Teacher turnover bothering you? Consider Five Key Factors

Teacher turnover bothering you? Consider Five Key Factors

This article is written by Shanker Dutt Bhatt, Executive Director of K-12 Teacher Training and Consulting at The University of Nottingham Ningbo China, sharing his perspectives from his own educational leadership experience. See Mr. Bhatt’s profile at the bottom. 

The cliché goes that if you treat people right, they will treat you right, former US president Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) is famous of adding to it, ninety percent of the time! I am not sure of the percentage but am pretty sure that this mostly works in schools. My personal educational leadership experience is mostly in China but I would think that teachers around the world would like to consider a school for a longer period if they are paid respectfully and treated well. This word, treatment, is not same for everyone. Someone who has not eaten for days would probably feel being treated well when given a filling meal and offered the same for an extended period. In the teaching profession the idea of “satisfaction” goes beyond the basic nuances of treatment and, varying from person to person, may include not only the salary and the usuals but also, and more importantly, the degree-of-connection they feel with the school.

This connection is created in the heart and the mind of the teacher through several aspects; some of them are: working conditions, challenge of the work itself (class size, appropriate work-load, autonomy, inclusivity), supportive leadership and resources, the student quality and student management policies, teachers’ involvement in decision making process, opportunities for professional development and how their family and friends think of the job i.e. the image that is created by the teacher during interactions outside the work. In fact, it is this image that is the by-product of everything else that was mentioned!

I have experienced the following aspects working well in keeping the teachers longer than what they planned for or staying with the school relatively happily for the period of their employment. This, of course, can’t cover all the aspects and all type of teachers; there are always some, fortunately not many, who are hard to be satisfied. There is a cost-benefit theory in the research literature, which says that an optimal level of attrition in organizations is beneficial as long as it increases productivity, promotes conceptual innovations and professionalism.

Keeping the promises

Be consistent in what you promise – verbal as well as written - and what they receive, or do not make promises! It doesn’t mean what teacher erroneously assumed you promised. Clarify all the things before joining. This is a lot of things, including information about the work, city, support, line management etc, and here comes the role of the interviewer and the people who answer queries even before the job starts. The most important people for international teachers in this equation are the principal/line manager and the support staff who process the work permit and make the arrangements for the pre-arrival and post-arrival. Sometimes teacher may misunderstand and create erroneous assumptions, but this is the hardest to recover from, however, this can be managed later through genuine communication and support.

Leadership style

Everything rises and falls on leadership, Leadership guru John C. Maxwell quotes. One of the many desired followership traits is, without exception, that everyone likes to be valued. Seek and value opinions even if you disagree. No one wants to work longer than necessary in an authoritative one-man-says-all place. It doesn’t mean being authoritative is bad but it should not be the organizational DNA. Be situational and consistent. Staff understand when you do things due to situations. After all, they are teachers, much of their role is to make pupils understand the situations surrounding them and keep a positive attitude. There is much more that can be said here, and some bits of it I have written in another article, Education leaders: Five Qualities Much Desired”

Recognition and promotion

Recognition is that intangible feeling of thankfulness or a well felt pat on the back or any other way of showing that school management appreciates the small as well as significant effort made by the teacher. Maslow has been talked about widely in this regard. I would rather quote this excellent book here; “The Intelligent School” (Authors: MacGilchrist, Myers and Reed). These authors write about nine intelligences of an intelligent school, one of them is Emotional Intelligence (EI), a necessary factor in creating the emotional capital at a school. Regarding emotional capital, these authors quote, “The culture and relationships in school, the combination of emotions, feelings, beliefs and values make up what might be described as the emotional capital of the school.” Why am I writing about it? The key question, I posit, that guides the whole discussion of building an emotionally intelligent school is: How could the teachers create an emotionally intelligent environment in the class, and hence help build an appropriately learning organisation of the people and for the people, if they themselves find the school environment to be not doing so for the teachers? 

