It seems too obvious to even mention, but schools wouldn’t mean much without teachers. Yet, having schools without enough teachers is a real modern problem.
In Australia, a recent survey of primary and secondary school teachers, found a staggering 59% of respondents said they intended to leave the profession. The main reasons teachers were looking to leave were; workload pressure, burnout and wellbeing related issues.
This would be less worrisome if the statistics around filling open teaching positions weren’t just as grim.
The reality is that it’s more beneficial for everyone—students, parents, and leaders —to retain teachers rather than replace them, especially where there is no guarantee that someone can even fill the role. However, that’s easier said than done.
Retaining teachers requires understanding the reasons that so many are leaving and addressing the problem with new methods and staff retention strategies.
Why Keeping Your Teachers Is Important for Everyone
With so many teachers leaving the profession completely, it’s increasingly difficult to fill open roles. These gaps in staffing strain a school’s existing resources and negatively impact student learning and performance.
Even when a school can find a new teacher, the onboarding process takes time. New staff must learn the school’s policies and working environment, not to mention build rapport with students and other staff members.
Replacing experienced teachers with those who are fresh out of school can also impact student learning and the classroom environment. A new teacher may not be aware of how to adjust a lesson plan for a student who is challenged by the material or how to manage a rambunctious group of teens. Time and experience really count.
If teachers are leaving because of a poor working environment, it’s frequently the highest quality educators who are the first to go. When they leave, the entire school is lessened for it: student performance suffers, and other staff have one less person to turn to for mentorship, advice, or guidance.
The hiring process also strains the entire staff, including leaders, who must spend their time working on hiring and interviewing instead of planning and improvements. When there aren’t enough educators, class sizes can swell, further degrading the working environment for the remaining teachers.
The extra workload is only a piece of the puzzle for the other educators. Teachers are a community, so one leaving disrupts the entire dynamic, from Leaders to the students and their families.
Modern Challenges in Staff Retention for Schools
It’s easy and common to point at teacher pay as the culprit. But when surveyed about why many teachers leave, salary did not feature in the top ten reasons. So, if salary isn’t the biggest concern, what are the issues causing schools to lose so many teachers today?
There are four main challenges that schools need to address:
- Lack of recognition, appreciation and support: Recognition and acknowledgement of the positive impact teachers have in their students’ lives. Intrinsic rewards must extend beyond the feeling of a job well done.
- Workload: Teachers who are stressed and overwhelmed with too many students or too much work can lose sight of the reasons that they may want to stay.
- Weak professional development: Teachers take great pride in their work and want opportunities to continue to get better or gain broader experience and knowledge.
- Little to no opportunity for advancement: Feeling stuck in their position can be demotivating for educators.
New Staff Retention Strategies for School Leaders to Consider
Although the challenges can be broken down into a few key elements, there isn’t a one-for-one solution for each problem. Instead, school leaders should think about solutions that reach across these challenges to address their teachers’ concerns.
Build Community with Collaborative Working Environments
Collaboration allows teachers to share their thoughts, ideas, and teaching strategies, as well as their stresses, concerns, and support for one another. Studies have shown that teacher retention increases when they have the opportunity to collaborate with their colleagues. Plan opportunities for teachers to share with others in their school and their field, taking advantage of formal, informal, and even virtual settings to do so.
Invest in Professional Development
Continuing professional development lets teachers feel more confident, accomplished, and ready for challenges, thus contributing to the intrinsic enjoyment of their jobs. Additional training also supports student education and outcomes, giving teachers the chance to bring new research and information into their classrooms.
To make professional development even more effective as a retention strategy, allow teachers to have a say in what they would like to pursue. This will enhance the benefit and encourage their interests.
Better Working Conditions Reduce Stress and Demands
Many teachers cite working conditions as a reason for leaving. However, they aren’t always talking about the upkeep of the school or the equipment available to them. A positive school culture can influence them to stay and face the challenges of their classroom every day.
Trust and collaboration are key elements of a good working environment. Teachers feel trusted when they have agency within their own classrooms and with their lesson plans, which contributes to a greater sense of control over their environment. They know that they are at Ground 0, so they want to know that they can make the decisions that are in the best interest of their students.
Even including teachers in training and awareness of safety plans gives them an understanding of what the school is doing to keep everyone safe. This promotes a sense of security and caring because they know that student and staff safety isn’t being left to chance. Put teachers on school safety committees, or assign them ownership of parts of a safety plan.
Create Opportunities for Recognition and Support
Recognition and support from leaders and colleagues are crucial in a teacher’s decision to stay.
When teachers receive recognition among their peers and in front of the community, it means that the work they are doing is acknowledged and appreciated. Even a simple, heartfelt “thank you” can go a long way in helping a teacher feel better about their struggles and challenges.
Feedback is also an essential element of support. Most teachers understand that they have opportunities to grow. They want feedback that reflects what they are doing well and any potential areas of improvement, so they are clear about where best to focus their efforts.
Put Focus on Mental Health and Wellbeing
In addition to everything else, there is strong evidence that how teachers feel about their working environment is the best predictor of retention. Beyond good facilities, a school’s culture, leadership, and colleague relationships influence a teacher’s decision to stay or go.
The single most important thing that you can do is to provide mechanisms to understand your teachers’ needs and stressors while acknowledging and supporting their wellbeing. For instance, with ei’s Staff Pulse check-in app, staff are given a platform that supports a frictionless process of reflecting on their mental health and asking for help with feelings of stress and worry. Leaders receive real-time data, facilitating immediate action if needed, while also having the data to move the needle forward on overall improvement.
This kind of supportive context not only retains educators but also improves the overall school climate and student academic performance. Happier, more focused teachers lead to better-cared-for students.
It’s easier for leaders and far better for the school community to do what you can to keep the teachers you have. There isn’t a magic bullet to solve the issues of teachers leaving. Instead, school leaders should consider a wide range of staff retention strategies that make it clear how valuable teachers are to their schools.