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September 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 1

Repairing the Leaky Bucket

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Research points to key actions school leaders can take to hire and retain good teachers.

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LeadershipSchool Culture
Repairing the Leaky Bucket Header Image
Credit: Ian Whadcock _ Ikon Images

CHALLENGE: It is increasingly difficult to hire and keep good teachers.

School staffing shortages and turnover are a huge concern facing school leaders across the country. In a recent survey, half of principals said hiring teachers is a challenge; the majority struggled last fall to find candidates to apply to open positions (Sparks, 2022). The research team that I co-lead for the Educator Workforce Project has surveyed and interviewed superintendents, district HR directors, and principals across Michigan about educator shortages and hiring challenges. These leaders often mention "poaching" teachers from each other because applicant pools that once numbered in the hundreds are now in the single digits for some positions. Concerns about recent increases in teacher retirements and turnover have been equally serious (Diliberti & Schwartz, 2023). Some refer to chronic teacher turnover as the "leaky bucket" problem: You need to continually pour in new people to keep it full.
Debates persist about the causes of and solutions to these challenges. Some thought leaders are making a case for addressing problems that lie largely outside school leaders' purview, such as low teacher compensation, lack of resources for students' mental health, or the deleterious effects of concentrated poverty (Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, 2016). Many of these external challenges certainly exacerbate the problem of shortages and disproportionately affect low-income schools. In turn, these conditions make it more difficult to attract and retain good leadership in these schools because the job is simply harder. Policymakers must play a big role in resolving these challenges, which can lead to educator overwork and burnout.
But education leaders can't wait for policy intervention to improve and stabilize their schools. And getting better at retention at the school level can reduce hiring needs and the impact of shortages. So, what can leaders do to hire, support, and retain teachers in the context of teacher shortages?
First, remember that leaders have a strong influence on these problems, particularly when it comes to retaining teachers. Research over the last two decades consistently identifies high-quality school administration and administrative support as one of the strongest predictors of low teacher turnover. Teachers who have strong perceptions of administrative support are more than twice as likely to stay in their positions, reinforcing the idea that teachers who leave a school are leaving managers, not students or organizations (Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2019). And principals are in the best position to influence a school's climate and working conditions, which are also powerful predictors of retention and turnover.

Research-Based Principles for Hiring and Keeping Teachers

We know a lot about why teachers stay or leave their positions, and research indicates what leaders should focus on for hiring and retaining during this time of shortages. In 1975, education sociologist Dan Lortie argued that teachers are drawn to the profession because of the "psychic rewards" of teaching—the satisfaction that comes from helping students learn and grow and the sense of meaning from contributing to young people and society. Since then, researchers have established a strong empirical link between a teacher's perceptions of psychic rewards and their decisions to stay in or leave their school. Being supported is crucial to teachers' sense of psychic rewards. Susan Moore Johnson's two decades of research on teacher retention found that teachers' "sense of success" depends on how schools are—or aren't—organized to support them.
When considering how to hire and retain teachers, leaders should consider questions like:
  • What is expected of teachers coming to this school and how can I convey this information thoroughly and realistically? How do my expectations align with their own expectations for success and support?
  • How can I cultivate strong, trusting relationships with and between teachers so they are open to learning, growing, and taking risks to increase the psychic rewards they feel while advancing the organization's vision?
  • How can I provide strong systems, expectations, and structured supports while fostering teachers' sense of autonomy and professionalism?
Four research-based principles point to key practices for hiring, supporting, and retaining teachers.

1. Have a Strong Vision—and Hire Teachers Who Align with It

My research on highly effective urban charter schools suggests that their success can be partly attributed to leaders having a strong, palpable vision embraced by employees throughout the organization, getting candidates excited about that vision, and hiring teachers who truly align with it. High-poverty districts serving students of color are often at a disadvantage in doing this because of their limited resources and because people's deficit views of such schools limit their pool of potential applicants. But in Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms(Harvard Education Press, 2015), H. Richard Milner explains that high-poverty districts can create a vision that embraces the strengths of these communities. Such approaches can help teachers deeply understand neighborhood conditions and rethink curricula in culturally responsive ways. To attract candidates, leaders in high-poverty districts can build a culture of excitement and purpose by focusing on the strengths of their communities and can refine practices and expectations for success according to that vision.

Strong hiring processes are 'information-rich,' involving candid, two-way communication about what to realistically expect from the job.

