How to Create School Conditions Where Talent Thrives

March 28, 2019 • Lars Esdal

This is the fourth post in a year-long blog series on teacher retention. The prior post explored some of the reasons why teachers leave their jobs and the profession. This post digs deeper on the school-level reasons that teachers leave, and how to address them.

Consider three sentiments that—unfortunately—we’ve heard too often in our work with teachers over the years, and in research and interviews for this series:

“Our team has a toxic culture and we can’t seem to turn things around. I love teaching but I don’t like the negativity I feel among colleagues.”

My voice isn’t welcome at the tables where decisions are made. I’m frustrated by the many ‘initiatives’ coming down from the top that I know won’t work for our community.”

“My ideas about what we could do differently to reach students of color aren’t supported by leadership. I don’t feel like our school environment sets our students—or teachers—of color up for success.”

What is behind these sentiments? And how might educators, school leaders, and policymakers foster conditions where they dissolve?

In this post, we describe three lenses from education theory and research that speak directly to each of these three sentiments, in turn: positive school culture and climate; teacher collective efficacy; and culturally responsive school leadership.

The case for positive culture and climate

The first—and most often cited—lens for addressing teacher turnover points to the importance of positive culture and climate in schools. Practices used include fostering caring relationships among a team, establishing norms of respect, setting aside time for team bonding, creating healing processes for resolving conflict, and creating emotionally and physically safe spaces where people can raise concerns without fear of retribution.

In sum, this lens says: paramount to retaining teachers is creating cultures where they feel safe, trust one another, and get along. School leaders—be they formal school leaders or leaders among colleagues—play important roles in creating these climates.

“It’s important to be approachable, to be visible… Assume the positive, and model that for the team,” said Bao Vang, elementary principal at Community of Peace Academy in Saint Paul, in an interview for this series. She shared her commitment to holding people in “unconditional positive regard” so that “they know I’m a safe person to talk with if they have concerns.”

Often at the root of positive culture is a strong sense of shared purpose—the belief that we are all in this together, pulling for a common mission and cause. A shared purpose gives a group a reason to set aside their differences, and find ways to work together for something bigger than themselves.

The case for teacher collective efficacy

While important, feeling safe, respected, and united behind a shared purpose is not sufficient for talent to thrive. The collective efficacy lens says that educators need to feel a sense of confidence and power in the ability of their team to meet the needs of their students.

“Teachers need to see themselves as leaders… I am but one leader amongst several leaders, with all of our voices having value and influence.”

This sense of efficacy develops in a cyclical process. When a team experiences successes it boosts their confidence, which in turn increases their effort and persistence toward goals, which then increases their chance of success, and so on. Importantly, underlying this cycle is a belief in being able to control the future. When teachers have minimal control or input in their work this cycle is cut short.

“A teacher voice leading a discussion, initiative, presentation, etc. holds a different weight than me doing so,” said Dr. Letitia Davis, principal at Baldwin Hills Elementary in Los Angeles. “Teachers need to see themselves as leaders; helping to push them further into leadership roles helps to distinguish that I am but one leader amongst several leaders, with all of our voices having value and influence.”

What’s more, the impacts of collective efficacy extend beyond teacher retention. Dr. John Hattie, author of a best-selling book connecting education research to practice, identifies collective teacher efficacy as one of the most powerful predictors of student achievement.

Finally, the links between collective efficacy and school culture described in the prior section are deep. As we’ve previously written, the frustration teachers feel about not being able to control what matters—especially when things aren’t working well—gnaws away at culture.

The case for culturally responsive school leadership

A culturally responsive school leadership lens asks how leadership practices in the school do (or do not) make both the learning program and the broader school environment responsive to groups of students who have been marginalized based on race, ethnicity, religion, language, gender, sexuality, income, or other factors.

“Culturally responsive leaders develop and support the school staff and promote a climate that makes the whole school welcoming, inclusive, and accepting of minoritized students,” write Dr. Muhammad Khalifa et. al. in a seminal meta analysis on the topic.

This lens highlights the importance of advancing the school cultures, climates, and purposes that explicitly meet the needs of marginalized students. Toward this end, culturally responsive leadership practices identified include:

  • Developing awareness and critical consciousness of one’s self and one’s own values and beliefs;
  • Providing leadership and expectations around culturally responsive teaching;
  • Promoting school cultures that foster inclusivity and affirmation of student identities; and
  • Engaging students, families, and communities in culturally appropriate ways.

We emphasize this lens because it speaks directly to the concerns raised by teachers of color with regard to their schools not embracing students with whom they share experiences and identities—and because, as described in the prior post, teacher turnover has an extremely disproportionate impact on schools serving primarily students of color.

Explicitly focusing on environments that support teachers and students of marginalized groups is paramount not only to addressing issues of school working conditions—but to educational equity more broadly.

What do these lenses look like in practice?

In sum, this post has explored three lenses that offer solutions to school-level contributors to teacher turnover. The next posts in this series will turn to lessons that can be learned from leaders who are having success using practices consistent with these lenses.

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We are grateful to the McKnight Foundation for their generous financial support for this series.