Friday, March 24, 2017

Leadership and teacher churn

Last year on R&D I worked on recruitment, retention and development of teachers by schools.  I did lots of reading around this, and so I'm always interested to read more studies about these issues, and to try to put them into the international context in which I'm working.  While I think that there are many reasons why internationally people choose to leave a school - such as wanting to live in a different country, hardship postings, personal issues including family, wanting to move up the career ladder and so on, I think it is also true that the culture of a school has a lot to play in these decisions.

This week I was reading a blog post entitled "Teachers Quit Principals, Not Schools".  This was based on previous posts along the theme of people don't quit jobs, they quit bosses.  I wondered how true this was in the context of international education - or even what lessons international schools could draw from the experiences of retention of teachers in school districts.  Certainly it's true in all schools that the leaders of the schools help to set the culture, which in turn helps to retain teachers. The blog post directed me to a study done by Indianapolis Public Schools who looked at the reasons why teachers voluntarily left a school.  In this study,  49% cited school leadership, 44% personal reasons and 40% school culture.  Less than 20% mentioned salary and benefits.  The blog post quoted:
The principal is the one who steers the ship and when the principal cannot steer the ship in the right direction families and teachers look for a different school environment.
The Indianapolis study refers to teacher "churn" which implies teachers moving between schools in the city.  This isn't necessarily similar to teachers choosing to move internationally between schools. Reading the article it seems that many teachers were moved between schools involuntarily and at short notice.  That doesn't negate the previous statistics though, as these were all based on voluntary movements.  The impact of the movement remains the same - both locally and internationally.  A significant movement of teachers into and out of a school does impact the learning of students.  The study states "roughly half of new teachers leave urban classrooms within 3 years, just as they are beginning to have their strongest impact on student learning."  3 years also seems to be a fairly typical time to spend in many international schools - it implies a teacher has finished his/her initial contract which is usually 2 years, and has chosen to renew for one more contract.  For many teachers, even if they want to leave, it's worth staying the extra year for a better reference, and it's actually quite hard to move every 2 years as you spend the first year settling in and if you then have to resign at the start of your second year (many international schools are asking teachers to state their intent by September or October), you spend much of the final year "checked out" or embroiled in the recruitment process searching for a new job.

Here are some of the impacts of teacher "churn" stated in the study:
  • School culture - difficulties in forging trust and being invested in a school community, difficulties in building relationships with students parents and colleagues as relationships, trust and investment generally deepen with time.
  • Collegial relationships - when colleagues work together over several years, advances can be made in curriculum, mentoring, teaching and learning techniques.  If teachers are continually shifting, it's difficult to do these things.
  • Continuity for staff and students - a large turnover leads to school communities and culture being built on thin foundations.
This is especially important in the light of research which shows that the classroom teacher is the single most important factor in determining student success.  Improving educational outcomes depends on developing teachers - and a high turnover hampers this.

The conclusion is that schools need to invest more into developing their leaders - of course they need good teachers, yet a great teacher under a poor leader is likely to leave, and that school is then less likely to succeed.  Principals do need to be passionate about what they are doing - and they also need to build the right structures and relationships for schools to be successful.

Photo Credit: Patrick Hoesly Flickr via Compfight cc

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