Research Insights: Understanding Teacher Attraction and Retention

Fall 2020

By Amada Torres

IS-mag-joan-alturo_04-(2).jpgThe COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every part of our lives, and the full spectrum of its effects is still unclear. Schools in particular are struggling with issues from enrollment to reopening to technology to parents. Teaching and learning is an especially difficult realm, filled with its own specific challenges. Remote learning during the spring brought new stressors for teachers, including working at a computer all day, learning new apps and technology, managing student learning and parent communications, while juggling the needs of their own families. In May, USA Today reported that 20% of teachers said they were unlikely to return if schools reopened in the fall. But concerns about teacher shortages are not new. In a study conducted by the Learning Policy Institute, researchers estimated that by 2020, 300,000 new teachers will be needed per year.
Given these challenges, how can independent schools evolve and adapt to meet teachers’ needs? A deeper understanding of what attracts qualified candidates—and retains them—is the first step to answering this question.

The Jobs Study

In fall 2019, NAIS researched why teachers choose to work at independent schools—and their reasons for leaving—using the Jobs-to-Be-Done (JTBD) methodology. A JTBD is defined as the progress a person is trying to make given his or her particular circumstance. It includes an understanding of the functional, emotional, and social characteristics of the desired outcome the person is trying to achieve. One of the key aspects of the JTBD methodology is the belief that people “hire” and “fire” a product or service to perform a “job” for them; in this case, teachers hire or fire a school to perform a job for them. Teachers select a school to achieve their individual goals. Because JTBD interviews are based on actual behavior and include the true hiring and firing criteria and the trade-offs teachers are willing to make, the process can identify what is truly important to them and what influences how they behave versus how they say they will behave.
For this research, we conducted 20 interviews with teachers who had begun teaching at a new school, became teachers following a career in another field or college graduation, or had left teaching entirely within the past five years. We also introduced enough variety in their demographics and their schools to have a good representation of our market. Our research uncovered three jobs.
Job 1: When I do not find my current job/role fulfilling, help me find ways to pass on my experience, expertise, and culture so that I can have a significant impact on children.
Job 2: When the school fails to meet our agreed-on expectations, help me feel listened to, included, and respected so that I can use my experience and abilities to help the children without being hindered by the school system and the administration.
Job 3: When I am overworked, overwhelmed, and stressed out, help me regain my work-life balance so that I can have an impact on the children without sacrificing myself.

Teacher Perspectives: Job 1

To better understand these jobs, let’s compare several stories of the teachers interviewed. Before becoming a teacher, Julie (names have been changed to protect privacy) was a full-time architect. She worked more than eight hours a day and felt like her work wasn’t rewarding enough and took precious time away from her family. Julie, who had a daughter in second grade, learned about an opening at a K–8 independent school. The school needed someone to work with the director of the makerspace helping with K–5 students. For the past two years, Julie had volunteered in the Tinkering program at the school, where she discovered how much she enjoyed working with children and using her architectural skills. Julie’s husband encouraged her to apply.
When she interviewed for the role, the head and the director of the makerspace were impressed by her experience. The school offered her the job, and while the salary was below what she had been earning, Julie reflected on the intangible benefits she would get: shorter workdays, three months off in the summer, and meaningful work. The director of the makerspace would be like a mentor to her, guiding her through the work and the culture at the school. Julie decided to take the position. Julie was in Job 1.
Job 1 teachers are trying to have an impact on the next generation and/or to find a more fulfilling career path. They also want more free time outside of work hours and to meet a minimum income requirement. Their reasons for looking for a new job are less about a promotion or making more money, actively trying to find a new opportunity, or escaping without a plan. 

