The Big Picture: Hiring & Retention in Independent Schools

Spring 2024

By Brenna Foley, Amada Torres

This article appeared as "The Big Picture" in the Spring 2024 issue of Independent School.

Teachers are at the heart of schools. They are subject matter experts, facilitators, participants, resources, mentors, role models, and so much more. But over time, the once-stable teaching profession has entered a new phase; with more work for less pay, less respect, and challenges we couldn’t imagine a decade ago, teaching is now in a crisis state. Five decades ago, one in five degrees were in education; and now just 4% of college students are studying education, compared to 17% in 1975, according to CBS News. Now, just 18% of Americans would encourage a young person to become a teacher, according to a September 2022 survey by NORC, an independent social research organization at the University of Chicago. 

The independent school sector must work to understand and address changing faculty expectations and take steps to support them. At NAIS, we’ve been assessing the landscape to understand the factors that contribute to teacher shortages and turnover and researching pipeline problems—what motivates teachers to leave, how to address teacher burnout, and how compensation adds to the challenges. In our surveys with heads of school and independent school teachers, we’ve identified several trends that are contributing to these challenges. When examined collectively, these trends can help chart a new course for improving the pipeline and keeping talented teachers where we need them most—in our schools. 

The State of the Pipeline

While a teacher shortage has been an issue experts debated in previous years, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem. During the pandemic, teacher turnover reached 10% at the end of 2021–2022, 4 percentage points above pre-pandemic levels. Between fall 2022 and fall 2023, teacher vacancies grew by 51%—that’s 55,000 vacant teaching positions nationwide. 

According to “Plagued By Teacher Shortages, Some States Turn to Fast-Track Credentialing,” an August 2023 article in The 74, many public school districts have tried to widen the candidate pool by loosening requirements that stipulate that teachers must have a four-year university degree and state-approved certification and by partnering with for-profit teaching credential companies to fast-track the process of a four-year program. Unfortunately, these programs fail to train teachers to the same caliber. 

Like public schools, independent schools are struggling to find qualified candidates. Private institutions don’t have the same requirements for teachers as public schools, but finding high-quality and credentialed teachers is just as important and just as difficult. In the April 2023 “NAIS Snapshot on Stressors on Heads of School,” 47% of heads cited staff and faculty management, including staff shortages, as one of the most challenging aspects of headship. And here’s part of the reason why: In the 2022–2023 school year, according to a February 2023 “NAIS Snapshot on Staff and Faculty Turnover,” more than half (58%) of heads of school reported that they had fewer applicants for jobs than the previous year, and 41% reported that the quality of candidates was not strong. More than a quarter (24%) said the hiring process took longer than before the pandemic. 

Without strong candidates, some positions just don’t get filled. A September 2023 Snapshot found that at the beginning of the 2023–2024 school year, 16% of heads reported having unfilled teaching positions. This percentage was even higher among schools located in New England (25%) and the East (20%). While the national aggregated numbers represent a drop from the 20% recorded in fall 2022, it’s still concerning that some schools started the academic year with teacher vacancies. Math and science teachers, Spanish teachers, and substitutes topped the list of positions consistently unfilled or difficult to fill.

Added to the lack of strong candidates in the first place, more teachers are choosing to leave the profession. Beginning in fall 2019, NAIS began conducting dozens of in-depth interviews and several surveys with thousands of teachers to better understand why teachers choose to work at independent schools, their satisfaction with their work environment, and what retains them. Using the Jobs-to-Be Done framework and culminating in the “Why Do Teachers Select Independent Schools?” report, we identified three main contexts under which teachers decide to leave their schools. 

A lack of purpose. When teachers no longer find their jobs fulfilling, they look for new opportunities to pass on their experience, expertise, and culture, so that they can have a significant impact on children. Fortunately, this doesn't seem to be an area of concern for independent schools. In NAIS’s 2021 “Teacher Satisfaction Survey,” we found that more than eight in 10 NAIS teachers were satisfied with their ability to impact students. 

