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Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

If I only knew then, what I know today…

Building leadership and school culture were more than three times the reason for teachers voluntarily leaving the profession over compensation

Author: Rob Neu, Former Superintendent


A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) revealed teachers are quitting their jobs in record numbers. According to the WSJ, the Labor Department reported 83 in 10,000 teachers per month quit their jobs in the first 10 months of 2018. In the 17 years that the Labor Department has tracked such data, this marks the highest rate of teachers walking off the job. When good teachers leave, especially in the middle of the school year, the impact on the system is far reaching, profoundly affecting students.

Losing teachers, regardless of the time of year, fuels the number one concern of America’s superintendents, “recruiting and retaining talented teachers (61%),” according to the findings of The Gallup 2018 Survey of K-12 School District Superintendents. Teacher attrition is nevertheless not a new problem. 

University of Pennsylvania researcher, Dr. Richard Ingersoll, has sounded the teacher attrition alarm for over two decades. Dr. Ingersoll calls teacher voluntary resignations the “leaky bucket” of valuable school resources. Ingersoll states: “the teaching workforce loses a continuous stream of educators each year for voluntary reasons other than retirement, creating a steady demand for new teachers.” 

In February of 2018, Education Week surveyed 500 teachers nationally on why they recently quit their jobs. When adding up the top responses, building leadership and school culture were more than three times the reason for teachers voluntarily leaving the profession over compensation.

Dr. Sally Zepeda, researcher from the University of Georgia, has maintained that schools must do more to support teachers, especially the most vulnerable ones—those new to teaching. Specialized supports must consider the culture and climate of the school—and effort rests on school leadership.

As a former superintendent of schools, I can recall the devastating impact teacher attrition had throughout the district. Losing talented teachers cost the district millions of dollars in resources, had an adverse effect on staff morale, led to higher rates of student discipline issues, an increase in teacher absences, and negatively impacted student achievement performance. All of these, when considered, are indicative of a negative school culture. 

During my tenure, I took immense pride in fighting the No Child Left Behind era of stick and carrot testing policies. However, I regret focusing on “hard reform” initiatives while ignoring developing and improving school building culture. I left it to chance that a principal had “it” in developing a positive school culture. I underestimated the impact that I had on helping create the conditions for healthy culture in the schools under my care.

While much attention has been paid to recruitment and hiring, little has been done to ensure quality teachers stay in the classroom. Effective onboarding activities and peer mentoring are certainly strategies that districts have been using for years to ensure teacher success in the classroom. However, these are only a small part of several key drivers that school leaders can employ to focus and harness a heathy school culture that results in higher teacher retention rates.  

If I were back in the superintendent's chair today, my number one focus would be the development of positive and healthy school district and school building culture. When the adults in our schools have a shared sense of belonging and a shared purpose and direction with agreed upon norms and protocols, they have a chance at owning a culture where they all want to come to work every day. When the adults have created a positive school culture that carries over into a positive climate, which the students experience, we have created the conditions where effective teaching and learning can occur.

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