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The hiring process itself is critical to a teacher's eventual satisfaction and retention. Strong hiring processes are "information-rich," involving candid, two-way communication about what to realistically expect from the job. This means investing time outside of traditional interviewing, such as structured school tours and demo lessons. It may include the school leader and a hiring team debriefing after a demo lesson, evaluating the candidate's performance against criteria aligned with the school's vision. Having multiple ways of conveying what the candidate can realistically expect from the school and the principal is important; it allows the prospective hire to see how they can be successful within a school's context.
This principle assumes leaders can be selective about who they hire, but many leaders now have few candidates applying to teaching jobs. They may not be able to count on hiring teachers with the skill to hit the ground running and who align with their vision. So, leaders must double their efforts to create schools that are the primary sites for teacher development and learning.

2. Make School a Hub for Teacher Learning

Even before current shortages, researchers realized the profession was "greening," with larger than ever proportions of new teachers, especially in low-income urban and rural districts (Rosati, 2013). This is an issue because new teachers are, on average, consistently less effective than teachers with more experience and need much more support. Increasingly, many low-income districts find themselves having to hire new teachers with little to no experience—including long-term substitutes, emergency-certified teachers, or alternate route teachers, all of whom have abbreviated periods of training. Building the school's capacity as the hub for teacher learning acknowledges that most of a teacher's knowledge and skill must be acquired on the job. Hewing to this principle minimizes the effects of teacher turnover, as leaders can rely on strong systems to train new employees.
One of the worst things principals can do with new teachers is leave them alone, assuming they just need time and space to figure things out. New teachers who end up staying in their jobs cite good working conditions—such as regular feedback on their teaching, high-quality professional development, and coherent instructional programming—as important factors in their decisions to stay (Simon & Moore Johnson, 2015). Sadly, schools with many new teachers often take a "sink or swim" approach when novices' needs for support around classroom management and instruction are greatest. Although some teachers may initially be wary of evaluation and feedback, cultivating success early and making ample time for support are critical to establishing trust that leads to openness and taking risks down the line.
Leaders can provide such support by establishing regular routines for feedback and coaching that start with "quick wins"—using small chunks of time to observe classrooms, providing positive and specific praise, engaging teachers in reflection and dialogue, and cultivating a growth mindset.
Ultimately, leaders should move to a routine that incorporates suggestions and strategies teachers can try, including for student behavior issues. Teachers' perceptions of student behavior have a strong influence on teacher turnover and their sense of success. Routines like these give leaders a better sense of new teachers' readiness for learning, where they need support, and how they view the supports and structures the school provides around addressing student behavior. Such routines are an opportunity for leaders to listen and hear what is or isn't working in terms of support from administration.
Providing strong, consistent instructional leadership is difficult when administrators are pulled in many directions, partly as a result of staff shortages. Michigan superintendents and principals I interviewed in 2023 found it helpful to hire several permanent or long-term substitutes at the district or school level. Leaders who can fund and staff these positions are better able to protect time for teacher support—which is ultimately an investment in higher teacher effectiveness and retention.

3. Nurture Relational Trust and Community

Researchers at the University of Chicago produced strong empirical evidence that the presence of positive, trusting working relationships is foundational to school improvement efforts and teacher retention (Sebring et al., 2006). And principals are in the best position to cultivate relational trust with and between teachers. Relational trust is defined as an individual's understanding of what is expected in and from a job and the meaning one assigns to social interactions based on this understanding.
Daily interactions with school leaders allow teachers to validate whether they and others are meeting expectations. For example, if teachers expect strong instructional support, their expectations may be validated if their principal makes time to observe them and give helpful feedback. The crucial element in relational trust development is what teachers expect and whether subsequent actions align with their expectations. Building trust through aligned expectations is important for retention.
Gallup researchers have found that an employee's agreement with the statement "I know what is expected of me" is one of the strongest predictors of job performance and retention (Buckingham & Coffman, 1999). Building trust isn't a one-off task, such as writing a clear job description or using hiring and onboarding to clarify expectations. It requires ongoing, two-way communication about what success looks like in different situations and how an individual's performance and expectations fit within the context of the organization.
Going back to psychic rewards, at a basic level, teachers want to feel successful at engaging and instructing students. Effective induction is one important way principals can foster a sense of success, trust, and professional community between teachers. Richard Ingersoll (2012) found that comprehensive teacher induction (defined as employee entry, orientation, and support programs) is important for combatting the isolation many new teachers feel and has a strong relationship with retention. He concluded that the more comprehensive the induction (the more supports offered), the better the retention. Supports included things like one-on-one time with administrators, reduced teaching assignments, common planning time or collaboration with colleagues, and having teacher aides.

Teachers tend to stay in schools where they have influence over decisions and where teachers work coherently with each other and the principal to coordinate instruction.

