Tracking Leading Indicators for Teacher Retention
Study after study has shown that underserved students bear the brunt of teacher turnover.1 And that was true even before all the alarming job satisfaction statistics and headlines about educator burnout and teacher shortages. Fortunately, we believe teacher turnover is something we can do something about, and it starts with carefully monitoring the factors that influence a teacher’s decision to stay in the classroom.
Tracking teacher retention at the local level is complicated and labor-intensive. It’s more complex than counting how many teachers are employed at a school one year and then counting how many come back the next. There are a lot of variables and methodological considerations, and it can get messy quickly.2
Not only that, retention is a lagging indicator — you’re already into the next school year before you can compute retention data because you won’t know who is returning until they do (or don’t). And if they don’t come back, and that’s all you’re monitoring, it’s too late to do anything about it.
For these and a host of other reasons, we need to think differently about monitoring our impact on teacher retention. Rather than being in the position of reacting to staffing gaps, we must look for measures that help us be proactive, keeping our fingers on the pulse of teacher attitudes and experiences so we can do something before they start heading for the door.
Fortunately, the research is pretty clear on the factors that can influence a teacher’s decision to stay in the classroom (or at a particular school). While some of these are personal and external and beyond the control of school/district decision-makers, many are within the sphere of influence of local leaders.
Rather than being in the position of reacting to staffing gaps, we must look for measures that help us be proactive, keeping our fingers on the pulse of teacher attitudes and experiences so we can do something before they start heading for the door.
Leading indicators for retention
As a mentoring and coaching organization, we believe one leading indicator for retention is self-efficacy — a teacher’s confidence that they are effective in the classroom. Evidence suggests that poor self-efficacy is linked to higher teacher burnout and stress. We also know that teachers who do not feel prepared or supported to do well at their jobs are at much higher risk for leaving the profession, while those who have more confidence in their abilities have higher job satisfaction and more commitment to teaching.3
A related indicator is “working conditions,” which researchers Ingersoll and Tran4 describe as putting “the organization back into the analysis” of staffing issues referring to the “structure, management and leadership in school districts and schools.” Specific working conditions called out in the literature include:
- supportive administration/capable leadership
- relational trust and respect among staff
- meaningful professional learning
- opportunities for collaboration as well as teacher autonomy
- opportunities for advancement
- having access to a mentor or coach5
A growing number of recent studies indicate that these factors matter especially to teachers of color,6 providing clarity about steps we can take in our ongoing effort to increase diversity in the educator workforce and improve retention overall.
Capturing teacher feelings about their daily work
To leverage the research base on what keeps teachers in the classroom, we can and should be monitoring these leading indicators for retention. Specifically, we need to gather and analyze data on teacher beliefs, feelings, and attitudes about the school environment, as well as self-perceptions of effectiveness.
How do we do that? It’s pretty typical for schools to collect climate data through annual staff surveys. Climate surveys are appealing for many reasons. There are a lot of high-quality, open-source instruments out there with aligned student (and sometimes parent) surveys that allow schools to triangulate stakeholder feedback on the overall school environment. But what these instruments don’t address as well are conditions that tend to be more nuanced and personal and much more specific to the individual’s attitudes and feelings about their daily work:
- How supported do staff feel in their role? How much trust is there among faculty?
- How do individuals feel about their ability to implement change or their own self-efficacy? Do they feel like they can provide the best instruction for each one of their students?
- Are teachers experiencing stress and burnout?7
- Does the school environment support teachers in asking for and receiving help?
The question, then, is how best to capture this information and monitor these critical leading indicators. At NTC, we’ve added key questions to all our program quality surveys (PQS) and work with our partners to track and analyze the data. But what can other districts and schools do?
NTC used to administer a large-scale educator working conditions survey in multiple states and large districts called Teaching, Empowering, Leading, & Learning (TELL),8 which offered a robust and statistically sound approach for measuring teaching and learning conditions. From this work, we learned that if there was one single item that was strongly related to all the other things we know to be important for retention, that item is: “Overall, my school is a good place to work and learn.”
