Be a Hero to Your District’s Administrators: How to Stop Your Best Teachers from Leaving your School, District, and their Profession

Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Recruiting, Training, and then Losing Your Best Teachers

Dear Colleagues,

Having spent another week consulting in a very rural area of the country (and driving to work in 15 degree BELOW zero weather), I continue to reflect on the connection between professional development and teacher mentoring, and teacher recruitment and retention.

The “rubber hit the road” this week when the building principal changed the focus of our next month’s training. . . moving it from focusing on training the Behavior Intervention Specialists (that their grant hired this year) to focus on the behavioral intervention gaps of the classroom teachers.

While at face value this is a good decision, the primary reason for the shift was that the principal was afraid that many of the Behavioral Interventionists would take other jobs in other districts this summer. Thus, she did not want to invest time in training just the Behavior Intervention Specialists, only to have to re-train new specialists next year.

Embedded in all of this, however, is the fact that her classroom teachers did not receive the classroom management and behavioral intervention training at the pre-service, university training levels that they need to be successful in their respective classrooms. This is typical for most teachers across the country, who also are not receiving the school-based professional development, mentoring, and supervision in these areas during their first three years in the field or when they accept a job in a new district (see the research of Dr. Richard Ingersoll cited below).

Here is the “vicious cycle”- - where schools are “chasing their tails”. . .

  • Virtually all schools nationwide now require systematic teacher evaluations (many using some adaptation of the Danielson model), where classroom management and effective instruction are explicitly part of the observations, evaluations, and feedback.
  • Many schools (see above) are identifying both novice and “experienced” staff with significant classroom management and effective instruction skill gaps that require remediation through professional development and additional supervision.
  • Between 25% to 45% of newly certified teachers nationally are leaving the profession within five years, and many schools routinely lose 10% to 20% of their total staff each year due to staff relocations, retirements, leaving the profession, or becoming administrators.
  • Finally, about 45% of the faculty turnovers occur in about 25% of the nation’s schools- - schools that are disproportionately located in high-poverty and/or urban areas.

Review articles supporting the data above for reference.

So. . . as my wise principal this week deduced, one could legitimately ask,

“Is it actually cost- and time-effective to engage in some areas of professional development- - knowing that some staff are going to leave and my school will not benefit (and I will need to retrain the new staff)? and

“How do I provide the professional development and follow-up mentoring and supervision to directly address the information and skill gaps of my classroom teachers- - who are doing the best that they can, and don’t necessarily know what they don’t know?”

Adding Fuel to the Vicious Cycle

Prompted by this week’s experience with my principal and my recognition of the “vicious cycle,” I did a little research. One thing that I found was a recent focus on the reasons why (new) teachers are leaving the profession. The other was the incredible time, money, and student achievement impact.

Relative to the former, Dr. Richard Ingersoll from the University of Pennsylvania has done extensive research over the past 20 years on why teachers leave the profession. Below are the top nine reasons (see earlier link).

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Add to this a Huffington Post article citing the top five reasons for teacher turnover (in reverse order) as:

#5. Burn Out: Researchers think that extended hours are wearing out educators- - which may increase their need for prep time (see above) in order to teach their classes effectively, and which suggests that extending the school day may be counter-productive when it increases the time that students are in school and teachers have to directly teach

#4. The Threat of Lay-Offs: Whether due to the fact that (a) school districts have less money and need to rift teachers, (b) state per pupil expenditure money is down across the country resulting in the same (see figure below), or (c) teachers are leaving the profession because of concerns that they may be fired due to the teacher evaluation process

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#3. Low Wages: Forcing some educators to leave the profession to take better paying jobs and some to take second jobs which may increase their burn-out, preparation, and effectiveness in school

#2. Testing Pressure: Especially when the students’ state/national proficiency score is the single criterion used to define school, teacher, and student success; and teachers are evaluated- - in whole or in part- - on the student results regardless of the students’ readiness, learning speed and style, motivation, or need for remediation or additional services and supports

#1. Working Conditions: According to the Huffington article, teachers say that they are offered few resources and little support. More entry-level teachers than senior-level educators are placed in high-need schools, and they receive (as above) minimal (if any) levels of needed training, mentoring, supervision, and functional feedback

Relative to the latter area, the same Huffington Post article stated that the loss or movement of teachers across schools costs districts $2.2 billion annually. In 2007, the National Commission on Teacher and America’s Future put this annual loss at over $7 billion per year. And then, we can add the financial loses estimated for school principals ($163 million per year according to a 2014 School Leaders Network publication), as well as district superintendents.

And yet, the real losers are the students due to the “stops and starts” in their educational programs, and the absence of needed academic and mental health services and supports (because, as is often cited, there is no money).

Hence, another vicious cycle- - the cycle where money that could be used to address the most critical needs of teachers (at least as cited by those leaving the profession- - see above) is being used to respond to the conditions that remain because they are leaving.