Every educational institution is a service-oriented organization and is responsible for building the future of a nation and a skillful and emotionally intelligent global work force. It all starts from the school environment that is offered to the pupils and the key driving force in a school environment is, you guessed it, an emotionally intelligent teacher. Let’s come back to the topic. Recognition is a self-explanatory concept but a hard one indeed to practice. Maslow quotes, “Man is a perpetually wanting animal”. Well, everyone, somehow, is! I have experienced that the needs and wants of the teachers are not so great that we cannot either satisfy or explain why we can’t. Majority of well minded teachers tend to want things merely to help their job at hand so they can help the students. I have rarely, well never, seen a teacher asking for a Bentley (a little exaggeration here) or a three-day work week! A daily reflective diary for a manager is a good way to keep record of the number of times and number of staff being recognized, spontaneously or planned. Remember, recognition in its best form is given in public and criticism in private! They are perfectly reciprocal.

Another aspect, related to recognition, that demotivates an ambitious teacher is the lack of transparency in promotions, if it is someone else who is promoted without much public explanation. Explain in the most professional way your choice of staff for a particular role, and communicate it well, if possible in a staff meeting. People wish to know why they are not chosen, say, for a particular management role and how they can develop themselves to be one someday! Some people are generally not ambitious, but most are! They get hurt when a manager decides unilaterally or ambiguously on important roles. Good management is about finding those who supplement your weaknesses and not choosing the “Yeah sayer” kinds. A school should be a creative learning organization and not a colony of people who think in the same direction.

People quit people, not the school

If we delve deeper on the question of attrition and why people quit a school, we will find the answer through the process of elimination: due to PEOPLE.  People join a new school due to their current situations but leave also due to the current situations. People quit people, not the school, as most situations are created by the people. Packing and relocating hurts, especially in case of those with family. Except those who need to move due to personal reasons most would move by dint of their thirst for organisational professionalism, personal development or if their current financial needs can’t be quenched by the school. I would not comment here on the financial side as different schools face different degrees of challenges. However, professionalism and personal development are definitely within the reach of a well minded school. Professionalism is hard to define but I am sure easy to understand. Let’s consider an example. A teacher says, “My head of department is personally good but professionally biased.” She further adds when enquired on what she meant, “She would go extra mile to help, for example, cover our lessons or bring coffee to us in our staff meetings but professionally, she would not represent us to the senior management. She would also take opinions of some, her buddies, on important issues which should actually be discussed in our department meeting.” My take on this is that people value personally distant but professionally right managers over the other kind, who are professionally unfair and inconsistent, no matter how great they are in person! The following pic has my reflection in the form of a poem while talking to a teacher on his feelings at work.

One thing that tick happily with both kinds of teachers, novice as well as the veterans, is the idea of professional development (PD). Various PD opportunities are available, however, what teachers may need is the support from the school as a minimum, if not financially, in terms of time (reduction in lessons or any other duties or a day off on the schedule) and any other kind of support like mentoring at work. Novice teachers are in great need of such a support. We should not deprive people of a training opportunity in a fear of losing them later. It reminds meof a famous quote from Richard Branson, “Train people well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

Exit people right – set examples right

The last but, to me, the most important is how a school treats the departing teachers. I consider this an act that defines the overall attitude of the management of the school and can be considered as a representative of all the above that has been discussed. Even if the teacher has not served the school well it remains a moral as well as professional responsibility of us as the managers to make sure that the departing teachers receive a respectful and deserving gesture. This is also a wonderful opportunity to build strong bonds with those teachers who will still be around showing, by example to them, that we care and would not treat you the same way when you leave us in the future. This requires the development of good exit policies (final pay date, relocation support etc.) and robust communication system (exit interview, documentary support if needed for transfer to other school etc.). In fact, if the school has been brought up right with values such as inclusivity, transparency, focus on development, good team leadership etc. this last one cannot go wrong. As I mentioned at the start quoting Maxwell, “Everything rises and falls on leadership”.

About the author

Shanker Dutt Bhatt善剑

Executive Director, K-12 Teacher Training and Consulting, The University of Nottingham Ningbo China

Mr Bhatt has over twenty five years of teaching and leadership experience, and has been instrumental in the development of internationalized education in China for over eighteen years. He was the founding International Principal of the International Curriculum Centre at the High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China (Beijing Renda Fuzhong), Nanjing Jinling High School and Suzhou International Academy, Beijing Foreign Studies University. He was also the Academic Principal at the Beijing Luhe International Academy. Currently, he works with the teacher training team at The University of Nottingham Ningbo China, designing and delivering training and consultancy programmes to teachers and educational leaders.

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