3 Ways to Ensure Teacher Attrition Doesn't Impact Your District

Whether you are aware of it or not, teacher attrition is an issue worth examining. You may be thinking, I only have to hire a few new teachers each year, so I don’t really have an attrition problem. Or, maybe you are facing the reality of significant teacher turnover every year. Either way, the concept of teacher attrition is an important consideration because losing even one teacher a year has an overall impact on the success of the campus, and even if you don’t have a problem today, with all of the challenges that teachers are currently facing, everyone may soon be facing an overall shortage. The recommendations provided here are effective, no matter what context you find yourself dealing with. 

Shannon Buerk, CEO of engage2learn, asked this question in her blog Fixing the Leaky Talent Pipeline, “What if the teacher shortage could be solved without the additional $8 billion annual cost to fill the pipeline (Sutcher et al, 2016, p.38)? What if we could meet demand by fixing the leaky pipeline of teacher attrition?” According to an article by the Foundation of Economic Education, by shrinking the turnover rate, we would have greater competition among teachers. Schools could be more selective about who to employ, more highly qualified teachers would be available, and educational outcomes would improve. Further, it would save $2.2 billion annually.

According to research by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the teacher shortage could reach 200,000 by 2025, up from 110,000 in 2018. This shortage of workers is due to several factors. Among them are pay, working conditions, lack of support, lack of autonomy, and the changing curriculum. Unfortunately, teacher attrition in the United States is about twice as high as in high-achieving jurisdictions like Finland, Singapore, and Ontario, Canada. 

So how do we go about the process of keeping the teachers we hire in the profession?

The Cost of Teacher Turnover & Attrition

A report cited by the Learning Policy institute indicated that each teacher who leaves can cost, on average, as much as $20,000 in an urban district. Turnover rates are also 70% higher for teachers in schools serving the largest concentrations of students of color. So considering the average number of teachers a district loses a year, that amount can add up quickly! Recent studies showed 90% of open teaching positions are created by teachers who leave the profession. Some are retiring, but about 2/3 of teachers leave for other reasons, mostly due to dissatisfaction with teaching. Losing veteran teachers, who are more experienced and therefore likely more effective, is costly. According to economist Simon Burgess of the University of Bristol, in the US- replacing the least effective 8% of teachers with average teachers has a present value of $100 trillion. So we see the actual cost of teacher turnover is alarmingly high.

Aside from the literal cost of teacher turnover, there is the cost paid by learners. Research by Loeb, Ronfeldt, and Wyckoff (2012) found that teacher turnover resulted in lower student achievement, as significant teacher turnover showed a decrease in student test scores. In addition to student achievement losses, there is also a loss of learner and teacher relationships that can negatively impact social-emotional learning and learner well-being. Studies also show that new teachers are often placed in classrooms with a large majority of under-achieving students, leaving both the teachers and the students struggling to meet expectations. The more new teachers hired, the more lower-performing learners are failing to receive the help a more experienced teacher could provide. To give our students the optimal learning experience they deserve, reducing teacher turnover is something that calls for our attention and intentional action.

What about the cost of administrators? I can remember the second year of my time as a campus principal like it was yesterday. During my first year, we had moved our entire school to a new building…over Christmas break. It wasn’t easy, but we did it. To start the second year, we were adding a new grade level, and because teachers from three different elementary schools were slated to come to our campus, several of them chose to not do so and either left the district or took other positions on their current campus. This was understandable; however, it caused me to have several vacancies for teaching positions to fill.

So, I went about the work of combing through applications, scheduling and conducting interviews, checking references, and all the other myriad of tasks associated with the hiring process. It was stressful and time-consuming, and even though it was well over 10 years ago, the difficulty of that process remains firmly imprinted on my memories. The entire experience occurred in a relatively small, semi-rural, low socioeconomic district, but still, there were enough applicants to choose from for each of the positions I had posted. I never felt like I had to simply hire someone just to have, as the saying goes, a warm body in the room. The challenge is even greater for campus leaders in large, urban districts where teacher attrition rates are high, inter-district competition for the same people is intense, and nationwide there is an impending shortage of available applicants. 

Teacher attrition can be costly to school culture as well. Research indicates, “More-experienced teachers support greater student learning for their colleagues and the school as a whole, as well as for their own students.” Culture is defined by behaviors that come naturally to individuals within an organization, so an influx of new employees who have to learn the organizational culture can negatively impact the culture and climate as a whole.

3 Ways to Mitigate Teacher Attrition

First, give them support beyond just the traditional Mentor Teacher program – give them a tribe – connect them to a team of experienced teachers or a team of fellow new teachers. Whatever you do, make the support they give intentional and specific so that it doesn’t turn into a gripe session. We employ what we call Campus Support Teams with some of our partners. We provide support to the teams made up of different positions on campus (academic dean, assistant principal, instructional coach, counselor, librarian), and they turn that support around to individual teachers. 

Next, be intentional with your words of affirmation for each one of them. Plan it out. Execute that plan. A recent study from the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education indicated that nearly two-thirds of American teachers feel undervalued. One way to show teachers you see them, and you value their efforts is to implement a recognition system that recognizes their accomplishments on a district or campus level. Celebrate their hard work! 

Finally, coach them. Providing coaching is the most intentional and meaningful form of support that in the end can reduce the rate of attrition. Shannon, in the same blog referenced above, asserted that a mere 4% reduction in the rate of attrition could effectively solve the impending shortage crisis, which is a completely reachable goal. This should encourage us and spur us to action. That action should be a focused effort to provide every educator in our system with a coach! 

Focus on Teacher Support

Sometimes the reality of a situation can feel overwhelming. In this case, as an administrator with a full plate of things to think about, this may seem really overwhelming and may be lower on the priority order of things; however, I’m hoping you’ll reconsider this particular item. It is going to become increasingly more and more difficult to fill all of the vacant positions that will become available. When that happens, all of the other important success criteria that we are evaluated against will become that much more difficult. Student achievement, attendance, etc. are really hard to improve if you can’t find qualified professionals to put in classrooms. My sincere hope in this message is that as leaders, we can take a second and sincerely focus on what is within our locus of control. Focus on being the leader and providing the support teachers need, not only because these are unpredictable, unprecedented times we’re living in, but more importantly because that focus is simply the right thing to do. That kind of leadership can ensure our teaching professionals have the opportunity to live out their passions and skills and personally thrive in the schools they serve in each and every day.