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Some of these induction strategies are related to another important element of teacher retention: a strong professional community that helps build teacher efficacy, trust, and capacity. Teachers tend to stay in schools where they have influence over decisions and where teachers work coherently with each other and the principal to coordinate instruction. A strong professional community that involves sustained, focused collegial interaction fosters a climate of collective responsibility that improves teacher retention and a school's effectiveness. Having a community makes new teachers feel cared for and respected and buffers them from feeling overwhelmed and isolated.
District and school leaders must invest in the time, planning, and coverage needed for this work to happen. Principals can lobby district leadership to provide the necessary resources (e.g., more long-term subs; induction programs), framing their requests in terms of the substantial costs of teacher turnover—which is much more likely to happen when such supports aren't in place.

4. Foster Teacher Professionalism

As teachers grow in their expertise, it's especially important to respect and foster their sense of professionalism. Teacher autonomy and input into school decision making are strong predictors of satisfaction and retention, both because teachers want to be respected as professionals and because teachers need to feel they can exercise discretion about how students are socialized and taught (Torres, 2014). Returning to the theme of feeling successful, when teachers have strong ideas about what success should look like for themselves and their students, they need latitude to act on these ideas or at least have them be heard. Sometimes these ideas conflict with school practices or programs. Principals need mechanisms for offering feedback and dialogue to balance teachers' ideas with the broader vision and practices of the school.
Finally, like employees in all sectors, teachers want to be recognized and seen for their accomplishments. This recognition necessitates involvement, visibility, communication, and care on the part of principals. It can include targeted opportunities for professional growth, such as structured leadership roles and career ladders.

Repairing the Bucket

The ideas I've outlined aren't new. They are partly common sense backed by decades of scholarship on what it takes to retain effective teachers. Still, many of these things happen sporadically if at all in some schools. The good news is, principals who invest the time necessary for frequent interaction with and between teachers, including new hires, can build the trust necessary for retention. Strong systems of hiring, induction, and support can lay a foundation for teachers' sense of success—and desire to remain. And principals can strongly influence the retention and development of the teachers already in their schools. Although it's difficult in the context of shortages, we can use creative strategies to repair the leaky bucket.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Do you focus more on recruitment and hiring of teachers or on retaining teachers? How might you find a better balance between these two aspects of keeping your school staffed?

➛ In your first year teaching, did you know clearly what was expected of you? If so, how did the school let you know this? Do you know the expectations for your role in your current position?

Some Good News About the Teacher Pipeline

While enrollment in teacher preparation programs is still lower than at its peak around 10–15 years ago, recent data reflect some good news. According to the U.S. Department of Education's 2022 report on preparation of the K–12 teacher workforce, the number of people enrolled in teacher prep programs in 2021 was 6 percent higher than the number enrolled in such programs in 2019. Data from the report show this uptick in enrollment is spread throughout the country: Over the last three years, the number of people entering teacher prep programs has increased in 37 states and the District of Columbia.

The data also show an increase in the percentage of teacher candidates coming through alternative certification programs (though in raw numbers, traditional programs account for more of the total). From 2013 to 2019, the percentage of people trained through alternative route programs rose by 18 percent, while the percentage prepared through traditional teacher prep programs declined by 29 percent.

—Naomi Thiers

Source: U.S. Department of Education (Title II Higher Education Act). (2022). Preparing and credentialing the nation's teachers: The secretary's report on the teacher workforce. Author.

References

A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. (2016, February 18). A broader, bolder education policy framework. The Economic Policy Institute.

Buckingham, M., & Coffman, C. (1999). First, break all the rules: What the world's greatest managers do differently. Simon & Schuster.

Carver-Thomas, D., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2019). The trouble with teacher turnover. Education Policy Analysis Archives27(36), 1–27.

Diliberti, M. K., & Schwartz, H. L. (2023). Educator turnover has markedly increased, but districts have taken action to boost teacher ranks: Selected findings from the Sixth American School District Panel Survey. RAND Corporation.

Ingersoll, R. (2012). Beginning teacher induction: What the data tell us. University of Pennsylvania.

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. University of Chicago Press.

Rosati, J. (2013, Fall). The changing face of the teaching force. Penn GSE Magazine.

Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E., Bryk, A. S., Easton, J. Q., & Luppescu, S. (2006, September). The essential supports for school improvement. Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.

Simon, N. S., & Moore Johnson, S. (2015). Teacher turnover in high-poverty schools: What we know and can do. Teachers College Record, 117(3), 1–36.

Sparks, S. D. (2022, September 27). What school staffing shortages look like now. Education Week.

Torres, A. C. (2014). "Are we architects or construction workers?" Re-examining teacher autonomy and turnover in charter schools. Economic Policy Analysis Archives, 22(124).

End Notes

For more details on this ongoing research project, see the Educator Workforce Project.

Chris Torres is an associate professor of education policy and leadership in the University of Michigan Marsal Family School of Education and co-principal investigator for the Educator Workforce Project. He studies how education leaders, district governance, and policy influence teacher supply and retention and school improvement efforts.

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