Expert Viewpoint

5 Things Schools Can Do Now to Boost Teacher Retention

The teacher shortage is nothing new, but the urgency of needing to accelerate every student’s literacy skills while short staffed, is. Many teachers are leaving or considering leaving the profession, while fewer and fewer are joining the ranks.

Concurrently, the global pandemic has brought equity to the forefront of many educational decisions, and literacy is one of the cornerstones of equity. The question is, how can we continue improving the literacy skills of every student — not just those in elementary school — when teachers are tired, burned out, and missing crucial support?

The solution lies in ensuring literacy educators are valued, heard, and have access to the science of reading knowledge, as well as tools that are based in the science and empower them by taking some of the work off their plates.

Empowering Educators to Make a Difference

This year, 55% of educators are thinking about leaving the profession earlier than they had planned. According to a recent National Education Association poll, that percentage increased to 62% for Black educators and 59% for Hispanic and Latino educators — two groups who were already underrepresented in the teaching profession. These realities have made teacher recruitment and retention a top priority for most schools.

Much like the teacher shortage, the literacy crisis isn’t new either. The reading gap has existed for years, but the most recent data reveals that the gap between the students and schools of low poverty and high poverty has widened by more than 15% since the pandemic emerged. And it’s not the circumstances that students bring to school with them that limit their growth, but rather the lack of opportunity at their schools.

Consider this: About 95% of students have the ability to read or can learn to read when using instruction and programs based on the science of reading. Based on NAEP scores, however, only about a third of fourth- and eighth-graders are reading proficiently. It certainly doesn’t help that 33% of teachers are now somewhat or very likely to leave the profession — a far higher number than pre-COVID. Prior to the pandemic, 83% of teachers were very unlikely to leave — a number that’s since been whittled down to just 44% post-COVID.

These numbers matter since teacher turnover negatively impacts student outcomes. The flip side of that is teacher retention helps improve student outcomes. One Vanderbilt study found that losing a teacher during the school year has effects on learning outcomes similar to losing 32 to 72 instructional days.

The good news is that there are some proven strategies that schools can use to better support the teachers that they have, keep them in the profession and also attract promising new teachers to the fold.

Five Strategies To Improve Teacher Retention

Following are five strategies to improve teacher retention that your school can start using today:

1) Provide Emotional Support

Consider your teachers’ emotional wellbeing. How are they feeling? Like all of us, many teachers may feel uncertain, stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, sad and/or lonely at times. The key is to understand the elements of trauma and secondary traumatic stress, which is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another (which occurred frequently during the pandemic).

Be sure to consider the emotional wellbeing of teachers and how it’s impacting their decision to stay in the profession or potentially leave. One good approach is to have a principal or literacy coach walking around in the building, providing positive support both to teachers and students, and setting the climate for that building. It starts with leadership and others will follow.

2) Make Educators Feel Valued

One of the main reasons teachers are leaving the profession is because they feel undervalued, and their efforts are underfunded. During the pandemic, families and caregivers learned firsthand just how difficult it is to be a teacher. When this happened, I thought teachers were finally going to get the value, respect, and recognition that they deserve. This did happen for a while, but it now feels like a lot of teachers are still feeling undervalued and underfunded. Teachers are also influenced by salaries, health and safety protocols, lack of support from leadership and being overwhelmed. Schools must keep these issues in mind and do what they can to reverse the tide and make their teachers feel valued and appreciated.

3) Help Teachers Learn the Science of Reading

With just over one-third of the nation’s children able to read proficiently, helping teachers understand the science of reading and apply it in their classrooms can help with retention. The term “science of reading” refers to a large body of gold-standard research collected by cognitive scientists and other reading experts, and it focuses on the most effective way to teach reading. Providing professional development in this area can help increase a teacher's confidence and knowledge not only to help them believe that they can make a difference, but to actually help them make that difference.

4) Give Teachers a Voice

We hear a lot about the value of giving students “voice and choice” in their learning but giving teachers a voice is equally as important. All adults want to have a voice, a choice, agency, and autonomy. We want to believe we had some voice in the decisions that are being made. Even if it's a forced choice — like we offer to students — it’s still critical that teachers have an opportunity to choose for themselves, and/or that they’ve had a say in what those choices are.

5) Invest in Teachers’ Knowledge and Careers

This last one is particularly important because we know from research that teachers are most engaged when they understand the why of what they are being asked to do and that they have the skills to be successful or that the school will provide them with the training they need. When those two elements are in place, educators are empowered and engaged and more likely to remain in the profession.

Literacy is the cornerstone of equity not only in school but also when it comes to lifelong success, active civic participation, informed decision-making, and improved self-esteem. Investing in teachers' professional learning and classroom support can influence their decision to stay because they understand the why of what they're doing. Any present or potential disillusionment goes away, and they will feel empowered to make a difference.

About the Author

Dr. Liz Brooke, CCC-SLP, is the Chief Learning Officer at Lexia Learning.