Any school or district site can gain valuable information by asking teachers just this one question. It can be added to any existing survey or administered as a stand-alone, single-item (anonymous) survey that staff can respond to with a click in an email. We’ve found it to be highly effective in capturing the mood and spirit of staff on a campus. If you start to see teachers disagreeing with that statement, then you know they are pulling away and likely to be considering a departure.
Is my school a good place to work and learn?
Learning from our partners
For over 25 years, NTC has been nurturing highly skilled mentors and coaches to guide new and developing teachers in the complex relational and intellectual work of teaching, helping to keep them in the classroom and supporting their growth as professionals. Our approach is grounded in high-trust relationships between adults designed to build teacher competence and confidence as they mature as teachers and instructional leaders. We also work with school and system leaders to create the enabling conditions for positive teacher development at the school community level.
NTC works with states and districts across the country committed to improving the teacher experience so that students thrive. Each partnership pushes our learning on how to increase teacher effectiveness and improve working conditions in schools as a sustainable approach to support job satisfaction and retention. Working across so many local contexts and geographies helps us elevate best practices and stay in tune with a changing educator workforce. Over the course of the next year, we will be sharing stories from a few of these rich and diverse communities, representing state departments of education in Minnesota and Hawai’i, a border district in Texas, and a small rural county in Eastern Maryland.
As many have observed, teacher working conditions are student learning conditions, and that’s where the rubber hits the road. Making investments in what we know matters to teachers has the potential to improve so much more than retention statistics. In the end, teacher turnover is an equity issue, the cost of which our systemically underserved students can not continue to bear. Is my school a good place to work and learn? The answer has to be yes.
Lisa Schmitt, Ph.D., is senior director of Impact at New Teacher Center.
1. See for example: Teacher Turnover: Why it Matters and What We Can Do About it; Teacher Turnover in High-Poverty Schools: What We Know and Can Do; How Context Matters in High-Need Schools: The Effects of Teachers’ Working Conditions on Their Professional Satisfaction and Their Students’ Achievement
2. Tracking retention requires being able to compare rosters of all teachers employed in one year to subsequent years’ rosters, with multiple additional computations involved. Sometimes teachers are assigned to multiple schools and might be retained at one school but not at another school. For example, a PE teacher serves two different elementary schools one year then returns to one school but is assigned to a different second school the following year. Because the impact is different for the school vs. the district, you have to compute teacher retention both at the school level and at the district level, so really every teacher has two different retention metrics. And what if a teacher returns as an assistant principal? Is that teacher retained? It still results in a classroom role that needs to be filled. What about when teachers aren’t rehired or are shuffled around mid-year because of fluctuations in student enrollment or there’s a reduction in force? School closures? When a teacher transfers to another location, how is that coded? Because it’s so labor intensive, not all school districts, especially smaller ones, have the time or internal capacity in their HR or research departments to adequately track retention. It requires pretty sophisticated analysis to do it in a way that’s valid. If an external partner like NTC is doing the analysis, doing it right requires a data-sharing agreement with the district to get all the raw data, as well as interviews and investigation of a variety of contextual factors.
5. See for example: The Factors of Teacher Attrition and Retention: An Updated and Expanded Meta-Analysis of the Literature; The Effects of Working Conditions on Teacher Retention; The Impact of Induction and Mentoring Programs for Beginning Teachers: A Critical Review of the Research; Eight Ways States Can Act Now to Retain an Effective, Diverse Teacher Workforce
6. See for example: Teachers Like Us: Strategies for Increasing Educator Diversity In Public Schools; If You Listen, We Will Stay; Voices from the Classroom; Building a More Ethnoracially Diverse Teacher Workforce; Retaining Teachers of Color in Our Public Schools
7. Post pandemic, we are also specifically looking at things like burnout and stress at our partner sites. How are the people in the building doing in terms of mental exhaustion, being physically tired, and where can we step in and do something to further shore up how people are feeling about their jobs? See What Promotes Teachers’ Turnover Intention? Evidence From a Meta-Analysis.
8. See Leadership Matters: Teachers’ Roles in School Decision Making and School Performance; see also TELL Kentucky research links here.