How can schools make their teachers feel valued and supported?

An empty classroom awaiting the first day of school. Not all classes will have teachers as districts scramble to finalize new hires, especially in hard-to-fill subjects.

Credit: LIsa Bernheim

Credit: LIsa Bernheim

A veteran teacher who took a job with Gwinnett attended orientation this week and was thrilled when associate superintendent Linda Anderson announced: "In Gwinnett, there are two types of employees – teachers and those that support teachers."

“It’s been super inspirational,” said the teacher. “That mentality is what places Gwinnett above so many other districts.”

Many back-to-school news stories concentrate on what districts can do to welcome back parents and kids, but give little attention to the returning teaching force. And that’s a mistake because the life-changing work in a school occurs in the classroom.

When I began writing about education, school leaders didn’t fret much about a revolving door of teacher talent. They believed a long line of new teachers waited. Not any longer, as districts struggle to fill math, science, world language and special education jobs.

The teacher walkouts this year in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, West Virginia and Arizona revealed the fault lines in the profession, which confronts  a slowing pipeline of new recruits.

A 2017 Learning Policy Institute study found 90 percent of open teaching posts are the result of people leaving the profession. While retirements play a role, the report noted two-thirds of teachers depart for other reasons, most citing dissatisfactions with the job.

How can districts support teachers and entice new ones to enter the field?

"School systems that want to retain their top talent better have good strategies and processes in place to support those new teachers -- starting with a smooth and friendly hiring process, through those first few days of induction and then followed with supportive mentoring during that first year. Otherwise, chances are high that those good teachers will leave," said Steve Dolinger, former Fulton Schools superintendent and now president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.

University of Georgia education professor Peter Smagorinsky said, "The best way I know of to support teachers is to listen to them. Teachers know better than anyone how schools work, what kids need, what teachers need to do their best work. But they're one of two groups of people nobody solicits input from: kids and teachers. They won't agree, and you will get contradictory recommendations. But at least they feel recognized, consulted, listened to, and respected when administrators build a school culture around the experiences of the most knowledgeable people in the building."

Leslie Hazle Bussey, executive director of the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement, cited three conditions: "Ensure a high quality principal in place at every school who understands their role as school leader is to support teachers and teacher growth as the key lever for student success; Promote a district-wide culture of learning that balances pursuit of academic success with nurturing healthy school climate, including initiatives that attend to teacher and student well-being, as opposed to a singular focus on test score improvement; And cultivate teacher leadership by pushing principals to create meaningful opportunities for teachers to be embedded in decision making and leadership of mission critical work at every school."

At Atlanta's top-rated Grady High School, principal Betsy Bockman said, "What I try to impart: 1. Everyone's job (every employee at Grady ) is to do all we can every day to support students. 2. The employees who are not teachers at Grady…our job is to remove every single barrier that keeps teachers from teaching . Make the job of teaching easier."

Georgia Department of Education deputy superintendent Garry McGiboney said, "Teachers thrive in a school with a positive school climate. All of the elements that define a positive school climate such as engagement, motivation, kind words, connectedness — so they don't feel alone — are what teachers desperately want and need."

Monroe educator Monica Henson, who led an online Georgia charter high school, said, "One of the best ways that districts can support teachers is to ensure that less experienced teachers have several opportunities to observe capable, high-performing veteran colleagues. This is best achieved in small groups with a knowledgeable administrator participating and leading a debrief afterward. Similar to the hospital instruction model used for new resident physicians who go on rounds with an experienced chief doctor."

My own view, after years of talking to teachers about job concerns, is that most want to do their best for their students, but often feel attacked when told they need to improve. To grow, develop and retain effective teachers, Georgia schools must first create a culture in which teachers trust that administrators want them to succeed.

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