Thought Leadership

Thought Leadership

Money talks.  But what if building communities of like-minded highly motivated engaged teacher communities speak a better word for the future of teacher retention?

Educational researchers in the USA began to recognise in 1999 that what had been seen as a teacher recruitment crisis might in reality be a teacher retention crisis instead.  Merrow (1999) called it a “wrong diagnosis” which had led to a “phony cure.”

American statistics for 1999 showed that 46% of teachers were leaving within 5 years of starting.  Studies in consecutive years by Ingersoll (2001-2004) made it clear that this was not a simple supply and demand problem caused by teachers retiring and a lack of replacements.   Instead, Ingersoll identified “a revolving door” where teachers were joining then leaving, creating significant teacher turnover and having a negative effect on “school cohesion and community, teaching effectiveness, and students’ achievement.”

Those leaving schools were not all forsaking teaching completely.  Almost half were in fact migrating or “moving” to another school, most often in a more affluent district.  Ingersoll suggested that this was due to dissatisfaction and a desire to seek a better role either within or outside teaching because, “low salaries, student discipline problems, lack of support, and little opportunity to participate in decision making” (2003) diminished the sense of teaching being a profession.  Only systemic, concurrent and deep change would restore the sense of professionalism needed.

In 2004, Cochran-Smith reflected on Ingersoll’s work and that of four other studies on teacher retention:

In the first, “What Keeps Teachers Going?” Nieto (2003) suggested that most teachers join the profession for altruistic and idealistic reasons.  They seek a better future for children and will persevere despite bureaucratic challenges.   The teachers in Nieto’s study met in learning communities and found opportunities to talk and share so that they remained motivated and passionate about the role even after the initial enthusiasm began to wane.

In the second study, Moore Johnson et al (2004) recognised the importance of good pay but also found that variety, “differentiated roles and opportunities to advance,” as well as the “chance to collaborate with colleagues, and to work in organizations that support them” were significant.  They focused on new teachers and ways to help them both “survive and thrive.”

The third study focused on The Teacher Education Program Research Group (TEP) at CenterX at UCLA.  Like Nieto, this research team saw idealistic teams of new entrants motivated by a sense of social justice.  For them teaching was a form of social activism and the article title, “Too angry to leave” highlights one participant’s burning passion to change lives through her teaching.

Finally, Cochran Smith looked at a fourth study; the work of Ana Maria Villegas and Tamara Lucas (2004) who urged a greater ethnic diversification in the teacher workforce through systematic approaches to retention.  Like Ingersoll, they argued a need for proactive change including increasing culturally diverse perspectives into school and teacher training curricula; integrating the cultural, linguistic and life experiences of ethnic teachers into schools and ensuring conditions in schools were such that teachers from minority backgrounds were more likely to remain.

Summarising these studies, Cochran- Smith concludes that we need “to redefine staying in teaching” harnessing this more idealistic desire to change lives so that teaching is truly both a profession and a vocation.

Fast forward sixteen years and there has been a similar awakening to the retention crisis in the United Kingdom.

ASCL has, “been warning for some time that a crisis in teacher supply was imminent, a crisis that has now arrived” (2020) and the Department for Education accepts, “the government recognises that teacher recruitment and retention has been a challenge.” (2020:6)

The easy juxtaposition of the terms retention and recruitment seems to suggest a similar lack of understanding from those in authority as Merrow (1999), Ingersoll (2001) and others had noted in the United States.

However, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) which researches contemporary educational issues, has noted the importance of the distinction.   In his 2018 paper Sibieta also notes that teachers are emigrating or leaving the profession altogether within 5 years, and the DfE admit, “Over 20% of new teachers leave the profession within their first two years of teaching, and 32% leave within their first five years.” (2020)  ASCL has also recognised, “there are issues of retention as well as recruitment” (2020)

So how do you solve a problem like teacher retention? Does money talk?

Successive UK governments seemed to identify increasing pay as the solution.  This seems at the heart of the UK government’s decision in 2019 to raise the pay of new teachers in the early teaching years.  Sibieta agrees, “Whilst there is unlikely to be a single cause or solution to these problems, pay levels are likely to be central” (2020), and that giving initial payments to early career teachers will, “ensure they stay in the profession too.” (2020)

But what if pay is no longer enough or indeed never has been?

The evidence from the States seems to point to something deeper, more ethical and heartfelt which might point us to different, more cost effective solutions.

