How Do We Keep the Best Teachers? Empowering Them

Schools should be designed in a way that brings students happiness and helps them learn how to be happy later in life. I wrote in this column earlier this year that this required a daily experience built on kindness and an academic program composed of challenging, important work across the curriculum.

The best—and maybe the only—way to make school a place where students are happy and engaged is to first make school a workplace where effective teachers are happy and engaged, and where they want to stay. Unfortunately, too many teachers leave the profession early, which has enormous social and economic costs.

Almost half of the nation’s new teachers leave the profession in the first five years, according to a 2014 report from the Alliance for Excellent Education (On the Path to Equity: Improving the Effectiveness of Beginning Teachers). This report puts the annual cost to school districts of teacher turnover at $2.2 billion. One of the direct consequences is teacher shortages in many districts. “Turnover is the big driver of the shortages,” according to Richard Ingersoll, a professor who studies teacher turnover and retention. “The problem isn’t that we don’t produce enough new teachers. The problem is that we’re not retaining enough of the teachers we already have.”

Compounding the challenge of retaining new teachers is the retirement of experienced teachers. A 2008 report from the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future (Learning Teams: Creating What’s Next), for example, predicted that more than half of the nation’s teachers would retire in this decade as “baby boomers” left the profession. More troubling to me, however, are accounts of experienced teachers leaving because they can no longer do what they love doing in the classroom. There is, they say, too much paperwork, standardized testing, and standardized lesson planning, which leaves little time for the professional creativity that drives student engagement.

Why do new and experienced teachers leave teaching? Research points to two important factors. Significantly, insufficient pay isn’t one of them.

Why Do Teachers Leave the Profession Early? 

According to Dr. Ingersoll, teachers leave teaching because they lack autonomy, or professional discretion and independence. In an interview with NPR, he noted that “[o]ne of the main factors is the issue of voice, and having say, and being able to have input into the key decisions in the building that affect a teacher’s job. This is something that is a hallmark of professions. It’s something that teachers usually have very little of, but it does vary across schools and it’s very highly correlated with the decision whether to stay or leave.”

This is consistent with the research on what motivates professionals in other fields. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink collected research showing that autonomy was the first of three critical sources of professional motivation and happiness. The other two were opportunities for mastery and a sense of purpose. While this third element is difficult to find in most professions, in schools you find it in your students every day, which may be why teachers persist even when they do not have autonomy.

Students and parents also play a critical role in teacher job satisfaction and retention. Just as administrative micromanagement or mismanagement can drive effective teachers to leave, so can student disrespect and misconduct, which parents may not be doing enough to address. What Dr. Ingersoll found in his conversations with teachers was that, in addition to a lack of autonomy and support from administrators, they cited “student misbehavior and discipline” as the other major reason they left teaching.

How Can We Reduce Teacher Turnover?

Teaching is like, and unlike, most other professions. It is like other professions in that a key element in job satisfaction and motivation is professional autonomy. It is unlike most other professions because teaching is about the heart and an abiding sense of purpose. You can’t take the creativity and love out of teaching and still expect teachers to continue teaching.

I have written previously that we need to hire qualified teachers and then get out of their way. By “we,” I mean policymakers, administrators, taxpayers, and parents. And by get out of their way, I mean stop micromanaging them and trust that good teachers can decide what and how to teach. Limit unnecessary paperwork, admit that standardized tests don’t actually test what is most important for students to learn, and throw out standardized lesson planning. In fact, throw out every box you want to put teachers in and, instead, let teachers select or design the lessons, assignments, projects, and assessments that will produce the best outcomes for their students, who they know and understand better than any policymaker or administrator ever will.

In promoting teacher autonomy, I am not suggesting that we do away with appropriate standards, or that we avoid making necessary personnel or program changes when students fail to meet them. In my experience, effective teachers know how to help their students meet or exceed appropriate standards, without limiting themselves to teaching to the test as standardized lesson plans require them to do. In the end, the way to meet standards and keep students interested and invested in school is to let teachers decide–individually and in collaboration with other teachers–which practices best promote student motivation and learning. Giving them this power will also keep the best teachers in schools.

This article was published in Loudoun Now on September 16, 2016.