Unclear expectations. When teachers feel like their school has failed to meet their agreed-upon expectations, they may want to move to another work environment where they feel listened to, included, and respected, so that they can use their experience and abilities to help students without being hindered by the school bureaucratic system or the busy work generated by the administration. Only 58% of NAIS teachers participating in the “Teacher Satisfaction Survey” said that the hiring process gave them realistic expectations of their jobs. And fewer than half (47%) were satisfied with the support received from their school leaders; and only 48% thought that the requirements put on them to engage in activities not related to their teaching were fair and appropriate. 

Feeling overwhelmed. When faculty members feel overworked, overwhelmed, and stressed out, they may want to find another job opportunity where they can regain their work-life balance so that they can have an impact on their students without sacrificing themselves.

These contexts, in combination with the pandemic and the economy, have had an impact on teachers’ decisions to leave their jobs. 

Teacher Burnout

During the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers began teaching online, which was a draining and difficult transition. Many found themselves back in classrooms in fall 2021, as their peers in other professions continued to work remotely. The stress of teaching hybrid classes in a high-risk environment—combined with the increased workload, lack of support, concern for students’ well-being, and feelings of isolation—had a significant impact on retention. A June 2022 Gallup study found that K–12 workers had the highest burnout of all industries nationally. In March 2020, 36% of K–12 workers reported experiencing burnout very often or always. By February 2022, that percentage had increased to 44%, while the percentage of other workers reporting burnout increased from 28% to 30% during the same period. Not only were more educators feeling burnout, but the feeling of burnout increased faster among K–12 teachers.

Independent school teachers did not escape these effects of stress and burnout. A November 2023 “NAIS Snapshot Survey on Teacher Retention” shows that 92% of teachers said their job was sometimes (40%), often (42%), or always (9%) stressful. Sixty-six percent worked between 41 and 60 hours a week, and 25% worked 61 hours or more. When asked about their plans for the next academic year, more than a quarter of the teachers (26%) were not sure whether they were going to renew their contracts, and 4% were not planning to do so. They cited burnout, low salaries, and lack of support from the administration as top reasons for not returning. 

Their work has also become more challenging. The pandemic has affected children who are now struggling with socialization and learning losses. Teachers report reduced attention spans, more behavioral problems, lower maturity, and more mental health issues in fall 2023 than before the pandemic. Teaching has always been an intensive job, but these new challenges have increased teachers’ workloads and emotional labor as they support students and try to mitigate pandemic-caused losses.

Salaries and Benefits

Median Teacher Total Compensation in Inflation-Adjusted Dollars at NAIS Schools
While a passion for teaching and a commitment to students are often primary motivations for entering the profession, fair and competitive compensation is crucial for attracting and retaining qualified teachers (read about compensation models on page 70). However, there’s been a pay gap for teachers for decades. In 1979, public school teachers earned 7.1% less than other college graduates; by 2021, teachers were earning 23.5% less than peers with the same level of education working in other professions, according to “Teacher Pay Penalty Has Hit a New High,” a 2022 Economic Policy Institute report. 

The economic uncertainty and high inflation of 2021 and 2022 also negatively impacted teacher salaries. According to an April 2023 Education Week article, “How Much Do Teachers Get Paid?,” the national average public school teacher salary for the 2022–2023 school year was $68,469, reflecting a 2.6% increase from the previous year; however, when adjusted for inflation, teachers’ earnings were $3,644 lower than a decade ago. Independent school teachers face a similar challenge. When adjusted for inflation, teacher salaries have fallen by almost $5,000 between 2018–2019 and 2022–2023. The median compensation for independent school teachers fell 2.5% between fall 2020 and fall 2021. It fell again by 4.4% between fall 2021 and fall 2022. While schools raised salaries each year, they failed to keep up with inflation in the past two years, according to data from NAIS’s Data and Analysis for School Leadership (DASL). (See “Median Teacher Total Compensation in Inflation-Adjusted Dollars” above.)

