.

3. Empower teachers to lead professional development (PD).
We have fantastic educators in Colonial, and we leverage their talents as often as possible. We continually seek to put the “Power of WE,” our district philosophy, into practice by having them share their best work and take leadership opportunities as they are available.

In practice, this means principals turn to their staff to lead PD and take lead roles on committees. For example, we recently held a district-wide PD day focused on struggling students. We set up more than 50 different PD sessions for teachers to choose from, and all but two of those sessions were led by our own district teachers.

Looking inside for talent
Attracting potential new teachers and administrators by telling your story will always be important. Have your current teachers talk about the exciting leadership opportunities they have, as well all the student achievement and other successes that come from that. But don’t forget to look inside your district to see who you already have first. There are amazingly talented people there, and they’re eager to serve children and families, build their skill sets, and improve your schools however they can.

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