Retaining Teachers: 6 Insights That Helped This Union-Led Program Shine

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Teacher retention is one of the most difficult challenges faced by districts today. “Half of teachers leave teaching within five years,” said Hillary Greene Nolan, Education Researcher at Digital Promise. It raises the question: How do we retain experienced teachers and welcome new educators? One answer just might be “Teacher Leadership in a Union-Led Program Designed to Support and Retain Early-Career Teachers.”

This edLeader Panel examined a highly successful pilot program that resulted in retaining 88 percent of first-year teachers in various districts by creating a supportive environment where teachers help teachers. Three program mentors and one coach reflected on what worked and the pivotal advice they’d share to replicate teacher leadership in your district.

“Teaching can be so isolating,” said Kristina Pittman, High School English Teacher at Farmington Public Schools (MI). Think of new teachers working in rural communities, for example, who may be the only art teachers in their district or brand-new educators who need guidance for the first time. A new pilot program gave junior instructors a place and a person to turn to for much-needed advice and guidance during the uncertainty of newness, she explained.

Created to support and retain early-career teachers, the union-led program employed complementary support in two distinct areas: a building-based mentor for assimilating to new school routines and community values, and a virtual instructional coach for subject matter support with challenges, planning, and more in specific disciplines such as math and special education. By involving long-serving colleagues within the same district or virtually, the program helped reduce isolation, burnout, and fatigue and addressed time management so teachers could learn to “let go” where appropriate and better prioritize.

“You’re learning how to teach, identify every student and figure out their issues, and then figure out how that works with what you’re trying to teach,” said Jeremy Gold, High School History Teacher at Farmington Public Schools (MI). Experienced instructors have been in the same shoes and can provide invaluable support that helps more than a professional development course can.

Seasoned educators benefit just as much as their counterparts. “After 13 years, I got to tackle new problems and grow. It was really a great experience for me, my personal growth, and my career,” said Tasha Osten, School Counselor at Raymond Central Public Schools (NE).

When bombarded by the negativity of low test scores and seemingly relentless critiques of teaching practices, long-term educators can become discouraged and disconnected. But in this program, being a mentor impassioned both veteran and green educators. “Getting the chance to work with new teachers can be incredibly empowering. You see the excitement, new ideas, and how things evolve. It’s incredibly encouraging,” said Shelly Rosene, Q-Comp Coach and SPED Teacher at Anoka-Hennepin School District (MN).

6 Ways For Inspiring More Teacher Leaders

What advice would the panelists give district leaders looking to elevate more teachers into such roles? They identified six essential ways.

1. Respect Teacher Time

Finding the time is never easy, said Gold. It’s important to create opportunities during the school day or in the schedule where there is no PLC and the time is designated for mentorship, added Rosene.

2. Incentives

Rosene said that having a monetary incentive or something else valuable lets teachers know they are valued and gives them a little extra motivation.

3. Lead with Listening

Ask what they need, focus on teacher-led work, and give them time to collaborate, said Pittman.

4. Incorporate Union Leaders

Union leaders can play a unique role. Educators view unions as supportive, a different perspective than how administration may be perceived. Teachers think, “My union is here to help me, support me. It’s not judgemental; it’s helping,” said Gold. Union leaders also know their colleagues, and they can select effective leaders and provide some insight into finding those who would make great mentors, said Pittman.

5. Create an Action Charter

Having a plan, or action charter, can help ease nervous new mentees and provide structure for mentors. “It allowed us to grow and create organic conversations,” said Osten. She also recommended having a clear goal and purpose for all to follow.

6. Create Built-In Support

Formalizing the mentor role can help. Having someone whose job it is to check in sends a message that asking for help is OK. That was really important for hesitant teachers in their program, said Nolan.

Learn more about this edWeb broadcast, Teacher Leadership in a Union-Led Program Designed to Support and Retain Early-Career Teachers, sponsored by Digital Promise Center for Inclusive Innovation.

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Digital Promise’s Center for Inclusive Innovation reimagines education research and development (R&D) by resourcing the creative ingenuity of communities working in partnership with school districts to create equitable powerful learning opportunities for students furthest from opportunity. The foundation for Inclusive Innovation is anchored in a set of core tenets that embody an equity-centered approach to research and development. The tenets define how we deliberately support teams in co-constructing an inclusive R&D culture that enables equitable leadership and contribution.


Article by Suzanne Bell, based on this edLeader Panel