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October 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 2
Show & Tell: A Video Column

Making Sure Teachers Know They Matter

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Four steps school leaders can take to boost teacher morale—and retention. 

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October 2022 Fisher/Frey header image
Credit: GROUND PICTURE / SHUTTERSTOCK
During the last few years, educators across the world have faced deep uncertainty about their futures, which has had a destabilizing effect on the workforce. One result has been the exodus of many caring teachers who chose to leave the profession before retirement. The Bureau of Labor Management reported that 300,000 educators left the field between February 2020 and May 2022 (Dill, 2022). That fallout is alarming, and it's leading to serious consequences for schools. The School Pulse Panel at The National Center for Education Statistics reported that in the spring of 2022:
  • 44 percent of school districts faced staffing shortages.
  • Teacher absenteeism rates rose dramatically.
  • Administrators and non-teaching staff routinely covered classes because of substitute shortages, adding greatly to their workloads.
  • Vacancies, both temporary and permanent, often interrupted student services.
  • 29 percent of districts saw a rise in the number of staff seeking mental health services (IES, 2022).
In the face of these ongoing difficulties, many organizations have called for systemic, policy-based solutions, including higher compensation, changes to credentialing requirements, and waving licensure fees. Not all these recommendations are under the direct influence of school and teacher leaders, but not being able to do everything doesn't mean we can't do anything. Here, based on our experiences, are three actions leaders can take to help change the narrative on the education profession.

Outstanding educators need to know their contributions are seen. In addition, they deserve to know that they figure into ongoing school-improvement plans.

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Change the narrative of performance reviews. Who are the people that form the backbone of your school organization? We should feel very fortunate that we can rattle off those names in an instant. But do they know the value they bring? Principals can fundamentally alter performance reviews by turning them into "re-recruitment" opportunities. Re-recruitment efforts are standard practice in large businesses, who recognize that their high-performing employees are often the first ones to leave for other opportunities.
Outstanding educators need to know that their contributions are seen. In addition, they deserve to know that they figure into ongoing school-improvement plans. Most of all, they need to see how their work figures into the vision of the organization and where it is headed. Studer (2003) advises scheduling a re-recruitment meeting and attending to each of the following points: Thank them for their contributions; discuss the school's mission and plans; identify the actions they have taken and why they are so valuable; and ask what you can do for them and what barriers they face.
Change the narrative on instructional coaching. The disruptions that have upended classroom routines have left some educators asking the existential question, "Do my efforts even matter?" The fear that the answer might be "not really" is demoralizing and can cause educators to consider other career options. Instructional coaching is traditionally a reflective enterprise, allowing the teacher to draw conclusions and identify next steps. But less surefooted teachers may be struggling to accomplish this because of their own doubts.
To better support such educators, instructional coaches and teacher-mentors must take steps to provide feedback that overtly links effort to results, sparking the kind of reflective conversation that is crucial in coaching. Start by using a simple but powerful language framework in your post-observation meetings:
"When you did x, then y occurred."
"When you did a think-aloud, your students understood how you used a context clue to define an unfamiliar phrase."
"When you did the worked example to factor the expression, your students could see how they could arrive at the answer using two different methods."
"When you took the time to quietly and respectfully redirect the student, she was able to collect herself and return to the task."
In doing so, you jumpstart teachers' thinking. Now add a follow-up reflective question. You may ask them, "Why do you believe that was so?" or "What were you thinking at the time, and what are you thinking now?" Finally, ask them about future actions: "When you use this approach again, what would you want to do more of or less of? What advice would you offer to a colleague who was trying this out for the first time?" Such dialogue can illuminate the instructional decisions they make, while moving their thinking forward.
Change the narrative on how educators see themselves. Schools strive to be student-centered. Students serve as the focus of our collective efforts and the primary way we measure our effectiveness as individuals and organizations. Healthy and productive teacher-student relationships are foundational to academic learning. They are also an incredible source of inspiration for us as educators. In fact, many cite meaningful relationships with young people as a major reward they draw from teaching (Santoro, 2011). And students thrive in a climate where they feel valued, especially by the teachers they see each day. This truth is made clear in a video filmed at El Dorado High School in Arkansas in 2015. Principal Nathan Henry asked teachers there to film the faces of students as they told them how important they were and that they were the reason the teacher came to work each day. (Watch the video here. Be prepared to tear up.)
In February 2022, conditions were pretty difficult at the California school where we work. Lots of illness meant that staff were spread thin, and students were often suddenly absent for a week. Dominique Smith, a principal at the school, decided it was time to innovate. Teachers needed to hear they were important. He invited dozens of students in the school to film their teachers while telling them that they were the reason they came to school. The video that accompanies this column is an edited version of the result. (Be prepared to tear up again.)

Shared Appreciation

Each of us has opportunities to ensure that educators at the schools where we work know they are important and valued. Write two thank you notes a week to colleagues to recognize them for what they do. When a student tells you something great that another teacher did, encourage the student to tell the teacher the same thing. Go public, sharing appreciations for the efforts of classified staff at meetings. As we regain our footing in school, let's make sure that we embody the culture of appreciation that everyone deserves.
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Show & Tell / A Creative Teacher Appreciation Project

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References

Dill, K. (2022, June 20). School's out for summer and many teachers are calling it quits. Wall Street Journal.

Institute of Educational Sciences. (2022). 2022 School Pulse Panel. U.S. Department of Education.

Santoro, D. A. (2011). Good teaching in difficult times: Demoralization and the pursuit of good work. American Journal of Education118(1).

Studer, Q. (2003). Hardwiring excellence: Purpose, worthwhile work, making a difference. Fire Starter Publishing.

Nancy Frey is a professor of literacy in educational leadership at San Diego State University where she focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Staying true to her belief that it is critical to remain deeply embedded in the life of a school, she also teaches at Health Sciences High and Middle College, an award-winning open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, which she cofounded with Ian Pumpian and Doug Fisher.

For over two decades, her work has been dedicated to the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders needed to help students attain their goals and aspirations. Frey’s interests include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. She is a recipient of the Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the Early Career Award from the Literacy Research Association.

Frey has published many articles and books on literacy, instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning, including Student Learning Communities: A Springboard for Academic and Social-Emotional Developments.

 

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The Education Profession: Changing the Narrative
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