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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

How to Identify and Keep Exceptional Young Teachers

By Peter DeWitt — January 19, 2015 4 min read
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Christopher Reddy is an educator who teaches on TV. He calls himself The Pragmatic TV Teacher and collects his ideas here. He also edits The Distance Learning Monthly Newsletter.

Exceptional Young Teachers (EYTs) often leave the profession and teacher attrition is an issue plaguing districts. “50 within five” is the phrase; 50% of new teachers leave within five years of starting. Not only are the classrooms absent of their enthusiasm and now void of their effortless way to connect with students, but it places a burden on the district because they now have to replace the leaving teacher. Do teachers need to make more money? Are they overwhelmed with the amount of work? Do they simply “burnout”? Edweek’s Ilana Garon addressed the issue and discusses a variety of factors.

Administrators and districts, to reduce Exceptional Young Teacher dropout, need to be proactive and identify teachers at risk. What would administrators look for? What can they do to retain their Exceptional Young Teacher?

3 Characteristics of Exceptional Young Teachers

Beyond test scores, credentials, extracurricular activities, and standardized teacher assessment ratings, what behaviors should administrators look for?

Their prep time is innovative, creative, and productive

Grading, planning, and paperwork are daily givens. Rename “prep” time for EYTs as “development” time. They use their time without students to write, create, and develop their own, relevant side projects. They are free to improve on current practices and use this time to grow professionally.

Bottom Line: Ask your teachers “What do you do with your prep time?” Stay away from the teachers that respond by saying “well, um, grade things, and make copies too”. The answer you’re hoping to hear is “I’m actually working on this amazing way to....”

They are sincere in their desire for self-improvement and growth

Exceptional Young Teachers understand the importance of assessment because they constantly work through the process themselves. They are consistently their harshest critics and embrace the assessment process.

Exceptional Young Teachers reflect daily and are never satisfied with their performance; the small negatives stand-out from the ocean of positives.

Bottom Line: Exceptional Young Teachers genuinely care about improving. Look for this sparkle in their eye the next time you sit down for a post-observation meeting.

Their personality is their strongest asset to the school

Exceptional Young Teachers are strong educators because they understand the role of developing relationships in their practice. Students will learn from a teacher they like. Colleagues will respect and support their coworker that is respectful and supportive in return. Exceptional Young Teachers embrace a can-do attitude and a what’s-next mindset.

Bottom Line: Ask the students who their favorite teachers are and WHY. Ask other teachers who THEIR favorite teachers (colleagues) are. You won’t be surprised when you hear the same names.

3 Ways to Keep Exceptional Young Teachers

Closing our eyes, we can easily picture several young teachers within our district that are not only effective teachers on paper, but posses the above psychological characteristics. How do we keep them?

For help we turn to psychologist Edward Deci and author Daniel Pink. In Why We Do What We Do, Deci explains the roots of productive behaviors. He identifies important work-place factors that encourage innovation, productivity, and employee satisfaction. Pink addresses the same topics in Drive. Together, they give us the tools needed to keep our Exceptional Young Teachers.


Exceptional Young Teachers embrace the opportunity to create and develop. Their time away from their students is innovative as they are able to address components of their practice that are important to them. You’ll find that their projects are important and valuable. I was once told that “you don’t need a door to open, all you need is a window”.

Support your ETY’s projects by opening that window and facilitating their next steps.


Innate to our human nature is the drive to master our practice. Mastery refers to the act of constantly taking advantage of opportunities to get better. For EYTs, this often translates to additional formal education. However, rebounding from an expensive graduate degree, EYTs are reluctant to add an additional layer of debt to their existing pile. This a financial component to retain teachers and is less digestible for that reason. Recognizing that EYTs innately desire more education is first step in supporting them.

Work with Exceptional Young Teachers and develop creative opportunities to push them down their mastery path.


A very wise, and now very retired, Exceptional Teacher was filmed for a professional development resource. He was asked about his best quality as an educator. His response was two words that summarize the most important strength of Exceptional Teachers.

My personality. I care about my students and they learn from me because they like me.”

In essence, he prioritized the connectedness of education. He was exceptional at what he did because of his ability to relate and connect with others.

Mentor at risk teachers. Help them connect with veteran educators and others that were once Exceptional Young Teachers that stayed in teaching. Cater to their innate ability to relate with others.

The list of potential mentors is infinitely long: existing Exceptional Teachers, community business leaders, local university faculty, or in my case, an educator newly transitioned into his newest administrative role whose “school” extends the entire globe.

Identify your Exceptional Young Teachers by trusting your gut. They GET IT... but they will “get it” anywhere. Retain them by understanding their innate desire to create, connect, and master.

Chris can be reached at reddyc@averillpark.k12.ny.us

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.