Improving teacher retention

iStock_000014592789XSmallThe attrition rate in teaching is much higher than in other professions, report Melanie M. Minarik, Bill Thornton and George Perreault, Department of Educational Leadership, University of Nevada/Reno. While corporations expect a 6 percent loss of staff per year, up to 40 percent of teachers leave the profession within their first two years.

These statistics, in combination with increasing enrollments, mean that U.S. schools will need large numbers of new teachers in the years ahead. Recruitment and replacement of qualified teachers is costly. High attrition also makes school improvement efforts difficult to carry out because of lack of continuity in the staff. These researchers suggest the use of systems thinking to analyze existing ideas, solutions and conclusions might provide new insights into teacher retention.

Several persistent and complex problems surrounding teacher retention have been suggested: inadequate induction and support for new teachers; feelings of isolation and lack of community; flaws in teacher preparation and lack of professional development; inadequate rewards for knowledge and skill; unsafe work environments; and student discipline and motivation problems. To add to these drawbacks, there are attractive noneducation professions available to teachers.

Research has also identified factors that keep teachers in schools, including their relationship with the principal, their spouse’s career and their relationships in the community. These researchers write that few principals use this knowledge to address key issues within their school or to foster relationships in the community outside of school.

Systems thinking

Systems thinking provides educators with a conceptual framework within which to study retention issues. Using the metaphor of a spider web, systems thinking urges educators to realize that the impact of the loss of a single good teacher reaches far beyond a single classroom. A whole web of patterns and relationships within the school, district and community are affected by the loss of one good teacher. A systems perspective includes the interconnected parts, the complexity of teachers’ lives and the current political environment in education. Potential solutions can be analyzed in relationship to the whole. This approach reveals five interrelated strategies for improving teacher retention: developing effective principal leadership of the school; transforming schools and districts into an employer of choice; hiring the right teachers; enhancing relationships within the educational community; and promoting connectedness with the larger community.

Principals are key

Research reveals that the single most important variable in staff productivity and loyalty, across professions, is the quality of the relationship between staff and their supervisor. It is not the pay, perks, benefits or other extrinsic factors. Employees value clear and consistent expectations, a caring supervisor, recognition of their unique talents, freedom to act, and support of their personal growth.

Becoming an employer of choice and hiring the right teachers

Corporations and schools are in competition for talented employees, and many districts now offer signing bonuses to teachers. But organizations only retain employees by continually working to develop and maintain their image as “employers of choice.” They must actively seek to retain employees in an environment that thinks in terms of “we” rather than “us versus them.” To hire the right teachers in the first place, recruitment, screening and interviews must be aligned with the district framework of teaching and learning. Teachers’ ideas should be compatible with the district’s expectations. There must be ongoing benefits professionally and socially, not just financially, to retain good teachers.

The school community

In most schools, teachers are isolated and have very little professional contact, negatively impacting retention. Interconnectedness, relationships and collaborative professional interaction create meaning and improve intrinsic rewards for teachers. Schools that provide these will increase retention. Mentoring, coaching, team teaching, and orientation programs address the needs of new teachers, and connect teachers to one another, developing staff loyalty and satisfaction. More effective communication is needed in most schools, according to these researchers. Instructional teams that promote each teacher as a skilled professional, can provide meaningful relationships, encourage individual growth and build community.

Connecting with the community outside school

Teachers, especially new teachers, need to develop positive relationships within the larger community. Minarik et al. write that “The presence of a sense of community among families, teachers, and students has long been held by educational researchers to be one of the most important indicators of successful schools.” Systems thinking requires educational leaders to look beyond the boundaries of the school, district and profession. Connecting with organizations such as government agencies, private industries, community-based services, the arts, faith communities, nonprofit service groups and recreational activities helps new teachers become members of the community – and more likely to remain in their teaching jobs in that community.

Teachers need to be connected with school

The attrition of teachers disrupts the continuity of schools’ programs and hinders students’ learning, increases costs and is a barrier to school improvement. Looking at this problem from a systems perspective reveals that schools have much to do to create an environment in which teachers are connected within the school and with the community outside school. These connections will improve teacher performance and satisfaction as well as increase retention.


“Systems Thinking Can Improve Teacher Retention”, The Clearing House, Volume 76, Number 5, June 2003, pp. 230-234.

Published in ERN November 2003 Volume 16 Number 8

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