Each year, around 16 percent of U.S. teachers either move schools or leave the profession entirely, creating a shortage of qualified teachers prepared to take their place. Rates of teacher turnover are even more pronounced in schools that serve more students of color and students from low-income families. Decades of research document the strongest predictors of teacher attrition, and conversely, the necessary conditions for teacher retention. We explore three of these conditions, and bring in research from the Dynamic Learning Project pilot (DLP)1 to show how coaching can facilitate each of these conditions and support teacher retention.
Lack of on-the-job training and quality support is one of the main reasons teachers, especially those who are early in their career, leave the profession. The Boston Consulting Group’s research study on teacher professional development (PD) reveals that each year in the United States, $18 billion is spent on teacher PD, and a typical teacher spends 68 hours on professional learning activities directed by districts. However, fewer than 30 percent of teachers are satisfied with current PD offerings. For PD to improve teacher retention, it should be job-embedded. When teachers feel that they are learning new practices and skills that are directly applicable to their needs and the needs of their students, it improves their job satisfaction and therefore supports teacher retention.
Because coaches are situated in the school, they can build close relationships with teachers, understand their challenges and needs, and continuously work with them and support them with relevant insights and perspectives. Our research on the Dynamic Learning Project pilot showed that teachers newer to the profession became more confident thanks to the guidance of their coach, who could model strategies, provide in-classroom support, and share feedback on current teaching and classroom challenges, types of support for new teachers that are known to reduce attrition. On the other hand, veteran teachers found that working with a coach “re-energized” and “renewed” their love of teaching: “I’ve been back and forth in the last year or two whether I’m ready to leave the classroom,” said one veteran elementary school teacher in California who participated in the DLP. “…My decision this year is I’m having too much fun. I love it. I’m not ready to do it.”
Lack of quality support from school administrators and leaders has been cited by more than one in five teachers in the United States as a leading reason for leaving their position. Strong administrative support includes not only providing ample instructional support and PD opportunities, but also a leadership style in which school administrators see themselves as partners with their staff. This includes listening to teachers’ opinions, being transparent about roles and responsibilities, and recognizing teachers’ successes.
Coaches work as partners of both teachers and school/district administrators. Their role is to help teachers improve their teaching practices in ways that meet school and district goals. Coaches also guide school and district administrators about the specific ways leaders can actively facilitate improvement of teaching practices. This intermediate role of coaches helps administrators provide teachers with more relevant support and therefore supports teacher retention.
Moreover, coaching by nature is a partnership that is more fruitful when school and district administrators are involved. DLP research shows that when a school/district administrator understands and implements coaching as a teacher-coach-administrator partnership, they establish conditions that support both effective coaching and teacher retention. In DLP schools where principals actively supported teacher-coach collaboration, many teachers reported improvement in their job satisfaction and feeling of belonging on their campus. A second grade teacher explained that the principal “really helped us warm up to the idea of a coach and create that environment where it’s safe [to innovate]. We’re really lucky to be here; we love it here. We’re definitely a family.”
A third strong predictor of teacher attrition is challenging working conditions, such as working in isolation and lacking opportunities to collaborate with colleagues. Using a working conditions survey given to all Massachusetts teachers, a recent research study at Harvard University shows that in supportive work environments where teachers collaborate regularly, and trust and learn from one another, teachers tend to be more satisfied and less likely to leave their position. When teachers feel they are part of a team of colleagues who have quality relationships, share a common vision, make collaborative decisions, and work together to bring goals to fruition, they are more likely to be satisfied with their job and remain in their school.
Coaching programs help build and strengthen this school culture of collaboration. Effective coaching programs are centered on a shared vision and commitment that is clearly communicated to all staff. In addition, coaching programs thrive when they are founded on trust and openness, two necessary conditions for a culture of collaboration. Moreover, coaching programs provide formal structures and set time for collaboration among teachers, including opportunities to observe colleagues, plan lessons together, and engage in reflection sessions. Finally, coaching programs are designed around a norm of shared decision-making and teacher autonomy.