Supporting Great Teachers to Stay

As a former Dean of Faculty at an independent school and now Executive Director of the California Teacher Development Collaborative (CATDC), I know well the energy and resources that go into recruiting, hiring, and onboarding new faculty. Given the shortage of teachers in California as well as greater attrition and churn, I have been giving a lot of thought to not only what draws top educators to our schools, but also what makes them stay.

Independent schools have long been valued for the sense of community and belonging they provide, and research confirms what we know in our hearts to be true: strong relationships lead to greater learning. That is why there is so much more at stake than the significant financial costs involved; high turnover is disruptive to school culture and negatively impacts our students. And while we explore ways to offer more competitive salary and benefit packages, it is essential that we do more to support teachers at every stage of their own growth and development, encouraging them to be active agents in building a rich and rewarding career.

In considering the programs and practices that should be put in place within and beyond our schools to retain the best teachers, it has been useful to reflect on my own journey as an independent school educator, and the critical role the CATDC has played for me and so many others.

Lay the Groundwork

What drew me to The Athenian School and one of the primary reasons I stayed for over 25 years, was that I found it to be a caring community of teachers and learners. During the hiring process, I remember being inspired by the Mission, entranced by the beautiful environment, and excited by the way the position of Humanities Teacher and Director of the International Program aligned with my own goals. I had been working primarily with adults, however, and was a public school kid; I knew little about how to manage a classroom full of highschoolers and less about independent school culture.

I must admit, it was a very rough ride at first. A program like CATDC’s Teaching Foundations would have helped smooth the way. Since its inception eight years ago, hundreds of new educators or those new to independent schools have received training on critical skills such as classroom management, parental engagement, and team building. As one participant from this summer’s program described: “I am grateful for the community we have formed that will be a resource and support system for me. I also really appreciated the reminders of best practices and refocusing before the school year⁠—it helped to think about what routines I would like to incorporate in my classroom and the purpose they serve.” This is the only program of its kind for independent school educators in California and the CATDC is looking at ways to expand and deepen its impact.

A strong induction program is also critical. Studies show that teachers with little or no induction support are much more likely to leave schools. Making sure that new faculty have the knowledge, tools, and resources to thrive in your unique school community becomes especially important when casting a wider net to hire those who come from different backgrounds and even different fields.

Provide Support and Create Structures for Continuous Growth

While I often felt overwhelmed my first few years at Athenian, I stayed on, mainly due to the support of the administration and several veteren teachers who offered me their wisdom and guidance as I found my feet. When a formal mentoring program was established, I was eager to participate as a mentor. While I saw this as a way to give back to the faculty community, I also gained a greater sense of purpose and developed a stronger commitment to the institution. Mid-career teachers also benefit from ongoing and more formal mentoring, and reverse mentoring, where younger employees become the mentors of their seniors, has great potential with the rise of millennials in the workforce. We often need to look beyond our school sites to find the right mentor, and as my career progressed, many of mine were drawn from the larger CATDC community.

The feedback I received from my mentors, the Academic Dean, and the Dean of Faculty at Athenian was crucial as I developed greater competence. Late in my tenure, as instructional coaching began to gain ground, faculty also benefited from the coaching provided by an outside expert who spent two weeks a year at our site with the sole purpose of supporting us to improve our craft.

As Lori Cohen, avid participant in the CATDC, former Dean of Faculty at the Bay School, and educational consultant, says in this Edweek piece, “the most meaningful support we can provide all teachers is through instructional coaching.” Inspired by the work of Elena Aguilar and recognizing the need for building and supporting a community of skilled coaches in independent schools, Lori and I developed an ongoing program for the CATDC on transformational coaching. While all of the administrators, teachers, and teacher leaders who participated were making use of coaching practices, only a few actually had been given the title “coach.” Independent schools would do well to develop the vision and create the structures necessary to realize the full potential of this powerful and empowering approach to learning. Becoming an instructional coach also provides an opportunity for our master teachers to grow and lead⁠—essential for retention.

Support Faculty to Bloom Where They Are Planted

In a recent ASCD article, professors Debra Meyer and Kelly Lenarz point out that “leadership skills are at the root of many common reasons for becoming a teacher: making a difference, promoting lifelong learning, and working in collaborative community.” Given the opportunity to lead, and supported with professional development, teachers who become leaders “revitalize the school, enhance the professional community, and build meaningful careers.”

I seriously considered leaving the Athenian School several times, eager for new challenges and the chance to make a greater impact. Fortunately, new opportunities to lead at Athenian came my way, and I was supported to develop my leadership skills through CATDC’s ongoing groups, such as the ones for Department Chairs and Experienced Administrators. In addition to helping me build capacity, this learner-centered professional development gave me the opportunity to pause, reflect, and take greater control of my own professional journey. CATDC’s annual Women+Leadership Conference inspired me to ask the question—”How do I grow next?”—and provided the tools and the network needed to pursue my goals.

We often lament that pathways to leadership are limited within our schools. I think we need to be more bold and creative in carving them, especially as we hire more millennials. I look to the Singapore American School for an inspiring example of what is possible: of the 400 teachers in the school, over 165 have official leadership roles—either as a leader of a Professional Learning Community (PLC) or Instructional Chair.

Establish Excellent Evaluation Programs

A report on the teacher shortage by Independent School Management, points out that too often evaluation is seen as a “necessary evil,” but, if done with a focus on support, can help schools “attract, develop, and inspire outstanding teachers.” My greatest accomplishment at Athenian was helping revamp our own professional development and evaluation program to provide the richest learning environment possible for adults. As Lori Cohen writes in Rethinking Teacher Evaluation in Independent Schools, “we have an excellent opportunity to develop evaluation instruments that are communal, learner-centered, growth-oriented, and ultimately, a celebration of all the possibilities this profession offers.” Lori’s upcoming workshop with the CATDC on the role of appreciation, growth, and evaluation, will provide school leaders the opportunity to reflect further on and explore ways to revamp their own approaches.

A Lasting Impact on Educators, Schools, and Students

No matter how much support has been put in place, we can begin to feel rootbound, having reached the edges of our growth within an institution. My own decision to leave Athenian and take on the leadership of the CATDC would not have been possible without the skills, confidence, and extended community I gained through this very organization. And I have spoken with dozens of educators who feel similarly indebted to the CATDC for reinvigorating their teaching, helping them to feel a greater sense of belonging, and furthering their careers. Some may have eventually decided to leave their schools, but not before making a deep and lasting impact, and often to take on greater leadership within the field of education.

During a time of increasing financial constraints, schools may be tempted to cut funding for professional development. That would be a costly mistake. Instead, let’s invest in the teachers and leaders we have, so that we can better provide students with what they most need—a stable and caring community of deeply engaged educators who themselves are always learning.

Lisa Haney has served as the Executive Director of the California Teacher Development Collaborative since 2017. Prior to her current position, she worked for 25-years at the Athenian School in many roles, including English teacher, international program director, and humanities department chair. In her most recent capacity as dean of faculty development, Lisa spearheaded a process to develop Athenian’s Standards of Excellent Teaching and design a comprehensive new professional development and evaluation program. 

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