August 28, 2018
What I Learned About Retaining Teachers From Having Done It Badly as a New Principal
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This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.
As schools across the nation get back into gear, top of mind for principals and leaders is how to keep the teachers they’ve hired. I can tell you now: free coffee in the workroom, t-shirts during teacher appreciation week, “carrot and stick” methods, or other gimmicks by themselves don’t keep teachers. Teachers stay when they experience genuine care and investment from their school leaders and managers. Gallup’s well-known research, which led to the creation of the Q12 survey to assess employee engagement, points directly to the impact of a strong manager. Their research reiterates the common idea that “employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” Similarly, teachers don’t leave schools, they leave principals and leaders who haven’t been able to engage them. I learned this the hard way.
At the start of my first year as a principal, I hired a team of twenty one. By the end of the school year, only seventeen remained. Of the seventeen, only seven continued on into the following school year. While some of the seventeen were let go, I knew that too many of them had quit.
I felt frustrated and exhausted. I remember taking those seven remaining teachers out for dinner and asking them: “Why did you stay?” Their responses became my first leadership lesson as a new manager: They said: “We were the ones you invested in,” “we were the ones you trusted and gave leadership to,” and “we were the ones who you showed that you cared [about personally].”
This was hard to hear but true: these were the teachers who I invested in more, trusted, and encouraged, especially when they were struggling. I was thankful for this feedback. Moving forward, I tried each year to create this feeling for my whole team and not just a select few.
Here are some of the key changes I made and the ones I suggest to leaders:
Know the individuals on your team
No matter how big your school is, you need to know the individuals on your team. Know their strengths, areas of growth, interests, and aspirations. Ask about their significant others, kids, and life outside of the school — take a personal interest in them. Leverage a situational leadership style to tailor your support of them. Use your head and your heart when working with them. If you hired them, hopefully you care enough to see them not just as the teacher who teaches in room 202 but as a whole person.
Coach and develop your team
Make sure they have a coach who is providing personalized development, even if it’s not you. Ensure this is happening on a consistent and regular basis, and regularly make time to check in with them yourself on how their coaching and support is going. This includes joining coaching sessions to offer input and push the quality further. Plan professional development that is tailored and differentiated, whether that includes choice in sessions or structured pathways such as teaching fellow programs. Create stretch opportunities for them to grow in areas they may not even recognize as strengths yet.
Ask questions and listen to them
Be genuinely curious about their opinions and feedback, even if you don’t use all of it. Create the space for them to share constructive ideas and thoughts about improvement. Let them know when you have used their feedback or ideas. Gallup’s research affirms that employees who feel like significant contributors to their organization and believe their “opinion counts” experience a higher level of satisfaction in their workplace. If I had not taken my seven returners to dinner, asked them for their honest feedback, and genuinely listened to it, I would have missed out on a vital leadership growth opportunity for myself.
Be patient with them
Understand that they will make mistakes, drop balls, miss deadlines, arrive late, call out sick last minute, etc. Use these moments as a learning opportunity to reset expectations and plan for the future with them as opposed to becoming annoyed, holding a grudge, or looking for their next mistake. Keep the bar high and provide direction, support, and scaffolds to help your teachers get there.
Create opportunities for as many team members as possible to lead and shape aspects of the school. Create opportunities for your teachers to start and lead initiatives that allow them to bring other aspects of their personal life into the school. This spreads leadership and ownership of the school while also enriching it with diverse perspectives and points of view. I remember the day my principal asked me to lead my grade-level team even though there were more experienced teachers on it. He and I didn’t know then that he had sowed the seeds of school leadership by recognizing something in me.
Show your appreciation
You should be your teachers’ biggest fan. Celebrate your teachers’ growth and accomplishments. And just like in an interpersonal relationship, don’t wait for Valentine’s Day or birthdays to show appreciation. Take a page out of the 5 Love Languages and demonstrate your appreciation in a variety of ways, like by saying “it was great watching you in action with your kids today…” or by genuinely spending time with your teachers. I fondly remember chatting it up with my teachers as they headed home after school.
Become the kind of manager our teams need us to be — our kids and communities can’t afford a revolving door of teachers.