July 6, 2022 | 10 min read
Collaborative School Cultures Matter More Than Ever
Earlier this year, the NEA released results from a January 2022 survey. The survey revealed that 55 percent of currently employed teachers were ready to leave teaching earlier than they had planned. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 380,000 vacant teaching positions in February 2022,- the greatest number in a decade. A survey conducted by the Illinois Association of Regional School Superintendents found 88% of school districts reporting shortfalls of certified teachers in the past school year. To compound the issue, fewer college students are enrolling in teacher preparation programs. According to the Center for American Progress, in 2016-17 there were about a ⅓ less students enrolling and completing teacher education programs.
It is not breaking news that we are in the midst of a teacher shortage and relief is nowhere in sight. Practicing educators don’t need to wait on labor statistics to know teacher staffing is in a crisis. They feel the impact on a daily basis by covering classes and combining classes to make up for the shortfall. The new school norm is leaving positions vacant, using long term substitute teachers who are not adequately trained, and having extremely small candidate pools for open positions. So, what can we do now before there is a true mass exodus from the profession?
There is no doubt that an increase in teacher salaries is the most viable long-term solution to teacher retention and attracting greater talent to the field. Salaries for school workers have increased by 15% in the past five years. However, this number is misleading because it is 2% below the average growth of the overall workforce. If the trend of teacher burnout and poor undergraduate enrollment in education fields continues to win out, the laws of supply and demand will have to dictate a greater market value for a teacher. School resources are finite so increases in teacher salaries require systemic change that will take time to reconfigure. How do we keep skilled, experienced teachers from leaving the field right now?
We have to find ways to make teachers happier and more fulfilled in their work. Looking beyond teacher salaries, school culture can play a significant role in retaining our current educators and keep teachers from jumping district to district. We need school cultures that honor and respect teachers. These are the big three levers to impact a school culture. If your school is not working on these three things, it’s time to start. If your school already employs these strategies adequately, look for ways to improve these practices.
1. Shared Ownership of Leadership
I’m talking about a real voice in decision making. If you are a leader practicing shared leadership and you get your way on all decisions, then you’re probably not really practicing shared leadership. Some schools present a facade when it comes to shared leadership and teachers see through it. These schools pick low stake decisions and initiatives to bring in teacher voice or leadership. One of my favorite examples of this is when leadership makes a decision, doesn’t announce that decision, holds a “stakeholder” input session, and then plows forward with the decision regardless of the input. Teachers will check out pretty fast if they know their input is just a formality and realize they hold no real authority with decision making. These examples are insulting to teachers and do more harm to school culture. Schools would be better off reverting back to a top-down management style and forgetting about shared leadership. We need to trust the ones making the magic happen in the classroom to make the biggest decisions for our schools.
2. Crystal Clear Communication
Great teachers are extremely flexible and can adapt to any situation. Maybe this trait has been taken advantage of by leadership. Teachers are also extreme planners with every minute of their day planned out. Although they can deal with any curveball, they prefer to have no surprises from leadership. Eliminate the surprises by communicating effectively. Shared leadership also helps with communication. No big decisions should be a surprise because they have been made as a team. Two-way communication is essential to effective shared leadership. If your teachers don’t feel comfortable being candid and telling administrators how they really feel, then the culture is broken. A healthy school culture is one in which challenges are identified quickly, and a swift course of action that was created collectively is employed. If your school doesn’t invite teachers to candidly share their challenges and collectively problem solve, there is room for improvement.
3. Cut out the Non-Essential Tasks
Bureaucracy can quickly suck the joy of teaching from a teacher’s soul. Federal, state, and even district initiatives often require a layer of paperwork that gets pushed on teachers. Is it time for school leadership to start pushing back and advocating for teachers’ time to balance the workload on what matters most? Look at a current job description for a teacher and it will make any potential teacher want to switch majors. Most teacher job descriptions also contain something like “other duties as assigned” which is code for “doing whatever we tell you to do”. Administrative teams don’t always realize the separate tasks that are being asked of teachers. A principal may have a set of requests, but an AP, case manager, social worker, disciplinarian, and school psychologist may be adding additional requests. Also, I suggest examining the historical tasks a school may require, like a teacher evaluation portfolio, curriculum mapping, committees, or on-line training overload. Maybe these are highly beneficial endeavors for the school community or maybe they just exist because they always have. Examine all teacher tasks with a critical eye and start removing the items with low impact. It is time to focus on the essential job functions that most directly impact the quality of education.
For me this includes:
- Planning the most engaging lessons
- Delivering instruction
- Building relationships with students/families
- Assessing students in a way to shape future instruction
Before we add “other duties”, let’s ask if they are essential to student learning and if there are others in the building that can be called on to accomplish the task.
Staffing will continue to be a challenge for the foreseeable future. If you follow educators on social media platforms, you don’t have to scroll too far to see a teacher announcing their resignation. We are seeing the most vacancies in a decade and far fewer prospective teachers entering the workforce. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. Retaining high quality talent should always be a priority for an administrator. Beyond financial compensation, the satisfaction that one feels from being part of an amazing school culture can provide some incentive to stick around. An administrator’s top priority should be improving the school culture to a level where everyone feels awesome about the work being done in classrooms. Quite possibly this will be the factor that helps your school survive the staffing crisis until substantial systemic change can fund schools in a way that allows for the fair compensation of teachers.
Walker, Tim. “Survey: Alarming Number of Educators May Soon Leave the Profession.” NEA,
Adviser, C. S. S., Seeberger, C., Adviser, S., Gordon Director, P., Gordon, P., Director, Director, J. P. S., Parshall, J., Director, S., Fiddiman, B., Jimenez, L., Progress, the C. for A., DeGood, K., Olinsky, B., Spitzer, E., & Edmund, M. (2019, July 9). What to make of declining enrollment in teacher preparation programs. Center for American Progress. Retrieved June 25, 2022, from https://www.americanprogress.org/article/make-declining-enrollment-teacher-preparation-programs/
Riser-Kositsky, M. (2022, June 17). School staffing by the numbers. Education Week. Retrieved June 25, 2022, from https://www.edweek.org/leadership/school-staffing-by-the-numbers/2022/06
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