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Virginia Journal of Education


Sound Direction

Veteran educators know plenty about retaining great teachers.


By DeJuanna Parker


Teacher turnover is a great threat to positive student outcomes, especially in hard-to-staff urban and rural schools. And though administrators and school leaders know this, the fractured programs and initiatives they’ve implemented to solve the problem haven’t created lasting results. We know this because there we’re still facing serious teacher shortages. And we know this because we’ve heard of or witnessed teachers leaving their classes (and the profession) before the end of the school year, and sometimes before the end of the school day.

While this is cause for great concern, the problem is not hopeless.

I think one of the best solutions to our teacher shortage is hidden in plain sight. My great grandmother used to tell me, “Baby, if you want to learn how to make a pie, you need to go to somebody who already knows how to make a pie.” If we want to figure out how to keep teachers in schools for a long time, we need to go to teachers who have been in the schools for a long time. We need to ask them what’s kept them going for the long haul: Veteran teachers hold a vital key to unlocking the “teacher retention code.”

What Veteran Teachers Say is Most Important
A sense of community, both inside and outside of school, is often cited by experienced teachers when they’re asked about their longevity in the classroom.

Schools are often a central component of neighborhoods and towns, and so teachers are often almost automatically well-known because of their connection to the school. School-community relationships are frequently representative of community culture. We know that research has shown that it’s harder for a teacher to leave a school when he or she has developed strong community ties. One account from a veteran teacher from a Northern Virginia suburb illustrates this concept, which is important right from the beginning:

When we were searching for a home and talking to people about where to live, we actually went to the police station in town and the chief gave us some of his time to talk about the community.  We had a daughter in elementary and another in high school, and the principals of the schools gave us their time.

Veteran teachers stress the importance of an ongoing effort to develop and be a part of a professional community with school colleagues, as well.

A sense of being respected and recognized for their work is also essential to teachers with long classroom careers. I conducted a survey of such teachers in 2016 as part of my doctoral work and respondents said they were satisfied with the respect they received, both professionally and personally. One explained that respect wasn’t limited to simple courtesy in school settings, but was also evident through the community.

“When out and about in public, my husband says I should run for public office since I am met and greeted by students and parents wherever I go,” said one veteran art teacher.

Much of this recognition and respect comes from veteran teachers’ community embeddedness. Some are lifelong local residents, but many others are transplants from other areas who have made the school district locale their home. As such, they have the opportunity to combine their social standing in the community with respect in the school setting.

Teachers’ standing in the community is only strengthened when they frequent businesses owned by parents of their students, or places where their students work, as many veteran teachers do. Some of these seasoned professionals also sponsor or coach community sports teams, attend local celebrations, and support local charity events.

Why Veteran Teachers Endure
Veteran teachers tend to run on intrinsic motivation. For them, especially, pupils’ progress and positive teacher-student relationships provide the main source of job satisfaction. Many experienced teachers indicate professional and personal interactions with students help to renew and strengthen their commitment to the profession.

There seems to be a strong relationship between the persistence of veteran teachers and their internal motivations and rewards. In my survey, such teachers often spoke of the actions they took to ensure student success, including staying late hours after school for supplemental instruction, and taking on mentor roles for students. One history teacher provided this list of what keeps him going:

Watching them get it…watching students grow or have original ideas. When they actually get excited about doing something well. Laughing together. Having dedicated colleagues. Getting feedback from adult students after years have passed. These are the fruits of my labor.

Another experienced teacher spoke of being asked to write letters of recommendation for students:

This is time-consuming but gratifying. I have had students come back years later and tell me that my class was one of their favorites, or that they are going into teaching because of my influence. It’s great to help a student be the first to graduate from high school and college in his family. That, to me, is what keeps me coming back.

While life is not always smooth for veterans, they often find rewards in watching children learn, creating learning cultures in the classroom, and promoting learning in the community. This may sound idyllic, but research and practice support that while extrinsic factors such as salary, professional development opportunities, and tuition reimbursement have an influence, most teachers who become veteran teachers look inward to persist in the profession. 

Another characteristic shared by many seasoned teachers may have been there for decades: the “teaching gene.” One teacher put it this way:

I may retire, but I will never be able to stop teaching. I am currently applying for a position at the local community college and will still give lectures to various groups. I mean, come on: I’m a teacher through and through. I don’t care what the situation is, I will find a way to teach.

Many veterans see their career choice as a deeply-rooted calling, drawn from their values and beliefs. One English teacher with 20 years of classroom experience said:

I didn't necessarily have the best high school experience. My dad became an alcoholic (non-abusive, just absent), my mom a recluse, I wasn't in the 'popular' crowd, nor was I a top student. I think part of my calling came from the fact that I understand this pain in others. My dad became sober and by the time I got to college, I was an 'A' student. I had always been a reader, so being an English teacher was a win-win. I have an empathy and a natural love of learning that I felt obliged to pass on.  Is this a calling? I think so. I never felt that I had to do something else, just teaching.

Teaching, with all the time put in outside of the classroom, can be all-consuming and requires a lasting dose of inner strength. According to one veteran art teacher:

Of course, teaching is a calling. There are people who are knowledgeable in a subject, but do not have the rapport to actually be a teacher. Finding a way to reach a hundred different students each day requires a special ability. I feel that teaching is a gift and thus a passion. Not everyone can teach. 

What School Leaders Can Do
With so many novice teachers leaving the profession, it’s imperative that policymakers, school board members, and building administrators develop a deeper understanding of teacher retention. Research supports that experienced teachers can have a significant impact on student development and success. If school leaders “get” teacher persistence factors such as community connections, respect, intrinsic rewards, and deep attachment, they’ll be better equipped to develop initiatives to help more of their current teachers become veteran teachers. And when they learn to leverage these factors with novice teachers, retention will improve.

Dr. Parker is a 25-year veteran of K-12 education and currently serves as site manager for the Vint Hill location of Lord Fairfax Community College. She is a conference presenter, workshop facilitator, and strategic planning consultant, and can be reached at dejuanna.parker@gmail.com or through her website, https://dejuannaparker.wixsite.com/parkereducationgroup. This article is based on a presentation she gave at the VEA’s Instruction and Professional Development Conference.

 

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Teacher Retention 101


Some recommendations for developing and keeping high-quality teachers, from the Learning Policy Institute’s research brief, Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand, and Shortages in the U.S.:

Improve teacher retention, especially in hard-to-staff schools, through improved mentoring, induction, working conditions, and career development. If a teacher receives mentoring, collaboration, and extra resources, and is part of a strong teacher network, first-year turnover is cut by more than half (from 41 percent to 18 percent). But just 3 percent of beginning teachers had such a comprehensive set of supports in 2012. In addition, school working conditions—including access to resources, administrative support, collegial opportunities, teacher input in decision-making, and pressure related to accountability measures—strongly influence teachers’ choices to continue teaching in their schools.

• Develop strong, universally available mentoring and induction programs. With federal or state matching grants, school divisions can support every new teacher using induction strategies that work: mentoring by a trained mentor in the same teaching field, learning opportunities for beginners in key areas of need, classroom visits, a reduced teaching load, and joint planning time.

• Create productive school environments. States and districts can allocate funds specifically to improve teaching conditions in hard-to-staff schools. These funds can reduce class sizes, purchase much-needed materials and supplies, and provide time for professional development and joint teacher planning.

• Strengthen principal training programs. Federal and state agencies can offer grant funding and technical assistance for creating and expanding high-quality principal training programs that emphasize effective leadership skills.


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