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January 9, 2020
Vol. 15
No. 9

The Strength of a Teacher–Principal Partnership

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School Culture
It shouldn't be news by now that high-poverty school districts across the country struggle with retention. Frequent turnover of principals and teachers is common. What often goes unmentioned is the cyclical nature of the problem. While teachers who serve hard-to-staff schools often leave because of frustrations over inadequate professional development, teaching conditions, and struggling students, principal leadership and consistency also play a major role in teacher retention (Grissom, 2011).
In fact, teachers' relationships with their administrators serve as one of the most influential reasons on whether to stay at or leave a school (Boyd, 2011). In high-poverty schools with high principal turnover, teachers leave soon after the principal does (Miller, 2009). This results in frustrations and a loss of self-efficacy and purpose. When experienced teachers and leaders leave, they take with them content, institutional knowledge, and the relationships they built within the learning community. It takes time and energy for any leader new to a district to master the culture, content, and teaching pedagogy.
In 2018, I conducted research among a group of teacher leaders who taught in science or mathematics in high-poverty, rural middle and high schools throughout South Carolina. The purpose was to determine what drove their motivation to work in these schools and what influenced their desire to leave. I traced the source of dissatisfaction back to the effects of a new administrator. Teachers told me that when a new administrator came in, he or she often rearranged leadership roles, removing the very responsibilities that teacher leaders took pride in accomplishing. Teachers questioned why they should stay if leaders no longer needed or acknowledged their expertise and effort.
My findings echo research by Ashley Miller, who found that too often, teacher leaders dedicate extra time and energy, often without pay, to perform additional supportive leadership roles, but lose responsibilities or find themselves underutilized as teacher leaders with the arrival of a new leader (2009).
What can new principals do to make sure this doesn't happen? When a school administrator is hired from outside of the district, it is necessary to take time to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each teacher and to understand what teachers take pride in. New principals can nurture relationships with teacher leaders and find ways to embed new visions that incorporate the strength and skills of those teacher leaders.
More specifically, new principals should take time to learn who the current teacher leaders of the school are, what they are experts in, and what drives them. If there are events and initiatives such as STEM nights, school food pantries, or college and career visitors, administrators should talk to faculty to ask about the process of organizing such events, whether they were successful in the past, and what role teachers played before deciding how to move forward. Principals should remember the knowledge teacher leaders have of the school's values and history.
Some principals may feel as those leaving teachers in current positions is a compromise to their leadership, but it is exactly the opposite. Without your most experienced teachers on board, principal leadership cannot be successful. One suggestion is for the school to establish a vision team comprised of the school's administrators, teacher leaders, and a district leader to collaboratively align the district's and school's goals.
When I conducted my research around STEM teacher leaders, the teachers with the most job satisfaction all had leadership teams in place at their schools that worked with the district office. These teams stayed in placed among multiple administrative changes. The teachers felt as though their voices were heard and the roles they worked hard to earn and perfect usually remained. If we want teachers to stay, we cannot take away their teacher identity by pulling back on the responsibilities they value.
As new leadership comes on board, that leadership team can serve as a window for the new principal into the school's culture and relationships, preventing a complete change in direction and strategies and ensuring that the time and energy faculty put into initiatives was worth it. The district-level representative can also mentor new principals based specifically on each school's vision, culture, initiatives, and needs.
There is no one answer for encouraging principals to stay, especially in the most hard-to-staff schools, but I know they cannot succeed alone. Teacher leaders are the heartbeat of the school. Leadership occurs when offering the tools to lift one another up and create team involvement. It is only when principals surround themselves with others' strengths that a school will truly succeed.

Boyd, D., Grossman, P., Ing, M., Lankford, H., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J. (2011). The Influence of School Administrators on Teacher Retention Decisions. American Educational Research Journal, 48(2), 303–333.

Grissom, J. A. (2011). "Can good principals keep teachers in disadvantaged schools? Linking principal effectiveness to teacher satisfaction and turnover in hard-to-staff environments." Teachers College Record, 113, 2552–2585.

Miller, A. (2009). Principal turnover, student achievement and teacher retention. Princeton University, Princeton, NJ.

Zeis, J. G. (2019). "Decisions based on perception: Perceptions of STEM teacher leader job satisfaction in rural, high-poverty schools" (dissertation). Columbia, SC.

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