Retaining Good Teachers

Once teachers with potential are hired, there is still the matter of retaining them.  Changing teachers’ pay structure so that earnings reflect success will help mitigate some of the losses to other industries.  Income in non-teaching occupations generally grows faster in the first couple of years.  So, often while talented teachers are going through growing pains, they come across other opportunities that have the potential for quicker growth at the outset and higher ceilings overall.  If they were given raises according to their performance, they would have less incentive to leave for another field.  Improving teacher benefits would also help with retention.  Although teacher benefits such as loan forgiveness and tax-sheltered annuity programs have good reputations, there are other areas that can be addressed to make teaching more attractive.  For example, federal loans at low interest can be made readily available to teachers.  Increased healthcare options and better coverage for family members can be provided.  Another idea which is worth exploring is lowering the retirement age.  In certain states like Colorado, teachers can retire if their age and years of experience add up to 80 (with a minimum age of 55 in CO).  Perhaps integrating performance factors into the reduction of the retirement age will help with the retention of quality teachers.

Of paramount importance in the retention of new teachers is providing them with support.  A mentoring system has been found to be helpful in several school districts.  Novice teachers can feel quite isolated when thrown into classrooms and asked to figure things out on their own.  If there are mentors who understand the importance of following through with their responsibilities, new teachers will take solace in knowing that they can turn to their mentor to get advice or vent frustrations.  Furthermore, a cooperative work environment with ample administrative support implies that reliance on others is the status quo as opposed to a sign of personal incompetence.

Speaking of cooperative environments, several studies by behavioral economists have shown that using carrots and sticks as incentives to improve job performance works with repetitive tasks.  When it comes to work that involves the application of even a small bit of cognitive ability, this system of reward and punishment is actually detrimental to productivity.  What these behavioral economists suggest to improve job performance is allowing workers to take ownership and have some autonomy.  Many companies have had success changing their policies to allow for their workers to have more autonomy.  Google, for example, allows its software engineers to spend one day per week working on whatever they see fit as long as it has some relevance to what they do.  In that relatively small space of time, Google has come up with a large portion of its great ideas.  In the teaching realm, teachers can be allowed a greater say in the curriculum they teach, the hiring of other teachers, and other school decisions.  As a perk, teachers that prove to be talented and able to satisfy the educational requirements of the administration can be allowed to deviate to a greater degree from the required coursework as long as what they plan to do is relevant and has consensus approval.  I believe that increasing the autonomy that teachers have in their classrooms and making the school work environment more democratic will not only boost morale, but it will curb the feeling of futility that undoubtedly exists for many teachers working in problematic schools.  It also stands to reason that teachers who see solutions and feel involved in implementing them are more likely to stay than teachers who see a situation mired in perpetual turmoil.

On a tangent, it is also a good idea to provide quality teachers with the flexibility to move to different areas of teaching or into roles as consultants/permanent mentors if they have been exceptional.  A doozy among American myths is the idea that people have callings that fit neatly with a particular occupation and career path.  The truth is that most people have various interests and outlooks subject to change over time.  A “dream job” is a job that one likes most of the time.  With time that same job may become less agreeable.  Likewise, once enthusiastic educators can grow tired of teaching the same subject to the same grades or of the routine altogether.  It would be a shame for school districts to lose the services of their top talent because of a lack of mobility.

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Posted in Education Reform

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