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Stories From School AZ: Empowering Teachers: A Strategy For Teacher Retention

I thought I knew what my next professional development cycle would be. Then I reviewed the results of a student survey I gave and realized I needed to go in a different direction for my PD cycle.

Our administration seeks our feedback on initiatives before implementing them.

We were able to help develop the learning dispositions, the rubrics, and the expectations we have for teaching and learning.

We are able to go into each other’s classrooms on a regular basis. I have learned so much from my colleagues. It’s the best kind of professional development.

These are snippets of narratives I recently heard from teachers in Visible Learning schools in Houston, Texas.

I recently had the opportunity  to visit schools in Houston that received the Visible Learning Certification Award. Visible Learning is based on the work of John Hattie and focuses on understanding which practices will have the biggest impact on student progress and learning.  My school district is getting ready to embark on a Visible Learning journey. The school visits provided a view into Visible Learning practices in action.

I was intrigued and inspired by much of what I saw and heard during the school visits. It wasn’t perfection and our guides fully owned that. However, each person we talked to from school leadership, to teachers, to students had a common purpose. There was a collective efficacy among all the stakeholders in each of the schools.

I was excited by what I saw and heard because of the potential impact on student learning. However, there was one thing that stood out to me for a different reason. It was the sense of empowerment I heard from the teachers. They talked about their involvement in shared decision-making on their campuses. They explained their processes for collaboration and feedback, but also described the autonomy they were given with professional decisions. Basically, their voices have value and are considered in all aspects of their systems.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this element of the visit in the weeks following our return from Texas.

Arizona has been struggling with a teacher retention crisis for years that is getting nothing but worse. Data indicates that as of January 2023, the number of unfilled teacher positions has ballooned to almost 3,000 statewide. This is the seventh consecutive year the survey has shown an ever worsening teacher retention crisis in Arizona.

Before I go any further, I want to make sure I emphatically state that better compensation is the first thing that needs to be done to retain the teachers we have and attract new teachers to the profession. Full stop.

But, what if the inclusion of teacher voice and teacher empowerment could also help keep veteran teachers in the classroom? If we are being honest, our retention crisis is so severe it will likely take multiple strategies to reverse the troubling trend.

According to several research studies, including one by Hanover Research, increasing teacher engagement is a recommended strategy for retaining teachers. Hanover’s report provides action steps districts can take to promote teacher engagement. These steps include building teacher autonomy and self-efficacy and including teachers in decision-making.

In the research report and policy recommendations by the Learning Policy Institute, research showed that working conditions was one of the top three factors that drove teachers out of classrooms. Along with personal reasons and compensation, “Working conditions, including school accountability and testing systems, the quality of administrative support, and teacher input into decision-making” were the leading causes of teacher attrition.

Based on the Learning Policy Institute research, five major areas are discussed for teacher recruitment and retention. One of the areas is working conditions which when improved upon can help retain quality educators. Within the topic of working conditions, the report offers multiple recommendations for retaining teachers in the profession. Shared decision-making and opportunities for professional collaboration are major policy recommendations for teacher retention.

All of this brings me back to what I heard the teachers saying at the schools we visited. The teachers described themselves as owners of their practice and trusted to make professional decisions. They were able to self-select professional development that would best meet the needs of their students and nurture their professional growth as educators. They were able to collaborate with their peers as part of their professional development.

They described their school administrators as being partners in the professional learning journey. The teachers were encouraged to not only receive feedback from their administrators but also provide feedback to their leaders. And their leaders use the feedback! Teachers are also co-constructors of walkthrough rubrics, schoolwide initiatives, and data protocols. All of these practices provide the teachers a sense of value.

As I reflect on the policy recommendations made by those who have conducted research on teacher retention, I see opportunity in an educational environment that empowers teachers by valuing their voice and respecting their professionalism.  The Visible Learning Certified Schools we visited demonstrated that kind of environment.

Studies show following Visible Learning practices can impact student learning and growth. Perhaps the enhanced role of teachers that is emphasized in Visible Learning also has the effect of improving job satisfaction. This has the possibility of improving teacher retention.

Retaining quality, veteran teachers also has the effect of positively impacting student learning and growth. Therefore, empowering teachers by valuing their voice and trusting their professional judgment isn’t just good for teacher retention, it’s ultimately good for students.

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Nicole Wolff

Nicole Wolff spent 20 years in public schools working with diverse K-8 students, as well as instructing at the university level before becoming an Instructional C...