Why do teachers teach, and what can principals and superintendents do to keep them?
Ask a principal, you’ll get one answer. Ask a teacher, you’ll get another.
As K-12 education evolves during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s becoming increasingly clear that teachers and principals have very different views of how teaching has changed and what it takes to keep teachers in the classrooms, according to a new survey by EdWeek Research Center.
School and district leaders say that positive school culture, love for students, and supportive administrators are among the top three factors that keep teachers in their roles.
The answers collected from teachers, however, revealed differences in how the two groups see each other. More than 40 percent of each group said love for students keeps teachers in the profession. But many teachers also pointed to retirement benefits and love for the subjects they teach as among the top three reasons they remain in the profession.
Only 11 percent of teachers cited supportive administrators as a factor in staying, compared to 35 percent of principals who said so.
When asked what actions district and school leaders can take to keep teachers from leaving, 57 percent of teachers said raise salaries; 43 percent said slash administrative burdens, like paperwork and meetings; and 31 percent said reduce class sizes.
The majority of school and district leaders similarly said increasing salaries was of the utmost importance. And 31 percent named reducing class sizes as important to retention, the same as teachers.
I’ve always told people … if I did not have to deal with administration and just have my students, I would stay in teaching for a lifetime.
But in other ways their answers differed significantly. Just 27 percent of administrators said reducing administrative burdens would help keep teachers, while a much higher percentage of teachers said this. And 33 percent said they could provide more opportunities for teachers to collaborate with colleagues to improve retention, though only 13 percent of teachers said the same.
Deborah Wallace, an English and dual-credit college psychology teacher at Beebe High School in Arkansas, is not surprised that principals and teachers are not in sync.
“I teach college psychology, and one of the things I teach is self-serving bias,” she said. “We grade ourselves better than average.”
It’s no wonder, then, that principals have outsized confidence in the areas over which they wield the most influence.
“Principals are in charge of the school’s climate, and, of course, they’re like, ‘I’m doing a good job. I have a great school climate.’ Do teachers agree? No. They [i.e., principals] are rating themselves highly on what’s their primary responsibility. A school’s climate can be vastly different for the principal than for a teacher,” Wallace said.
Though the pandemic upheaval affected both teachers and principals, school leaders are further removed than teachers from the day-to-day challenges it wrought: the daily technology hiccups, the student learning remotely who is distracted while caring for a younger sibling, or the teacher who needs more training to manage the glut of online tools.
“I think principals have lost sight over the years,” said Howard Hill, an agriculture education teacher and coach at King William High School, just northeast of Richmond, Va.
Lack of understanding, support can fuel exodus
It’s important that principals get to the root of the perception gap. If they don’t, teachers can feel misunderstood, unsupported, and unappreciated. And that can morph into a larger problem: resignations and early retirements.
Cynthia Harber, a physical education, health, and wellness teacher at Astoria Middle School in Oregon, was among those who considered early retirement this school year.
Two of her colleagues recently left: One resigned and another retired.
But it wasn’t stress that pushed Harber, a 30-year veteran, to consider leaving. It was feeling ignored.
When schools first shut down last spring, Harber was assigned to call parents, get groceries for families in need, and record online videos for students. As planning for fall reopening got underway, specialty teachers, like Harber, were overlooked, she said. When school started, she got a projector and laptop, and pretty much had to figure out how to teach physical education and wellness online, Harber said.
“It was like we were invisible,” she said. “We had no voice. We weren’t on any committees; we weren’t in on any planning. It was heartbreaking.”
Still, Harber persisted, making weekly themed videos for students—including on topics such as coordination and upper body strength—and teaching a healthy action that they could take that week, such as eating less sugar.
“The change has been so extreme,” she said. “You really have to have a lot of self-confidence to know what you are doing. You are going to be trying new stuff that may not work. And for people like me—I’ve been doing the same thing for 30 years—here’s something new, figure it out.”
Harber believes administrators want to support teachers, but, more often than not, “we get a lot of lip service,” rather than actions.
Case in point, she said: the lack of substantial training for teachers as the district moved to remote learning.
“We get a lot of encouragement, a lot of pep talks,” she said, but not a lot of meaningful support on how to adapt to the changes and new responsibilities.
“I love my district. I work really well with the administrator,” she said. “Maybe it wasn’t anything they could’ve helped because they haven’t been in this situation before.”
For Wallace and others, the job has changed in the last year as they toggled between in-person and virtual instruction—and sometimes doing both—based on the local coronavirus infection rates.
While the curriculum has stayed the same, the workload has increased, Wallace said.
Although Wallace’s district has been holding in-person classes since the start of the 2020-21 school year, teachers are required to record and post lessons online for each class, in part because a large number of students have had to miss school to quarantine.
As a veteran teacher, with more than three decades on the job, Wallace worries about her younger colleagues.
“I don’t know how they are coping,” she said. “I just think if I were in the beginning of my career and not the end, I would be looking for an exit ramp.”
Despite the challenges this year, Wallace plans to stick to her plan and retire in three years.
At the 90-student St. Patrick’s Academy, a Catholic school in Providence, R.I., Principal Bruce Daigle has worked to ensure that he is responding to teachers’ needs, providing training, and showing appreciation in small, meaningful ways.
