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Recruitment & Retention

Why Teachers Are Turning Down Lucrative Offers to Stay at This Texas School

By Denisa R. Superville — April 20, 2023 9 min read
From left, Principal David Arencibia converses with Learning Liaison, Brooke Schuster at Colleyville Middle School in Colleyville, Texas on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.
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Stephanie McAvoy drives about an hour each way to her job at Colleyville Middle School in Colleyville, Texas, where she’s taught English for the last three years.

Her daily commute takes her past several schools, including one within walking distance from home, and others where she turned down several job offers over the years.

The reason: McAvoy really wants to continue teaching at the 650-student Colleyville Middle School, which was named a Texas School to Watch, a special designation given to high-performing middle schools by the state’s secondary school principals’ association. It’s a school where staff members say the environment is one that supports professional growth, values staff input, and celebrates their successes.

McAvoy is not the only staff member to balk at entreaties to jump ship—some of which would have resulted in big pay increases. The school’s principal, David Arencibia, has also been approached by other districts to come on board as a school leader or in a central office role. Education-focused organizations have also come calling for him.

Aaron Arroyo, who is in his second year as a theater teacher, also turned down an offer from a private school that would have bumped his salary by $15,000 a year.

“What makes Colleyville unique—and Grapevine-Colleyville ISD as a whole—is that they are involved, which doesn’t happen in a lot of districts,” Arroyo said. “They are invested in not just the students, but the faculty. They are invested in what they can do to make the program build. It’s very a family atmosphere.”

The district has not been without controversy, however. It made national headlines in 2021 after it chose not to renew the contract for Colleyville Heritage High School Principal James Whitfield amid accusations that Whitfield was promoting “critical race theory.” Whitfield, who is Black and did not teach, had written a letter to the school community about racism and the need for “conciliation,” following the 2020 killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. He later resigned in an agreement with the district, and has since sued the district and a school board member.

That’s not to say that people don’t leave Colleyville Middle School or that some level of turnover isn’t healthy, said Arencibia, who is now in his 7th year as the school’s principal. It took years to create the working and learning environment that teachers and other staff don’t want to leave, he said.

Arencibia cites four specific efforts that draw and keep employees at his school.

Hire with clear expectations and support teachers’ growth

The school’s staff know what they’re getting into when they are hired, Arencibia said.

The school is expected to compete with top ones in the state. Teachers are expected to plan lessons every day—no winging it—regardless of the number of years they’ve been in the classroom. And they’re expected to teach from “bell to bell,” meaning that instruction and engagement with students should cover every minute in a 45-minute period, he said.

Questions during the job interviews let teachers know what’s expected of them, he said. Among them: What would you do in this situation? How would you approach this issue?

“We hear when someone is a good fit,” Arencibia said.

But the school is equally supportive of helping teachers get professional development and training to meet its ideals, he said.

Professional development sessions have included discussions on the importance of maximizing every minute in each period and how losing just a few minutes of instruction each period adds up over an academic year. Those expectations are also delivered in staff updates and newsletters.

“We communicate, communicate, and communicate those expectations,” Arencibia said.

But there’s also a level of trust and professional freedom, where teacher creativity is encouraged. That doesn’t mean they have free reign, he said.

“They stay within the guidelines that we use,” Arencibia said, referring to state and district requirements. “But beyond that, we really allow them to be the professionals that they are and be as creative as possible.”

“There are a lot of places that are structured and rote,” he continued. “We don’t do that here. We pull those constraints off of them to allow them that creative teaching flexibility. That’s a very specific reason that teachers enjoy time on campus.”

Stephanie McAvoy leads a discussion during her seventh grade english class at Colleyville Middle School in Colleyville, Texas on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.

McAvoy said she knew she was a good fit for the school during the interviewing process when she was asked about her skills, strengths, and values. She was interviewed and hired on the same day.

“I was like, ‘This doesn’t happen for anyone;' so, obviously this is where I am supposed to be,” she said.

She’d worked in places where it seems like teachers were given extra duties instead of opportunities to grow if they were good at their jobs. But, her takeaway from the Colleyville interview was: “‘You’re a professional; now go do your job,’"she said.

She’d never felt that way before.

“I think that’s why people do excel at CMS,” she said. “Because you are allowed to be the professional that you are and [practice] the craft that you know. You’re just trusted in that way.”

Create a positive culture and school environment

A positive school culture is essential to keeping staff, Arencibia said.

Colleyville Middle School’s administration carves out time for culture-building exercises during staff meetings, with time for staff members to get to know each other, as well as to learn about their strengths and weaknesses.

Understanding co-workers helps to build empathy, said Arencibia, who cited a Gallup survey that shows that employee engagement increases when they’re connected to someone at work or have a friend at work.

