Tanner: Is Listening the Antidote to Teacher Turnover? Research Shows It Could Be

Even halfway through a new school year, some district administrators are frantically racing to fill teaching positions. As a former superintendent, I well recall the joy of our human resources director when the announcement was made that all positions had been filled. During my tenure, I became disheartened each year as I saw the list of “hard to fill” positions steadily grow from science, math and special education to almost every teaching category. The day that I heard that elementary teachers had been added to the critical shortage list, I knew that the world of not just recruitment, but retention, as we know it, had changed.

The Economic Policy Institute found that the percentage of schools that were working to fill a vacancy but couldn’t tripled from the 2011-12 to 2015-16 school years. During this same period, the percentage of schools that found it very difficult to fill a vacancy doubled. While some teachers are retiring, being promoted or leaving for personal reasons, dissatisfaction with teaching itself is unfortunately another cause of departures. For many years as an administrator, I fell into the trap of thinking I could fix the teacher retention problem from the top down. But as it turns out, education’s leaky bucket is fueled by a confluence of forces that can confound even the most discerning district leaders. Salary raises, benefits, professional development and even mentoring may not address other critical issues that are driving teachers away.

The challenge to understanding and addressing these issues is that district leaders have little access to the authentic, unvarnished perspectives that determine whether a teacher leaves or stays. This is because we don’t have a scalable way to create opportunities for all teachers to be heard. Typical employee engagement or retention surveys weren’t, after all, designed with educators in mind. They ask such things as whether you have a friend at work or if your opinions are taken seriously. These types of questions can leave administrators scrambling to make meaning of the answers and develop solutions that fit their context.

In our district, we knew there had to be a better way. We were committed to finding a survey grounded in the research on teacher retention. Rather than relying on assumptions and general perceptions, we needed an instrument that would give district and school leaders a solid footing and clear direction for stemming staff attrition. We knew that not just capturing data but also building in a process to share results had to be at the core of our work. And we knew we needed to differentiate among educators in ways that enabled us to understand and respond to their challenges with increased specificity. For example, when we learned that science teachers, more than any other group, felt the professional development they received did not help them improve their work, we met with them to gain their input and involve them more in the planning of both content and method.

I observed a similar impact in response to survey data while working with a principal near Columbia, South Carolina. Surprised that her efforts to show appreciation to her teachers were not received as well as she believed, the principal realized she needed a better perspective on ways teachers prefer to be recognized and appreciated. Her willingness to listen and execute on new methods was one of several initiatives spurred by teacher input that led to 100 percent staff retention that year.

A growing number of districts are embracing a similar process, understanding that by gathering specific teacher feedback on key categories that impact retention, it is possible to develop more clearly defined action plans. For example, in my work with districts, I’ve seen leaders use Upbeat, a tech-based survey focused solely on teacher engagement, that compares findings across schools and districts and provides real-time results that can lead to immediate action.

From suburban districts to major cities, school leaders are recognizing their ability to receive and act on timely, contextual insights from teachers in ways that previously weren’t available.

In Newton County, Georgia, for example, leaders heard and responded to resource-allocation frustrations of hard-to-replace science teachers by boosting school-level budgets to provide the supplies needed for class experiments. One principal acted on teachers’ desire to become more involved in hiring by inviting them to identify core traits they look for in a colleague and to take part in job interviews. And at Chicago International Charter School’s Bucktown campus, part of the Distinctive Schools network, leaders responded to teachers’ interest in parent partnership by bringing educators and families together to redefine the scope of parent engagement, including newly designed events that increased opportunities for involvement. This type of timely, school-level data empowered leaders by giving them access to meaningful feedback that contributed to an 11 percent increase in teacher retention.

In following the successes of these districts, it’s not surprising to see that listening and retention may be two sides of the same coin. Teachers are, intuitively, more willing to share when they know that what they have shared truly brings about change. And as teachers begin to see that their perspectives inform changes within their schools, the culture of learning, growth and sustainability will also evolve.

School and district administrators may feel they have a sense of what teachers are feeling, but without a system for collecting fine-tuned data, their actions, albeit well-intentioned, may miss the mark. Listening at scale to teachers’ needs is not only feasible but invaluable for ensuring that educators who want to be a part of their district’s future have the support they need to stay.

Dr. Brenda Tanner, a retired superintendent, is head of leadership at Upbeat, working with K-12 districts to administer a research-grounded predictive analytics survey to measure employee engagement and reduce staff turnover. She is a former chief academic officer and chief personnel officer in South Carolina; served on the board of the Northwest Evaluation Association; was a faculty member at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education; and is a board member of The Futures Institute.

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