Daigle still makes time to walk the halls of the 9th to 12th grade school, where 94 percent of the students are Hispanic or Black and 20 percent are first-generation Americans. The small staff makes it easy for him to respond to concerns as they pop up, said Ashley Proulx, who took on additional responsibilities to become the school’s director of admissions during the pandemic, in addition to her job as the lead social studies teacher.
“I think the principal has done a great job trying to understand, and putting himself in the shoes of teachers, what they are dealing with, the stress level, and the new way of teaching,” Proulx said.
Teachers and staff were on the school’s reopening committee—giving them a consequential role in reopening decisions—and they got training in the new tech tools they’d be using during the year. While there were “glitches and bumps along the way,” Daigle’s approach of being “very responsive and open to constructive criticism and change,” was helpful, Proulx said
Daigle expects St. Patrick’s staff turnover, which generally hovers around 15 percent annually, to stay in the same ballpark this year.
(About 49 percent of principals in the EdWeek survey said they saw no change in requests for medical leave, retirements or resignations this year.)
“There is nobody saying, ‘I’ve had enough of this; I am all done because of this pandemic,’ ” Daigle said.
Communication, collegiality, and incentives help
Here are five ways principals can bridge the perception gap with staff:
1. Be visible: Principals have to tend to their administrative duties, but it’s also crucial that teachers and students see them.
At St. Patrick’s Academy, teachers often bump into Daigle, the principal, in the hallways, and he pops into Proulx’s classroom frequently. Proulx also thinks that principals should shadow a teacher at different levels—early childhood, elementary, middle, and high school—to get a deeper understanding and appreciation of what their teachers’ days are like.
“None of us has ever done this—teaching face-to-face and online at the same time,” Proulx said. “It’s new to everybody.”
Hill, the Virginia teacher, agrees that principals and teachers lose out when school leaders stay in their offices.
“You don’t want your teachers to think that every time you come into their room is for an evaluation,” Hill said. “Just come in, sit down, see what the kids are learning.”
2. Open up communication: This is a two-way street. Teachers must be honest with their principals about how they are feeling. But principals must be willing to take frank feedback and constructive criticism—and then act on them.
Many of the frustrations teachers felt this year boiled down to the absence of clear messages and direction from their districts and principals.
“It’s got to be communication,” Wallace, the Arkansas teacher, said. “I think principals need to challenge every assumption they have with data. They need to talk to teachers; they need to survey teachers; talk in large groups; talk one on one. They need to know their teachers and they need to know their teachers’ burdens.”
3. Show teachers they’re valued: This can take many forms. Pay raises and bonuses are great. But so are catered meals, a food truck, gym passes, and efforts to bring levity to a year filled with challenges.
Wallace, the Arkansas teacher, praised her district for showing that it valued its teachers.
When Arkansas prioritized teachers on its COVID-19 vaccination schedule, the Beebe district cancelled in-person classes for a day and invited two pharmacies onto the campus to vaccinate teachers who wanted the shot.
“I felt respected and valued that our district took the time and care to make sure everyone who wanted [the COVID-19 vaccine] could get it,” Wallace said.
In King and Queen County, Va., where Hill serves on the school board, the district cleared the schedule one Friday and catered a meal for teachers. It’s also hosted game shows and given out gift cards to Amazon and restaurants as prizes. And district officials write thank-you letters to teachers at regular intervals. Teachers also received a $500 check before the holiday break, and they got bonuses this year.
4. Find out what teachers are struggling with, and offer support: Nearly a year into remote teaching and hybrid learning, some teachers still struggle with technology.
Teachers like Hill and Harber said their districts did not provide enough upfront training, and that left them frustrated.
In contrast, Beebe hosted “lots and lots” of technical training to get teachers up to speed, and there’s also Tech Tuesdays, when teachers host 30- to 60-minute PD sessions on online tools they’ve found useful.
At St. Patrick’s Academy, teachers were trained over the summer break. But a core team also got deeper training and was responsible for helping colleagues.
Teachers also need emotional support. Haber’s district boosted local schools’ budgets, with a set-aside for staff wellness. Some schools upgraded their faculty lounges, and the social-emotional learning committee on which Harber serves is also developing SEL tools and trauma training for teachers.
Before the pandemic shuttered many public facilities, teachers got discount passes to the local pool and yoga studios. Harber also helped teachers set up fitness areas in their classrooms and had one-on-one sessions with colleagues.
5. Pare down paperwork: “What’s necessary?” That’s a question principals and district leaders need to ask to stanch burnout and keep teachers in the profession.
“Administrators need to look critically, carefully at all the expectations that are made of teachers,” Wallace said. “We need to pare it down to what’s necessary. I just don’t think you can continue to ask more and more without ever pulling some responsibilities away.”
Hill, the Virginia educator, said this would be a good time for leaders to get rid of needless paperwork and administrative compliance tasks that just add more to teachers’ plates.
“I’ve always told people … if I did not have to deal with administration and just have my students, I would stay in teaching for a lifetime,” Hill said.
Coverage of teacher retention and recruitment is supported by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York, at carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 2021 edition of Education Week as Principals and Teachers Don’t Always See Eye to Eye. Can Getting In Sync Reduce Turnover?