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Beyond Recruitment: Retaining K-12 Teachers

Patrick Devlin

Senior Vice President, Fishtree

There is a growing sense of urgency – and perhaps a bit of desperation – to recruit new teachers to join the ranks of K-12 educators. According to Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, over a million Baby Boomer teachers – fully a third of America’s teachers – will retire or leave the teaching profession before the end of the decade.

But current recruitment efforts aren’t solely because of the numbers of retirees. The teaching profession has been hemorrhaging new teachers nearly as fast as they are hired – McKinsey reports that annual U.S. teacher attrition is 14 percent and some 20 percent of all new hires leave the classroom within three years, while in urban districts, close to 50 percent of newcomers leave the profession during their first five years of teaching.

In November, TEACH.ORG, a coalition of public, private, and government organizations dedicated to increasing awareness of and support for the teaching profession, launched a new public service campaign to help attract new candidates and recruit a higher caliber of scholars / future educators to the teaching profession. According to The New York Times, the campaign is designed to "portray teaching as creative, invigorating and meaningful, and as compelling a career as medicine, acting or engineering."

The Balance: Recruitment vs. Retention

While any effort to attract new men and women to the education profession is commendable, recruitment campaigns alone do not go far enough. Inspiring people to pursue a K-12 teaching career is only half of a solution. The inability of school districts to keep new teachers in the teaching profession is the larger problem. The statistical brevity of a teaching career begs the question, what is being done to "portray teaching as creative, invigorating and meaningful, and as compelling a career as medicine, acting or engineering" to new teachers after that first teaching job has been secured?

K-12 districts desperately need to prioritize talent management if they want to keep teachers engaged, motivated, and taking the steps to build long, lasting careers in education. In my opinion, teacher retention is a more critical issue than recruitment – after all, what good are even the most successful recruiting efforts if the teacher only lasts a handful of years? Lack of teacher retention hurts schools, and worse, hurts the children we’re trying to educate and inspire.

The Role of Talent Management in Teacher Retention

Talent management and retention efforts need to begin the moment a new teacher is hired, from the very first onboarding activity. Efforts should include both formal, documented talent management activities – setting clear performance goals, defining career paths, identifying training opportunities, and delivering performance feedback – along with less formal methods designed to help new teachers navigate the challenges of a teaching career, collaborate with peers and embrace the culture of K-12 education.

In my experience, it’s the informal talent management practices that are frequently overlooked, yet can do the most to help new teachers. Districts and administrators should seek to develop new teacher mentoring programs, as well as establish professional learning communities where teachers at all points in their career paths can collaborate with other teachers and learn from each others’ experiences and perspectives. Providing new teachers with a support network of both established and other new teachers helps them stay engaged, provides sounding boards to help them address and overcome challenges and obstacles, allows for collaboration with peers, and identifies leaders after whom they can model career growth and development.

There is no easy solution, but districts must implement both formal and informal talent management solutions to keep teachers engaged and inspired. When recruitment promises the world but reality paints a much different picture, teachers will easily become disillusioned, demoralized and disengaged. If districts expect a long-term commitment, they need to be ready and willing to put the effort in well beyond new teacher recruitment.

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