Breaking the Vicious Cycle

At some point, we need to break this vicious cycle, and stop “chasing our tails.” It has got to start somewhere because “when you do the same old thing, you get the same old results.”

But let’s recognize that, according to Ingersoll’s research, most of the reasons why teachers are leaving the profession or leaving their schools are contributory, NOT causal factors.

That is, to a large degree:

  • Increasing teachers’ preparation and collaboration time will not necessarily make them or their students more successful.

Breaking the Cycle: We need to focus the time and sharing on demonstrable student outcomes based on effective instructional objectives that are linked to well-designed curricula that are functionally assessed in the classroom relative to student learning, mastery, and application.

  • Increasing teachers’ faculty influence and their opportunities for professional advancement will not necessarily make them or their students more successful.

Breaking the Cycle: I am an absolute proponent for creating shared leadership approaches in a school where there are functional committees (see below) led by teachers and focused on annual activities that are explicitly reflected in the School Improvement Plan and process:

  • The Curriculum & Instruction Committee
  • School Discipline Committee
  • Professional Development/Teacher Support Committee
  • Community and Family Outreach Committee
  • Multi-tiered Early Intervention Student Services Team
  • School Leadership Team

Moreover, I believe that “professional advancement” is more than a formal teacher to supervision to administrator pipeline. Such advancement should include putting teachers into informal leadership and mentorship positions- - for example, using them as collegial consultants, coaches, mentors, and skill-specific experts.

BUT: If the strategic planning, staff development, and teacher leadership processes are not focused, once again, on classroom- and curriculum-based (and not proficiency test dependent) student outcomes while simultaneously supporting student needs, then we will not get to the root of what teachers really want: self-determination, the satisfaction that results when teachers feel they are making a difference, and sustained success.

  • Decreasing teachers’ teaching load and their class sizes will not necessarily make them or their students more successful.

Breaking the Cycle: Clearly, if teachers have excessive teaching loads and over-the-top class sizes, then these factors need to be addressed. But, on the whole, the research is very clear that decreases in these areas generally do not increase teacher effectiveness or student success (in fact, such decreases may be counterproductive).

One of the critical issues here is whether there are too many different skill levels in a teacher’s classroom such that effective and equitable differentiated instruction is impossible, and the needed student services, supports, resources, and strategies are unavailable or inapplicable.

In order to begin to break this cycle, schools need to look at the academic and behavioral status of all their students in later April or early May, and then group, program, staff, resource, and schedule them (for the upcoming school year) based on their needs. We have done this in schools across the country. . . and this approach has never failed to refocus these schools on student outcomes and increase students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral interactions.

  • Decreasing students’ behavioral problems and increasing parent support will not necessarily make teachers or their students more successful.

Breaking the Cycle. While schools certainly need positive parental involvement and minimal levels of student upsets, what they really need are students who have learned, mastered, and are able to apply social, emotional, and behavioral interactional and self-management skills.

When students demonstrate behavioral problems, it is critical to determine why the problems are occurring so that we can use the right instructional or intervention approaches to solve the problem. But “the absence of a problem does not represent the presence of a skill.” Thus, we need to complement the decrease or elimination of the problem with the social, emotional, or behavioral skills that will both (a) prevent the problem in the future, and (b) help the student to be responsible for future self-monitoring, self-evaluating, and self-correcting strategies.

Relative to parent support, we first need to recognize- - not to be negative- - that positive and active parent involvement does not guarantee that their offspring are going to be academically and/or behaviorally successful. More pragmatically, at some point, students need to learn to be responsible for themselves and accountable to a school’s expectations (if, for example, they are to be “college and career ready”). If they learn and demonstrate these attributes, they will be successful even though their parents may not be as involved and supportive as we would like.

And in order for them to learn these skills, we need to teach all students, from preschool through high school, the interpersonal, social problem solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills that they need to be successful. This is what will help to break this part of the vicious cycle. And this is what the school-based research-to-practice has been saying for over 20 years.


Having taught at two Research I institutions for over 20 years, I can tell you that we can positively impact pre-service training at the university level. . . but it will not be enough.

We need to provide professional development that focuses on teachers’ (a) Knowledge and Understanding, (b) Classroom-based Skill and Application, and (c) Confidence and Competence. Such professional development needs to be different for (a) new teachers during their first three years in the profession, (b) mid-career teachers during their next six years in the profession, and (c) experienced teachers who are ready for (informal/consultative or supervisor/administrative preparation) leadership or specialization roles in their schools.

Relative to the vicious cycles that are present in our schools, districts, and states: we need to complete the functional analyses needed to decide where and how to break one or more of these cycles. The time is now !!! This may involve “disruptive leadership”- - but let’s be honest, how many times in the past decade have our (well-meaning) federal and state legislatures (or departments of education) disrupted the educational process? At least this time, we are doing it to ourselves while, hopefully, retaining our talented teachers, increasing their preparation and success, decreasing and reinvesting our time and money, and increasing student success. . . at real and meaningful levels.