Schools CAN Keep Teachers Happy. If they try

It’s a nightmare workplace scenario: Your boss puts you in charge of training a new hire, but you don’t have adequate training materials, there’s no coordination or vision, and you get blamed when the trainee isn’t prepared.

That’s the situation America’s teachers often find themselves in as they prepare students to move to the next grade level. Thanks to underfunded reform mandates and the pressure of being blamed for the problems plaguing public education, teachers in the United States are stressed out—and they’re missing class or changing careers at high rates because of it. Now a new study provides some commonsense answers to the question of how to keep effective educators on the job.
The study, published in the October issue of the American Educational Research Journal, found that four main factors reduce high teacher turnover rates:

  • administrators who are committed to teachers’ professional development,
  • a safe school environment,
  • high expectations for students,
  • a sense of collaboration among teachers.

“We’ve been sort of consumed by the importance of the individual teacher’s role, either by strengthening their skills through professional development or exiting them and potentially hiring a better teacher,” Matthew Kraft, a professor at Brown University and the lead researcher on the study. “That has caused us to lose sight of the larger context in which the schooling takes place and the degree to which all teachers are holding students to high expectations.”

The researchers based their findings on results from the NYC School Survey from the 2008–2009 through 2012–13 school years, which was given to teachers, students, and parents in the district, as well as the city’s student assessment and administrative data. As opposed to more common one-school, onetime surveys, the five years of data covered middle schools representing a variety of socioeconomic situations, enabling the researchers to analyze why some schools improved while others got worse.

“What that allows us to do is compare this school to itself over time, with all the things that stay the same about the school: location, general student body, many other factors,” Kraft said. “Schools that experience improvement, as perceived by students and teachers in the school climate, also have corresponding decreases in turnover and increases in achievement.”

A working environment with effective leadership that fosters professional development opportunities for teachers to advance their careers was found to be among the more important factors for teachers remaining in positions. In the United States 200,000 educators, or 8 percent of the total workforce, leave the profession every year, according to the Learning Policy Institute. Kraft and his team found that quality management alone is associated with an 11 percent reduction of turnover. Schools with a strong sense of collaboration among teachers saw higher student achievement as well.

“A component of this is the quality of the professional development that the administration provides to teachers,” Kraft said. “When they have challenges or they’re looking for a unified approach across the school, do they perceive that the principal or the administration is capable of generating support across the workforce?”

Beyond the teachers and the administration, high academic expectations for students also play a major role in teacher retention. Maintaining a safe school environment for both students and teachers is also vital.
“Regardless of who’s teaching, if you’re in a school where a student is more focused on looking over their shoulder rather than the lesson, that’s a direct impact on the students,” Kraft said. “If the teachers are more consumed with managing behavior than they are in delivering instruction, then teachers are also less effective.”

Overall, the study suggests that teachers and students function best when the entire school acts as an ecosystem in which safety, collaboration, and high expectations are actively encouraged, as opposed to focusing on what may be wrong with one individual within the school.

“What we’re arguing here is that alone, improving these factors will help. It’s not a silver bullet, but the status quo is to sort of neglect these things,” Kraft said. “If we can help teachers to better support each other and their peers, that support may help them to feel more successful in the classroom, and it can impact student achievement by helping them to be more effective and reducing turnover.”

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