Importance and Satisfaction of Salaries for Independent School Teachers, 2021
This may explain some of the gaps between the importance of and satisfaction with salaries found in the Teacher Satisfaction Survey. While 96% of independent school teachers indicated that having a salary comparable to local independent school salaries was important, only 56% were satisfied. Similarly, 85% reported that having a salary comparable to local salaries in general was important, but only 29% were satisfied (see “Importance and Satisfaction of Salaries for Independent School Teachers” chart above).

In addition to salaries, benefits—such as employer contributions to retirement plans, employer-paid health insurance, and dental plans—were important to 9 in 10 teachers; however, about 7 in 10 were satisfied with these benefits. Also, 77% of teachers ranked time off as important, but just 56% were satisfied. According to “Teachers’ Summer Jobs Can Be Fun. But That’s Not Why They Do It,” an August 2023 article in Education Week, one of the appeals of the job was that teachers could have extensive vacation time, especially during the summer months, but many more teachers need to work during the summer and even take second jobs year-round because they need the extra income. Another benefit that was highly rated at 93% was professional development, but only 68% were satisfied.

Retention Strategies 

For many teachers, appreciation is important. Heads recognize the value of communicating their appreciation to their staff, and doing just that was the most frequently used teacher-retention tactic heads tried, according to the August 2022 “NAIS Snapshot Survey on Faculty and Staff Turnover.” Almost eight in 10 heads reported hosting planned appreciation events or unstructured gatherings for staff and faculty. 

Heads’ Strategies to Retain Faculty and Staff
But these events don’t address issues around burnout and low salaries. In the Snapshot on turnover, about 43% of heads reported that they had increased salaries above projected inflation rates. More than a third increased professional development budgets (36%) and offered mental health services to teachers (35%). Concrete retention strategies like these can be useful in convincing teachers to stay (see “Heads’ Strategies to Retain Faculty and Staff” above).

Many schools, especially smaller schools and those in rural areas, may not have the resources to raise salaries. But there are other things schools can do to keep their teachers. If the school has the appropriate resources, it might consider conducting staff satisfaction surveys to pinpoint areas of strength and opportunities to improve. It might also analyze the ways supervisors contribute to a supportive school climate and avoid practices that could lead to frustration.

Promoting professional development. Some schools focus on PD as a way to help teachers gain control over their careers and create pathways for them to pursue their professional interests. This might include sharing best practices online with colleagues or allowing teachers to choose professional development from a range of options within the school’s budget. 

Prioritizing work-life balance. Heads can also work with teachers to develop and maintain clear work-life boundaries. They might work to create time in the day for teachers to do lesson planning or grading, or they might create schedules for extracurricular activities, so that teachers have days when they are not working after school. For faculty who are feeling overwhelmed and stressed out, school leaders can also provide well-being resources.

Examining job descriptions. Schools can revisit job descriptions to ensure that expectations are better outlined. If additional tasks are required, like participation in open houses, help with the car line, etc., administrators should take the time to explain to teachers why their participation is needed. Teachers should also be given the time and flexibility to do these added duties and their regular workload.

Finding purpose. For new teachers or individuals who changed careers to become teachers, finding purpose may be at the center of their work decisions. Faculty supervisors can offer concrete feedback to show them how their students are progressing. Helping them translate their knowledge and experience into classroom lessons and curriculum may prove crucial for teachers in this context. Scheduling opportunities for purposeful dialogue with them to understand their career paths may also be valuable.

While raising salaries and improving benefits are concrete—but expensive—options, there are a multitude of other strategies to improve retention within schools that can address many of teachers’ concerns. When we take care of teachers and build a better pipeline and environment, we are ultimately taking care of students, the state of education, and its role in the future. 

Go Deeper

Access NAIS resources on hiring and retention. Go to

• 2021 “NAIS Teacher Satisfaction Survey” 
• NAIS Research: Jobs-to-Be-Done Study on Independent School Teachers
• NAIS Resource Guide: Recruiting, Hiring, and Retention

Read More

Gain deeper perspective on teacher recruitment, hiring, and retention with these recent articles at

Brenna Foley

Brenna Foley is a research analyst at NAIS.

Amada Torres

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