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Retain and Deliver

Can you keep your teachers in the classroom?
Can you keep your teachers in the classroom?

Stem your own district brain drain with these hiring and retention tips from education experts.

Hold their hands
Mary E. Diez, graduate dean at Alverno College in Milwaukee, says new teachers cannot be left on their own. While they may be fully certified academics, it falls to the district administration to provide practical help—systematic ways for beginning teachers to evolve. “New teachers have to understand the priorities of the district,” Diez explains, “but the professional development that [more seasoned teachers] get isn’t going to show them this.” Alverno College has banded together with two area districts to formalize professional development opportunities geared specifically for new hires. In Waukesha, Wisconsin, new hires must complete a district-mandated three-year program of professional development that stresses district priorities, with courses offered by Alverno and two other colleges. Students can use the professional development courses toward a master’s degree at any of the colleges involved.

Look for leaders
Who’s going to take your place? If you want a school with great teachers, you ought to be looking at each candidate’s potential to be a school leader. Kevin Fahey is assistant professor at Salem State College, in Salem, Massachusetts, and the national coordinator of research for the National School Reform Faculty in Bloomington, Indiana. He trains school leaders in the development of collaborative learning circles, and says that when principals hire a new teacher, the question should be, “Who is this person going to become?”

Fahey also says schools need to do a better job of creating professional learning communities, or “Critical Friends Groups,” in which teachers learn the concepts, habits, tools, and skills that lead to a more reflective practice. “We need to ensure that the kids coming out of education programs are not just a class, but a professional community,” says Fahey. He believes that new candidates need a specific set of core competencies to survive the first few years of teaching, but they’re also going to have to be able to reinvent themselves and their “bag of tricks” on a regular basis as teaching changes.

Make them prove it
Rachel Lotan, director of the Stanford Teacher Education Program at Stanford University, believes in hiring students from well-regarded teacher prep programs. That’s because administrators need to be sure of three things with new hires: solid content knowledge, comprehension of cultural differences in the classroom, and an understanding of the development and growth of children validated by empirical data and research. “It takes enormous effort to do the very complex job [of teaching] well, so it’s important to hire someone up to the task,” she says. A solid teacher prep program is a good start, but that’s not all. She notes that California recently passed a law requiring potential teachers to complete a performance assessment that shows they can plan lessons, assess students, and reflect upon their own practice. “I would urge principals to look at samples of work. Ask students to show you what they can do,” Lotan says.

Don’t be surprised if you come under scrutiny, too. “I tell candidates that they need to determine whether the workplace they’re entering will allow them to grow, and whether the school offers adequate ways for them to succeed,” Lotan explains. “I tell them the burden is on them to see what the principal has to offer.” For instance, Lotan notes that one of her favorite superintendents has a rule that if there is a shortage of classrooms in a secondary school, the new hires get their own rooms. That flies in the face of the conventional wisdom, which grants the rooms to the veterans, but Lotan says this superintendent understands that moving rooms is an extra burden on the very people with the most on their plates. “I never hear anyone talking about whether or not a school is set up for new teachers to succeed,” Lotan says. “It’s a really important part of the hiring process.”

Take teacher prep slowly
Just because someone can think on the fly doesn’t mean he or she is a product of a fly-by-night education. Carol E. Smith, vice president for professional issues and partnerships at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, says there has been an increased focus on clinical preparation of new teachers, and many ed schools are adopting a longer teacher prep model. “Quite a few teacher education programs now offer a five-year or a fifth-year model,” she notes. In five-year programs, students take four years of content along with methods courses and field experiences, with an internship during the fifth year. In a fifth-year program, all the content is taken in the first four years; during the fifth year, students take the pedagogy and education courses. Curry College, for instance, requires that third-year ed students tutor individual learners, fourth-year students complete course work on whole class teaching techniques as well as their major, and fifth-year students spend the entire fall in the classroom and the spring doing educational research. “When you hire a Curry grad,” notes Stewart D. Roberson, former president of the Urban Superintendent Association of America and the superintendent of Hanover County (VA) Public Schools, “you’re getting the benefit of several years of in-depth teaching experience.”

Roberson also likes the fact that Curry grads are a year older than most ed school grads. He says maturity really does matter in the classroom, and it’s something he looks for when hiring—which is one of the reasons he says he’s “bullish” on career changers. “Some of our best teachers come from other professions,” he notes. “They have a way of engaging students immediately because of their own world experience.” Of course maturity isn’t everything. Roberson looks for any number of traits when hiring a new teacher, including the demonstration of basic human caring, stamina, and intellectual agility. Nevertheless, he feels that it is important to look for students who have a little extra experience under their belts, whether it’s that fifth year of teacher prep, or an entirely different career.

Grow your own staff
When life doesn’t offer you a whole lot of choices, make your own. That’s why Roberson has a suggestion for what districts can do to help ease the long-term stress of finding new, highly qualified teachers, particularly in hard-to-staff communities. “You don’t always have to recruit nationally or throughout the world,” Roberson explains. “The most successful, longest-running, and easiest-to-sustain teacher recruitment programs have local roots.” He points to a program at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which has partnered with the local school system to identify students as early as middle school that would make great teachers. The university and local community leaders are working with these children to help them begin to perceive themselves as teachers. “They’re thinking about becoming teachers because someone believes in them,” he notes. 

About the Author

Pamela Wheaton Shorr is editor of The Heller Reports' Educational Sales and Marketing Insider, and is a frequent contributor to Scholastic Administr@tor.

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