When Great Teachers Leave, Look Inwards
Teachers leave. Good ones. Bad ones. Great ones. They leave. And when they leave, it forces us to reckon with the conditions that led them to their decision and what we can do about it.
As the surge of teacher activism around the country over the past couple of years has indicated, there are larger political and systemic forces at play. Class sizes, teacher salaries, access to support staff like nurses and social workers, volume of time and priority given to standardized tests. The list of concerns is long and valid.
These are all things that need to be addressed to keep teachers and elevate the profession, but these fixes rest largely at a systemic level. Yes, there are some minor tweaks a savvy administrator can make to ease these concerns, but the roots of these issues lie outside of our direct control as school leaders. You can’t increase your budget to pay people more. You can’t boycott the state tests. You can’t add a librarian without cutting other staff somewhere else and creating a ripple effect on class sizes, prep periods, or additional duties for teachers.
So are our hands tied as school leaders? Do we let the policy makers and activists sort out the details and resign ourselves to playing the hand we have been dealt? Should we get used to a constant churn of teachers and the sting of losing the very best?
Not at all. These are convenient scapegoats, but they are red herrings for us as school leaders. There are still many micro-level factors that play into our teachers’ retention and personal satisfaction in our schools. (And let’s be honest, there isn’t a teacher out there who isn’t at least nominally aware of the systemic problems they’re walking into in the teaching profession. If the macro-level factors were exclusively to blame, they likely wouldn’t be in your school in the first place.)
On an individual level, the conditions, culture, and environment we establish inside of our schools can shape a teacher’ intrinsic motivation to thrive. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive (which he has also given a great TED Talk about) lays out three concepts that people crave, which lead them to productive and personally fulfilling careers: mastery, autonomy, and purpose.
Mastery, or the itch to keep improving at something that’s important to us;
Autonomy, or the desire to be self-directed; and
Purpose, the sense that what we do produces something transcendent or serves something meaningful beyond ourselves.
When great teachers leave our schools, we should not ignore the macro-level systemic force at play, but we should primarily turn inwards and examine the micro-level school conditions over which we have control.
Mastery: It can be very challenging to continue to push your very best teachers. The simple fact that they are your best teachers indicates that they will not be satisfied reaching a plateau or stagnating in their practice, making it all the more important that you send the message that you can continue to push them.
Have you created time and space for continued, personalized learning for all of your teachers — whether that’s in their own instructional practice or other related skills they want to develop? Or is coaching, observation and feedback, and rigorous conversation about classroom practice something that only happens with your lowest performing teachers? Are you unintentionally sending the message that yours is a school where you are content with teachers reaching some basic plateau (one which your best teachers have already surpassed) and that you have no real means to continue to feed their need for continual mastery of their craft?
Autonomy: It’s a fine line between being seen as currying favor with certain teachers and providing differentiated leadership and management techniques to your team. But that’s only how autonomy appears on the surface. At the heart of the matter is not a desire to fly solo, go rogue, or not have to follow any rules and expectations; the desire for autonomy is an innate urge to know, “Am I trusted?”
Have you set up expectations for teachers to safe guard against the lowest common denominator or to set an inspirational target towards which to everyone must strive? Can meeting expectations be quickly assessed with a yes/no assessment or does it require the exercise of professional judgment and an in-depth, mutual conversation to accurately evaluate? Do you even know enough about what’s happening in everyone’s classroom to engage them in this conversation as trusted professionals? Do teachers have the space to make mistakes, learn from them, and adjust — how do you react when things don’t go perfectly?
Purpose: Ask your teachers why they got into teaching. You’ll hear responses that are transcendent, personal, inspirational. Now ask them what they believe is the purpose and mission of your school. (Not just what the written mission is — you know, the one with “college and career ready” in it somewhere — but the lived purpose that shows itself through your actions and priorities as a school leader.) The greater the distance between your school’s perceived purpose and teachers’ personal motivations, the greater the likelihood for tension.
Are your actions and priorities sending an unintended or undesirable message about the larger purpose of your school and what you truly care most about? Have you given your best teachers opportunities that appeal to their larger sense of purpose and recognition for contributions that scratch some larger itch? Have you worked to coalesce your teachers’ understanding of your school’s purpose around a common, transcendent vision or does your leadership make them feel like a cog in a machine?
When great teachers leave, you must resist the urge to blame external factors and look inwards instead. Not to cast judgment on yourself, but to find the lessons that lie within the circumstances that are entirely within your control as a school leader.
You may not be able to pay them more. And you may not be able to abandon standardized testing writ large. But you can attend to how your leadership encourages mastery, autonomy, and purpose in your teachers so that more and more great teachers make the decision to stay instead of leave.
Originally published on Medium. Follow our Medium publication: Your Leadership. Leveraged.