October 5th is World Teachers’ Day. The UN is using this day to put the spotlight on the global teacher shortage and the challenges of being a teacher. But is there a shortage? Or is it more of an issue of retention? If we could retain those teachers who enter the profession, would we still have a shortage?
The turnover rate among teachers is generally higher than for other occupations. An alarming number of teachers leave the profession during the first few years of teaching. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that nearly a third of American teachers leave in their first three years and half by the fifth year. While this figure is lower in Canada (Alberta statistics show that 20 per cent of teachers leave the job within the first five years), it is still alarming.
Why are so many teachers escaping the profession? How can someone enter the profession enthused and excited and leave a few years later disenchanted or burned out? What needs to be done to maintain their enthusiasm?
My husband and I attended an orientation for parents when our son entered high school. I was very pleased with the principal’s take on things. He said that if he had his druthers, he would do away with marks. Although marks do count, especially in grade 12, this principal holds his teachers accountable for six things. The first three – belonging, competence, and confidence –show up consistently in the research as what really matters to student learning. When students feel like they belong and that someone cares, when they feel competent to do the work they are asked to do, and when they feel confident that they will be successful, the marks automatically take care of themselves. If they don’t have these things, there is little hope in improving marks.
A teacher spoke about the importance of the fourth principle which is “someone sees me.” He said “I care about these young people. The most important thing for me is to make a connection with the students, to get to know them and particularly to get to know them outside of school.” The last two principles were “involvement of the students” and the “creation of a positive team”. These six values, the principal says, spell success and living them is an expectation for every teacher who works in this school.
As I was thinking about the overlap between these six values and the creation of spirit at work and wondering what would happen if teachers had an opportunity to experience these, a woman stood up and quietly asked if she could say something. She looked to be in her early 40s and said,
“You probably don’t recognize me since it was a long time ago since you taught me grade 10. I was living with my family in Germany and attended the armed forces school. You were my teacher. I just wanted to say hi and what you are talking about – those four points – belonging, confidence, competence and someone sees me – those things that you say are so important to student success . . . well, I experienced them with you as a teacher. And I want to tell you, THAT changed my life. I feel good about myself as a person and I am way more confident now. I just wanted to say thanks. I was very anxious about choosing a high school for my daughter, but when I found out that you were the principal here, I knew the decision was made. I want my daughter to experience high school like I did. To the rest of the parents she said, ‘You are all so lucky to have your kids attend a school run by a principal that demonstrates these values.’”
Wow! The principal was stunned. Full of emotion, he went over and gave this woman a hug. He could not have paid for better advertising for his school.
As I sat there, I quickly realized that this principal and these teachers had spirit at work. They loved what they were doing and they were making a difference in the lives of their students. Our kids and their experience of school mattered to them. I had a deep sigh of relief and knew that our son was going to be in good hands.
What I also learned is that not only did the principal experience spirit at work; as the leader of that school, he created the conditions for his staff to experience spirit at work, and in doing so, opened the doors for his students to have a positive high school experience. And did I mention that retention is not an issue in this school?
We now have the opportunity to rethink work and rethink how we can engage teachers so that they will want to stay in the profession.
Val Kinjerski, PhD, is a leading authority in the field of employee engagement and on the topic of “spirit at work.” An inspirational speaker, consultant and writer, she helps companies and organizations increase employee retention and boost productivity by reigniting employees’ love for their work. She is the author of Rethinking Your Work and Rethinking Your Work Guidebook.