Midyear teacher resignations are especially hard on districts. They exacerbate already-difficult staffing shortages, require long-term substitutes or other stopgap measures, and foil principals’ instructional goals for the year.
After nearly three years of battling and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with a drastic increase in students’ mental health needs and pressure to catch students up academically, many teachers have reached a breaking point.
In February 2022, the National Education Association released a nationwide survey of teachers that showed 55 percent of respondents said the pandemic was forcing them to plan on leaving the profession sooner than they had originally planned.
Evidence of a mass, midyear exodus has yet to show up in national labor statistics, which show a fairly steady level of departures from state and local education jobs since November 2021. But anecdotally, some district leaders say they have seen more teachers deciding to leave their jobs this winter than in past years.
Now, some district leaders are turning to long-term investments in tracking and responding to employees’ morale to combat the problem.
Job satisfaction is subjective and difficult to define
Nick Polyak, the superintendent of the Leyden High School District in the Chicago area, said it’s atypical to have any teachers resign midyear, but this year several have.
In smaller districts like Polyak’s, every resignation is a major loss, and hiring replacements outside of the summer months is difficult.
And even when a new teacher is hired, the institutional knowledge that left with their predecessor is irreplaceable, Polyak said, so some gaps remain.
“Like anything, organizations have inertia, so when you have the same people there, you keep that momentum going in one direction,” he said. “As soon as you have to pull somebody out, there’s retraining that has to happen and the new person doesn’t have the same institutional knowledge, and it takes time to bring them up to speed … I think you can’t underestimate how importance that continuity is.”
Keeping tabs on what staff members want and need to be satisfied in their jobs can be difficult, especially because “happiness” is subjective and varies from person to person, Polyak said.
Some want more money. Others want to be recognized more often for their contributions. And to make matters more difficult, what teachers need can change over time.
To try and keep up and be responsive, Polyak said his district administers climate surveys twice per academic year, one at the beginning and one midway through.
In those surveys, district leaders provide 75 prompts for feedback about employees’ satisfaction with their work, their relationship with their supervisor, and communication within their department. The feedback is anonymous, but can be broken down by department so leaders have a general idea of what different groups of employees need.
Routine feedback can help districts identify and address problems
Melissa Sadorf, the superintendent of the Stanfield Elementary School District in Arizona, about an hour south of Phoenix, agreed that routine check-ins with staff can help identify and address problems before they become deal breakers.
The small, single-campus district has 23 teachers. Two midyear teaching resignations, on top of what Sadorf called “significant turnover” among hourly staff like bus drivers and paraprofessionals, have put a strain on the district.
Now, administrators are doubling down on efforts to build connections and trust with their employees.
Leadership for years has underscored the importance of building relationships with employees, and routinely do informal interviews to hear directly from staff about why they choose to stay with the district and what changes they might want to see to get them to stay longer.
All of that information is useless if superintendents don’t take it seriously and use it to make changes, Sadorf said.
“The interviews get actionable feedback, and if we’re doing it early enough in the year, we can potentially head off things that are negative for our environment before they get out of hand or really start weighing on our staff,” Sadorf said. “Especially as our employees are dealing with so much, it can make a difference.”
Small gestures can go a long way to boost morale
In Washoe County, Nev., little rubber ducks are working hard to boost staff morale.
Every month, Superintendent Susan Enfield makes about a half dozen pit stops to classrooms, warehouses, and offices across the district to drop off a “ducky award” to an employee nominated by their peers for going above and beyond.
It’s a small gesture—it’s just a rubber duck with the district’s logo stamped on the side—but the public recognition from the district’s top leader resonates, Enfield said. (Enfield is the chair of Education Week’s board of trustees.)
“As human beings, we all have a fundamental need to be seen and appreciated, so the duck is just symbolic that your colleagues appreciate you, your superintendent appreciates you, you matter,” she said. “I don’t think we can ever overestimate how much that means to people.”
The routine has become such a fixture that employees are on the lookout for work they can nominate for a ducky award, perpetuating a cycle of celebrating one another.
Longstanding policies for barriers to recruitment, retention
Some fixes take longer than others. Washoe County schools have struggled with staffing shortages for years, Enfield said. At least part of the problem can be traced back to districtwide policies that had been in place so long nobody thought to question them.
Before she was hired and took over as superintendent in July, the district had a policy that mandated a 90-day waiting period before new employees were eligible for health benefits.
Beginning this month, new employees are eligible for benefits when they receive their first paycheck. By the start of the next school year, Enfield wants benefits to begin on the their first day of employment.
The district also only offers teachers one-year contracts, which creates uncertainty and instability for employees that likely drove some away. The district is in the process of changing that practice to offer longer-term contracts, Enfield said.
“Superintendents and leadership teams and school districts need to look at if there are things that are standing practices or policies that are perhaps creating an unintended consequence of not helping you recruit and retain staff,” Enfield said. “I’m new to the district, so I was able to come in and look at that practice and go, ‘Wait,’ whereas, internally, it had just been how things are done.
“So I think that’s a reminder that taking the time to carefully examine and scrutinize what you’ve been doing over time can make a difference,” she concluded.
A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2023 edition of Education Week as What Districts Can Do to Prevent Teachers From Quitting Midyear