Employee engagement is firmly embedded in business terminology (Kahn 1990, Truss et al (2006) etc), and now has gained some traction in education.  Schaufeli and Bakker (2004) recognised that work engagement is crucial because engaged employees have an affection for the organisation for which they work which increases the likelihood that they will remain.   Kahn identifies three aspects of engagement: psychological meaningfulness where an employee recognises a potential rewarding outcome to the work; psychological safety, where there is freedom to work without fear, and psychological availability where an employee needs to have the emotional, psychological and physical resources to complete the work.

More recently, Shibiti (2020) suggests employee engagement is a state where employees demonstrate a sense of vigour, absorption and dedication at work. Researching public school teachers in South Africa, he suggests that pursuing active employee engagement techniques should be coupled with a duty for managers to develop retention practices.  Strategic human resource management should utilise six retention features developed by Dockel (2003): compensation, job characteristics, training and development opportunities, supervisor support, career opportunities and work life balance.

Way back in 2005, Sargent and Hannum conducted a study of teacher job satisfaction in impoverished rural areas in northwest China where they also recognised, “teacher retention is a growing concern” and looked at, “whether teachers perceive teaching to be their ideal profession, whether teachers want to change their profession, and whether teachers are satisfied with the local education bureau.” They suggested that part of good leadership is creating a positive working environment and ensuring high staff morale.

Galer et al (2018) identify ample evidence of poor leadership as a factor in staff leaving.  Their experiences, based on research at Facebook, suggest it is not so much the personality or attitude of the boss that counts but how the employee feels their work is organised; “If you want to keep your people — especially your stars — it’s time to pay more attention to how you design their work.”

No surprise then that companies like Google allow employees up to 20% of their time to work on personal professional projects which stimulate their curiosity.  Such approaches recognise that motivation can be personal.

In Enduring in an impossible occupation, Jones (2016) recommends attempting to differentiate what might motivate individual teachers.  In fact, there is a tacit acceptance in many studies that motivating factors might not be universal.  Moore and Johnson recognise that a younger generation of teachers may view “career” differently than their older colleagues.  Villegas and Lucas (2004) emphasised that teachers from ethnic minority backgrounds will be better motivated by seeing leaders like them.

So if as Craig (2017) says, teacher attrition has now become, “a perennial problem receiving heightened attention due to its intensity, complexity, and spread” and is becoming a global issue, how can we use this research to our advantage?

Craig looks at six short studies which use different methodologies and different perspectives throughout the world.  From a British perspective, the article by Towers and Maguire focuses on a single experienced teacher who leaves teaching due to a variety of pressures and a search for identity in Leaving or staying in teaching: A ‘vignette’ of an urban, experienced teacher ‘leaver’. As we have seen in the US research, “relationships trump economics.”  What seems to hold teachers in schools is the strength of the relationships they make with pupils, their managers and the staff, most particularly with a close knit group of those who think and feel similarly.  

At a time when close contact is a challenge, is there still an opportunity to work at creating small working groups of teachers in well-supported communities who receive reward of a kind that they personally value, and have the ability to define their roles and their work as they grow together?

What may have seemed a pipedream and practice only accessible to global conglomerates such as Facebook and Google may now also be within reach of the “average” UK comprehensive.

The development of Multi Academy Trusts as strong legal entities which govern groups of schools has led to an understanding that teachers can have greater access to more like-minded individuals across the community of schools, and be developed across groups of schools rather than in single schools, which may increase retention and buy in.  Is there a golden opportunity to use this structure to develop a community of teachers across a Multi Academy Trust? Engaged employees and teachers who are committed to the vision of a Trust to transform education across a group of schools and deeply affect a whole generation of learners.

Perhaps regular gatherings of socially minded individuals with a burning passion to change lives and address innate and systemic disadvantage, holding themselves to the highest standards whilst championing compassion and mutual support can be a simpler and more cost effective solution than constantpromises of increasing pay.

Given the government’s most recent public sector pay freeze announcement, it is certainly time to hope that there are other deeper and longer lasting ways to engage our employees than simply money.



ASCL  accessed on 08/05/2020 at 

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Teachers and Teaching, 23:8, 859-862, DOI: 10.1080/13540602.2017.1360860

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Merrow, J. (1999, October 6). The teacher shortage: Wrong diagnosis, phony cures. Education Week, pp. 38-38, 64-64

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