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Taking on teacher attrition

Districts face the challenge of finding an effective teacher for every classroom

If you’ve visited a classroom lately, you’ve likely noticed a remarkable difference in how teaching and learning happens. Computers and devices are staples in most classrooms, and you’re far more likely to find students working in groups than a teacher at the front of the room lecturing. Though the teacher continues to play a crucial role, how they do that has changed. Today’s teachers play more of a mentor role, facilitating and supporting students on their personal learning journeys; pushing them to discover and discuss, explore and experiment, and to fail fast and adapt.

Even with a major shift in how teaching and learning happens, the teacher remains the single biggest factor impacting student success. So when 16-30 percent of teachers are leaving the profession every year, districts are faced with a very real and difficult challenge of finding an effective teacher for every classroom.

Experience Matters

It was once believed that teacher effectiveness dramatically increased for the first three to five years on the job, and then plateaued. But recent research suggests that substantial growth in effectiveness can be seen for the first twelve years on the job, and likely longer. This suggests that teacher quality develops over time, and that experience can influence effectiveness.

Interestingly, this supports the 10,000-hour rule, which says that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are required to become an expert in any field. It would take about ten years for the average teacher to log 10,000 hours of teaching. Let’s do the math: 180 school days per year * 6 hours of teaching per day = 1,080 hours teaching per year * 10 years = 10,800 hours of teaching.

It’s largely accepted that teacher quality is the single biggest factor affecting student achievement. In fact, we know that students who have highly effective teachers for three years in a row can score 50 percentile points higher on achievement tests than students who have less effective teachers three years in a row (Sanders & Rivers, 1996).

But academic gains is just one of the outcomes of high teacher effectiveness. Research from the National Center for Analysis on Longitudinal Data in Educational Research found that as teachers gained experience, their students’ absenteeism rates declined. One reason for this could be that experienced teachers tend to be better at classroom management and motivating students, resulting in fewer conduct issues and higher attendance.

And then there is the area of soft skills - personality traits, goals, motivations, and preferences. The ability to collaborate and problem solve, think creatively, and be empathetic has been linked to higher employment, greater job satisfaction, and lower crime rates. These are skills that are developed, not taught, and teachers are a huge part of that development. Effective teachers know that giving students an assignment to read a book on problem-solving will not make them good problem-solvers. To become good problem-solvers, students need activities and projects that require them to think creatively to solve complex problems, and teachers to mentor them as they learn to do that.

A Costly Reality

In the last 20 years, teacher attrition has nearly doubled, and districts are finding it harder than ever to place a highly-qualified and effective teacher in every classroom. With a shrinking pool of teachers to choose from, districts are forced to hire less experienced or underqualified teachers to fill vacant spots. This means that at any given time, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of students in the United States are being taught by subpar teachers; a scary reality since one year of suboptimal teaching can lead to as much as nine months of lost learning, and learning gaps for years to come. <need source>

And then there’s the financial side of it... According to a study of teacher turnover by the National Commission of Teaching and America’s Future, the financial impact to school districts to replace teachers ranges from $1 billion to $2.2 billion annually.  

Why Teachers Leave

About one-third of today’s teachers will retire in the next five years. Among those not of retirement age, a general dissatisfaction with their job is the most common reason for leaving the profession. Teachers also cited lack of supportive leadership, lack of collaboration, lack of technology resources, and sporadic professional development as key factors in their decision to leave.

Reversing the Trend

What can we do to improve retention and make sure every classroom has an effective, highly-qualified teacher? Districts are implementing new initiatives to remedy some of the most common concerns among teachers, in hopes to of improving retention and increasing the overall satisfaction among teachers.

Let’s look at a few ways districts are addressing these top teacher concerns:  

  • Addressing Salary. According to a recent Ed Week survey, 25% teachers leave their jobs because of salary concerns. A few years ago, many states increased teacher pay in an effort to improve satisfaction rates among their teachers, and in turn, increase retention. But the results were minimal, and the improved attitude resulting from increased wages was short-lived. Many districts are exploring options that are not compensation-based to increase retention.
  • Build Strong School Leadership.  An Education Week survey of a nationally representative group of 500 teachers suggests that leadership may be even more important than salary in improving teacher retention. Eighteen percent of respondents saw leadership as a key factor in any decision about whether to go or stay on the job, while 17 percent cited salary considerations.
  • Ensure district and school leadership is aligned and ensure timely and ongoing communication. Provide leadership development opportunities for district and school leaders and require checkin and evaluation. Create a strong vision for your district, align all goals and initiatives to that vision, and communicate it to every leader and teacher in the district. Encourage communication between teachers and leaders and provide tools to make that easy.
  • Teacher Mentorship Program. The attrition rate for teachers within the first three years of teaching is nearly double that of those who have been teaching for more than five years. These rates are even higher when new teachers do not get high-quality mentoring in their early years.  Well-designed mentoring programs improve retention rates for new teachers, as well as their attitudes, feelings of efficacy, and instructional skills (Ingersoll and Strong, 2011). One way to remedy this is through teacher mentorship programs where new teachers are partnered with veteran teachers who can support and mentor them as they need.
  • Many districts are implementing teacher mentorship programs, pairing a new teacher with a veteran teacher in the same grade or subject area, and providing them with common planning time to meet and collaborate. This “mentor” serves as an extra resource and support for the new teacher, helping to provide immediate access to a strong teacher network.
  • Professional Development Opportunities. In an Ed Week Research Center survey, teachers reported that common planning time with other teachers at their school is the most effective form of professional development for improving classroom instruction. In the same survey 42% of teachers reported having little to no influence on the professional development available to them.

Just like athletes, teachers are constantly developing and improving their craft, so its important they have time to reflect on what they’re doing, learn from their peers, and grow together. Providing teachers with common planning time each week gives them a forum to do this. To maximize this planning time, districts should leverage technology that makes it easy to capture and share ideas, lessons, and resources with one another.

Give teachers choice in their professional development - both in topic and delivery. Teachers have different strengths, weaknesses, interests, and goals, so in the same way you personalize learning for students, you can personalize professional development for teachers. Provide a catalog of courses on a variety of topics and let teachers create their own professional development pathway by choosing the topics most relevant and interesting to them. Also give them choice in the delivery of their PD. While some teachers may prefer face-to-face, others might prefer a virtual environment. Providing teachers with options lets them take ownership in their learning, and increases the chances for success.

Teachers Shape the Future

If teachers are the single biggest factor affecting student success, and today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders, then one could argue that the future of our nation depends on the quality of our teachers. It’s imperative that we equip our teachers with the skills and resources they need to be successful, so we can slow attrition, improve retention, and increase the effectiveness of our teachers. After all, they aren’t just preparing today’s students for future success in school and life, but they’re creating the leaders that will shape our tomorrow.

Hillary Scharton is vice president of product for Canvas