Retaining Quality Teachers
January 24, 2019
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Jeffrey Gray

I’ve noticed a common problem as I’ve had the privilege of traveling throughout the state of Tennessee.  This is especially true for the teachers with whom I’ve worked from rural districts – namely county districts that have a city system within their borders.  The problem is retaining the best and the brightest teachers and preventing them from “defecting” to higher-paying positions in the city systems.  Of course, this is not a problem relegated to just the state of Tennessee. And, I cannot blame teachers for making the move to the city systems.  In many cases, the move is a considerable increase in pay.  As an example, if I moved to the city system within my county, I’d see a $13,000 a year pay increase. Frankly, retaining teachers in lower-paying counties is a problem even without the lure of the higher-paying city systems.

So, the question is, “How can county systems retain teachers without breaking the budget?”

I’ve pondered this question often and determined that a teacher vested in a school or system is more likely to remain in a lower-paying county system. I have come up with some ideas that I think will aid in creating vested teachers. Below is a non-exhaustive list of ideas (in no particular order) to aid in addressing the question.

  1. Systems should identify their teacher-leaders and make use of their talents. One of the problems here is the identification of a teacher-leader.  There really is no “test” one could use to determine who your teacher-leaders are. Unfortunately, too often the ones considered teacher-leaders are administration favorites or friends – the normal go-to people in the school. Sometimes these are the true leaders, but sometimes they are not.  For me, the best means in determining a teacher-leader is pay to attention during faculty meetings. Pay close attention to when teachers address the staff. If a teacher talks in a faculty meeting and all other teachers stop having their private, not-too-quiet conversations – well, the teacher talking is a leader. Identify the leaders. Use their talents. Teacher-leaders have so many benefits for a school and system. They help create change, change culture, take risks, and are a valuable cog in educating the children. Plus, this could be the system’s pipeline for future administrative leaders.
  2. Create a “tuition reimbursement” program for the teachers in the system. One of the ways a teacher can increase his or her pay, without leaving the classroom, is by obtaining advanced degrees. So, have a program in place that would help cover the cost of obtaining an advanced degree.  Advanced degrees not only result in a pay increase for the teachers, but research shows that an advanced degree in a discipline (history, biology, etc.) improves test scores. That’s the classic win-win scenario, and it is cost-effective.
  3. Create a “new teacher induction program.” Show your new teachers how important they are by providing support for them throughout their formative years. The length would depend on the individual needs of the new teacher. This should be a detailed, quality program that is focused on providing support and guidance for the new teachers. It would not only help with retention of teachers (making them feel vested), but it would increase the effectiveness of those teachers in the classroom. Oh, and here’s a great opportunity to utilize the talents of your teacher-leaders as mentors. A stipend for the work done by the mentors would need to be an integral piece of the program.
  4. Create a teacher advisory council. This council would be a few of the teachers who are innovators and would meet monthly with the director to discuss issues facing the system. They would identify issues, but be solutions-oriented in their discussions, working as a team to make the system better. This would provide teachers with buy-in to the changes and show them that they are appreciated.
  5. Change the culture of the central office. As I am a Franklin-Covey disciple, I think the F-C adage of taking care of the “goose that laid the golden egg” is a must. Central office personnel need to be made to realize that the “goose” is the teacher. The entire focus should be to support the teachers – not an Us vs. Them, I’m more-important-than-you mentality.
  6. Treat teachers as professionals. Take the money that is allotted by the school board for professional development and divide it up among the teachers.  Allow the teachers to seek out professional development opportunities. Teachers know the areas they need to develop. Don’t make it a one-size-fits-all approach.
  7. Allow teachers leave time to observe other teachers in action. Teachers learn so much from each other. Give them the opportunity to do just that.

These would be beneficial for all systems; however, they are vital for those county systems struggling with retention of the best teachers. They would help create vested teachers, and vested teachers are more likely to stay. None of these would break the budget. Many of these would add nothing to the spending of the system. All of the suggestions are cost-effective.

Clearly this is not an exhaustive list. So, I’m curious what other suggestions you may have that would aid in retention of teachers. Please feel free to share your ideas. Or, if you take exception to one of my suggestions, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Jeff has taught 7th/8th grade social studies at Ridgeview Elementary School in Gray, Tennessee for the last eight years and adjunct professor for the Clemmer College of Education at East Tennessee State University for the last five years. In addition, he has taught 8th grade social studies and US History in five schools located in three different states. He also served as the American History Lead Teacher for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Throughout his twenty-three years as an educator, Jeff has served as Department Chair, AVID Coordinator, IBNA homofaber and Humanities Area Leader, Team Leader, and Principal designee, along with being FCA and Student Council sponsor. In addition, he has spent a great deal of time leading professional development opportunities for teachers throughout North America. Jeff received his Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science in 1989 and his Masters in Teaching in 1992, both from East Tennessee State University. He also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging his colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.

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