Teacher Retention: A Teacher’s Perspective on Keeping Colleagues

As a high school English teacher, I like to think that my students will forever remember the difference between an independent and a dependent clause. However, when I think about my own experience in elementary and high school, I do not remember much about the content I learned.
Instead, what I remember are the people—people like the fifth grade teacher who helped me during what I now realize was my first panic attack, the 10th grade English teacher who inspired me to pursue the subject in college, and the calculus teacher who encouraged me to become a teacher myself.
Teachers have an enormous impact on the lives of students. We know this from our own experiences as students, whether those experiences were positive, negative, or something in between. When a teacher leaves, the community, and in particular, our students, are impacted in significant ways.
Teachers are leaving their schools and the profession for very real and very personal reasons. Certainly, the pandemic has been a factor for increased teacher turnover, but COVID-19 has also brought to the surface already existing issues that teachers face such as high levels of stress and burnout and a lack of compensation and support. Improving teacher retention means taking a serious look at these issues, and now is the time to do it.

What Schools Can Do

A 2021 NAIS Teacher Satisfaction Survey examined how teachers view their compensation and benefits, what they value, and how satisfied they are with options at their school. Findings from this survey, which surveyed 704 teachers from 304 independent schools, can help inform what schools can do to improve teacher retention. Here are a few of the recommendations:
Embed practices for pay transparency so that teachers understand how their salary compares to similar positions at their school and other schools. Eighty percent of respondents said parity with local independent school salaries was extremely important, but just 21% reported high satisfaction with their salary on this measure.
Develop consistent and personalized mentorship programs for new teachers. Only 19% of teachers in schools with 300 students or fewer reported that they were extremely or very satisfied with new teacher induction programs.
Provide a clear evaluation and feedback process that focuses on growth and development of teachers. When asked if they had a clear understanding of how to reach career goals, just 14% of teachers strongly agreed.
Expand options and access to meaningful professional development. Sixty-nine percent of teachers characterized opportunities for professional development as extremely important, but just 34% were highly satisfied with the options available at their school.

How Teachers Can Support Teachers

Many of the things that schools can do to improve teacher retention require resources, planning, and leadership. In the meantime, teachers can support their colleagues and improve teacher retention. Some ideas that I’ve seen in action include:
Provide feedback to your administration about your own experience. Many schools conduct exit interviews when a teacher is on their way out, but this shouldn’t be the first time that a teacher has the opportunity to express what they feel needs to change to improve their experience. Administrators should offer the opportunities for teachers to provide meaningful feedback. The sooner they do, the more likely schools are able to see trends and make changes.
If you have the capacity, take on the (formal or informal) role of a mentor to a new teacher. At almost every turn in my first year of teaching, I doubted my abilities and questioned whether teaching was the right path for me. A large part of why I continued to teach, despite the imposing presence of imposter syndrome, is because I had (and continue to have) people encouraging me along the way. Sometimes, my assigned mentor would send me a template for a lesson plan. Other times, a colleague recognized I was having a bad day and asked me if I needed help. And often, a text message reminded me I was doing a good job.
Organize or attend opportunities for colleagues to connect and gather socially. Teaching at a boarding school can be isolating, particularly if you don’t have family or friends in the area. Whether it’s attending a weekly trivia night, arranging an occasional off-campus dinner, or participating in an annual faculty gift swap, finding the time to decompress and connect with others is an important part of maintaining the elusive work-life balance.
Offer to observe a class and provide low-stakes feedback for a colleague. One of my favorite parts of teaching in the English department at The Frederick Gunn School (CT) is that we have an open-door policy. It’s not unusual for one or even two of my colleagues to poke their head into my classroom for some or all of class. Not only do these moments make me feel supported, they also help more formal observations feel less scary.
Share physical and mental health resources with teachers who are new to the area. When I graduated from college, I lost my access to free mental health resources, and when I began my job as a boarding school teacher, I had no idea where to start in the search for a new provider. As educators, it’s critical that we prioritize our physical and mental well-being, and a good starting place is knowing where to find help (especially help that is covered by your school’s insurance plan).
Improving teacher retention is neither a new nor easily attainable goal. But it is one that all of us—longtime administrators and early career educators alike—should prioritize. If we do, our communities will be better for it.
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Kori Lynn Rimany

Kori Lynn Rimany is an English teacher at The Frederick Gunn School in Washington, Connecticut.