Perhaps the most important challenge facing schools today is their flagging ability to recruit and retain effective teachers. Nationally, the turnover rate for beginning teachers is 40% to 50%. As a result, for every 10 beginning teachers hired this year, researchers predict 4 to 5 of them will leave teaching by 2008.
The issue’s importance is reflected in the fact that each of the major Democratic presidential candidates has his own plan for addressing it: Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry has proposed a $10,000 income-tax deduction for teaching professionals who work in the schools with "the greatest need." North Carolina Sen. John Edwards would like to establish a $5,000 home mortgage credit for teachers to purchase homes near their disadvantaged schools. Both Edwards and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean would offer financial assistance to students who agree to teach in high-need areas after they graduate.
Some school districts are developing strategies to deal with the problem. In Chattanooga, Tenn., for example, 26 high-performing teachers earned bonuses for transferring to the nine lowest-performing schools. Subsequently, researchers found a 10-point increase in the percentage of third graders reading at or above grade level in the schools where the teachers transferred. Chattanooga should be congratulated for overcoming significant obstacles to its program. But financial incentives alone will not solve the teacher retention problem. Retaining great teachers requires creating a positive environment for them to work in -- and responsibility for that lies with school principals.
Start With the Principal
Principals define their schools’ working conditions and culture. It is impossible to create a positive learning environment for students if the school fails to provide a positive working environment for the adults.
How do the best principals achieve this? In 2003, Gallup conducted an in-depth study of 143 principals in 17 school districts across the United States and one province in Canada. The study included an online talent assessment, an employee engagement study, and teacher and supervisor ratings. The results highlight what great principals do to create a positive work environment at their schools:
- Great principals establish a nurturing culture. They demonstrate to students, teachers, and parents that they care about them as human beings. Students work for teachers who care about them, and teachers do the same for principals.
- Great principals make it a top priority to provide the necessary resources for their staff. Highly effective principals find out what teachers need to succeed and work hard to provide it. Meeting these needs may be as simple as providing enough construction paper or as complex as organizing community agencies to distribute coats and gloves for needy students. By providing the resources, principals enable teachers to focus on student learning.
- Great principals develop mutually supportive teams. They recognize that interdependent teamwork is necessary to student success, and actively seek input from teachers in decisions that affect them.
- Great principals inspire teachers by openly talking about their mission and vision for the school. They acknowledge the emotion that goes with teaching. They recruit teachers with a strong sense of mission, and they reinforce that mission. They recognize that teaching is a helping profession, affirming and recognizing teachers’ altruistic impulses and efforts for student growth.
- Great principals recognize people’s achievements. They celebrate the successes of both students and teachers, providing meaningful and individual recognition for those around them. They catch people doing things right and call attention to it.
- Great principals establish school expectations and standards. They make student learning an expectation, jointly setting goals with teachers, and they regularly review the progress of teachers and the school toward those goals.
Highly effective principals do all of these things, and much more, to create a school culture that is supportive of performance and people. Unfortunately, many schools, both in high-poverty and affluent circumstances alike, are not the workplaces in which effective teachers wish to spend their lives. These schools will continue to have significant turnover, while successful schools will recruit and retain great teachers regardless of their location or other challenges. Those successful schools probably have principals dedicated to creating workplaces in which teachers want to work.