Teacher Perspectives: Job 2

Aaron’s story illustrates an example of a teacher in Job 2. The music teacher in a ninth through 12th grade independent school was attracted to the school because of its mission and its commitment to diversity. After some months, he started to think that maybe the school was not walking the talk. He discovered, among other things, that the director of diversity was not involved in the hiring process, something he thought could help diversify the school’s workforce. He also realized that staff needed to be trained on cultural competency. His suggestions were dismissed.
Simultaneously, several fundraising activities were added to Aaron’s plate—he was asked to attend fundraising events and to contribute financially. His salary wasn’t that much, and the cost of living close to the school was higher than what he expected. More than once, he felt his weekends were consumed by school activities, and things got worse when he was asked to help with an event that required a lot of coordination. During one of the planning meetings, he was publicly reprimanded, and that day, he decided to leave. By the spring, he had been hired at a K–12 school where he would start to work in the fall.
Teachers in Job 2 want to find a supportive administration that allows them to have some influence and control over the pedagogy and curriculum so that they can be the best teacher they can be. They also want to minimize the amount of “extra” duties outside of teaching and school hours. In many instances, they feel like the leadership at their previous school was acting hypocritically, and this is what pushed them away. Teachers in Job 2 are less concerned about improving the way they teach, finding their passion, or changing careers. Like teachers in Job 1, they are also less concerned about making more money or getting a promotion.

Teacher Perspectives: Job 3

Clarisse is a fourth grade teacher in a K–5 public school. Her story is an example of teachers in Job 3. Clarisse teaches a class of 36 children. With the number of children decreasing over the years, the district closed another K–5 school, which expanded her class size. With 36 students, she felt it was difficult to provide each child with individualized instruction. In addition, given the lower number of children in the district, her budget had been reduced, and Clarisse was constantly buying materials and other teaching resources for her class. To make things worse, the district asked all schools to prepare students for a standardized test in math and reading. Clarisse was spending more time trying to fit her lessons in while making sure her students were prepared for the test.
She was constantly concerned about work and her students. She knew her principal was trying to improve things, but most issues were beyond the school’s control. She felt so overwhelmed and physically exhausted that she did not have time to look for other jobs. A friend mentioned an opening for a second grade teacher at a private school nearby. The salary would be slightly lower, but Clarisse was ready to leave. In her current school, no matter what she did, things did not seem to improve. By moving to the new school, she hoped to regain some control of her work and life.
Teachers in Job 3 are trying to remove themselves from a stressful situation and find a place with fewer systemic issues that will improve their state of mind and restore hope. They want to be in an environment where students and families are involved and where they can have some impact. When leaving a job, it’s less about the school administration not doing enough, having to change to get a promotion, building a résumé, making more money, or changing or improving skills or the curriculum.

Jobs in Action

How can this Jobs context inform your school’s hiring and retention practices? How can you effectively entice the right candidates, and how can you keep them once they’ve settled into your school community?
One of the first steps is to train everyone involved with hiring in active listening. During interviews and other interactions with candidates, you will need to listen for the circumstances driving them to search for a teaching job and hear what their previous work experience was like. What activities did they enjoy the most and the least and why? What change has them searching for a school now? This information helps you understand their context. In addition, you will need to ask questions to understand their goals: What are candidates hoping to get from working at your school? What is important to them and why? What is their vision for their teaching role at your school? See the boxes at right for more information and tactics for attracting and retaining candidates in each Job.
For an applicant in Job 1 who is not satisfied in their current career, managers can focus on these points to attract and retain.

For teachers in Job 2, a situation where they feel like the school administration does not value them and is not living up to their agreed upon expectations, the following strategies may help attract and retain them.


Teachers in Job 3 feel overwhelmed by issues beyond their control at their school and need to regain some control over their work and life. The following hiring and retention practices might help.


The pandemic has created an unprecedented level of anxiety and teacher burnout. Given the ways the crisis continues to affect schools and faculty members, we can infer that many more teachers could currently be in Job 3. Schools should offer additional help, such as asynchronous teaching time and office hours that can allow flexibility for faculty to accomplish their tasks. Offering tech support will alleviate some of the burden of their work. And constant communication with teachers, even if complete information is not available, will help alleviate some anxieties. 
Amada Torres

Amada Torres is vice president for studies, insights, and research at NAIS.