In a state where fine and performing arts may not always get the same level of visibility as sports programs, Arroyo, the theater teacher, said both the school and district administrations have enthusiastically backed the program as he breathes new life into it.

Just weeks after arriving, Arencibia asked Arroyo what he needed for the theater program. The list included new lighting, sound, and a new stage. Within weeks, those items were on the district’s bond program.

The school also paid for Arroyo to immerse himself in a full-day of professional development at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, the largest performing arts high school in the Dallas area, to deepen his teaching expertise.

“It’s investment,” Arroyo said. “They are willing to go above and beyond— just like fellow staff members—not just for the fine arts. It’s literally for ELA, for the CTE programs, for athletics.”

That helps solidify the positive school culture, he said.

“It’s also reinforcing that you are going to be supported because you matter, because we care,” Arroyo said.

Celebrate staff

Staff members are routinely recognized by peers and students, for everything from a victory in the classroom to a child’s birthday, McAvoy said.

One way students show appreciation is through a monthly program that allows them to nominate a teacher who’s gone out of their way to help them. Those nominations are given to teachers so they learn firsthand how they’re impacting students, Arencibia said. Some students submit video nominations, which pack an emotional punch.

“Those are bucket-fillers,” he said. “Our staff and students love that. We would do that in staff meetings as well. We lift them up, and say, ‘This is what students are saying about you.’ ... We’ll have teachers crying because we are hearing straight from our kids.”

The Parent Teacher Association also plays a big role in honoring teachers and staff and ensuring they know that their efforts are appreciated.

Aaron Arroya leads a discussion about puppets during one of his theatre classes at Colleyville Middle School in Colleyville, Texas on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.

Colleyville Middle School has the distinction of having more PTA members than it does parents of currently enrolled students—meaning that lots of PTA members don’t have children in the school.

Parents show their gratitude in a number of ways, including by volunteering for projects, making treats for staff, doing regular food runs to surprise teachers with lunch and other meals, and collaborating with teachers on classroom activities.

Teachers take note, he said.

“It’s a good feeling when you’re recognized by the individuals around you,” Arencibia said. “People are willing to invest more of their time and energy into those things” for which they’re being lauded.

Listen to your staff

Like many schools, administrators at Colleyville Middle ask teachers every year for a wish list. It can include everything from classroom supplies to things that would improve teachers’ professional and personal lives.

One teacher, for example, had seasonal affective disorder and asked for her classroom to be moved to one that had more natural light.

“Let me tell you, she was like a different person that following school year,” Arencibia said. “It truly impacted her—from a physical, mental, and wellness standpoint.”

Another teacher had to drop off her daughter at a neighboring school in the morning, which made it difficult for her to do lesson-planning early in the day. The school moved her morning duties to the afternoon. That accommodation was a “game changer,” he said, giving the teacher “a lot more flexibility and freedom.”

Teachers said that when they go to the administration with an initiative or a request, administrators don’t reflexively say no. They work to figure out how to fulfill the request if it’s a good thing for students.

That’s one of the reasons why Lauren Jones, the school’s head band director, is still at Colleyville Middle School, where she started 11 years ago.

“The answer is hardly ever no when we are trying to do something that’s in the best interest of our students and the community,” she said. “It’s always, ‘Let’s brainstorm and figure out a way to make it happen. Just think big picture.’ There’s never a roadblock, and if there is, it’s like a team effort to talk about it and find solutions and do what’s right for our kids on a daily basis.”

Principal David Arencibia embraces a student as they make their way to their next class at Colleyville Middle School in Colleyville, Texas on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.

Arencibia said it takes time to build the kind of environment he has at Colleyville Middle School, where he currently has only two teaching vacancies.

That was not the case when he arrived.

“There were some staff members that we had to help move along,” he said. “I had to help them find what their next true passion was—whatever that was—because it wasn’t teaching kids at the time.”

There’s natural turnover, and people leave because of spousal relocations and promotions, for example, he said. He’s hired about three-quarters of the current staff and loses about 10 staff members a year, with custodians and secretaries included in that number in addition to teachers, Arencibia said.

McAvoy, the teacher who drives nearly an hour each way to work, appreciates the quality time she spends with her daughter, whose school is just down the hill from her mother’s, on the commute. They have heart-to-heart mother-daughter conversations. She listens to the radio. She decompresses.

This works for her, she said.

“The main thing with teaching, I believe, is that you find your fit, you find your family, and it doesn’t matter if you take a slight pay cut or you have to drive a little bit farther,” McAvoy said. “Quality of life is worth more. Your life is worth more. You being a really good parent is worth more, and that’s what I have found over the three years, and that’s why I continue to do this.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2023 edition of Education Week as Why Teachers Are Turning Down Lucrative Offers to Stay At This Texas School

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