A recent Google search for “Teacher Shortage” returned 4,630,000 results. People choose a career in teaching to fulfill their calling and they invest thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours into their training. School leaders are responsible for making their teachers’ experiences rewarding and meaningful, so they remain in the field. Todd Whitaker argues that increased teacher morale and sense of efficacy are important components for retaining teachers. Heath and Heath argue for solving big problems using a sequence of small solutions that are actually in our control. In this article, I describe how my leadership team and I approached school improvement and teacher retention through a series of small, concrete steps that led to outsized gains in teacher and student performance.

Case Study

Our school was a small public school in a large urban school district. Our approach led to highly significant gains in teacher capacity to provide quality instruction, in teacher and student attendance, in the graduation rate, and in family engagement. Our process included four vectors to build transparency and trust, leading to improvements in both teacher and student engagement. These vectors are:

  1. Public sharing of performance data for all stakeholders.
  2. Leadership willingness to demonstrate vulnerability.
  3. Building relationships with families.
  4. Public celebrations of success.

Any story of change involves attention to trust. Tschannen-Moran and Gareis describe trust as a measure of one’s willingness to make themselves vulnerable to another, believing (trusting) that the vulnerable party’s interests won’t be harmed. They found that trust by teachers in the school principal was positively correlated with their collegiality and instructional leadership. Research by Hao and Yazdanifard also reinforced the role of school leaders in establishing trust through their behaviors in support of organizational change. Mindful of the importance of trust, we collaborated and introduced a culture of transparency, sharing performance trends with teachers, students, and families.

Our Process

Bulletin boards for student learning

We used bulletin boards to tell the story of instruction and student learning. We engaged teachers in “learning walks” to establish the vision and purpose for public displays of student performance. We collaborated with teachers to review colleagues’ displays and to normalize our expectations of the teaching staff. We looked at teacher bulletin boards that lived in the public space and developed a rubric for the best features found across teacher displays (copy “best practices” shamelessly). These collegial walks resulted in several key learnings. First, we learned to give concrete next steps aligned to a subset of the assignment rubric and bulletin board. We learned to display first drafts of student work along with the feedback provided by the teacher and then to display subsequent revisions that students had submitted. Our new bulletin board guidelines showed the arc of student learning and teacher feedback resulting in improved student learning and teacher satisfaction.

Bulletin boards for teacher learning

We used our learning about student bulletin boards to inform our public displays of teacher performance, feedback, and growth. To respect teacher confidentiality, we were cautious about sharing individual teacher performance, so we only shared trends in the aggregate. We displayed findings of classroom observations and our professional learning calendar, demonstrating the alignment of teacher needs with the learning topics we would focus on completing with our teachers.

Teacher performance inquiry work

In a district school setting, our observations of teacher performance were mandated by state law and negotiated labor relations practices. Breaking with traditional models of observation, in a collaboration between teacher leaders and the school leadership team, we developed a panel of observers that would go into two classrooms each week and engage in not-for-stakes observation of teaching practices based on a very granular approach to the extensive teacher performance rubric. We chose just one indicator to focus on and broke that down to several concrete observable or measurable items in the classroom.

The results of our observations were used to direct our professional learning focus. By publicly posting aggregate teacher performance on the (limited) measures observed, we were able to propose custom training programs with specific PD goals designed to address the performance needs. We also committed to never negatively rate a teacher who adopted our recommendations from one of our recent trainings, even when engaging teachers in a “for stakes” observation. Through this process, we gained several key results:

  • We demonstrated leadership commitment to supporting our teachers in direct alignment with their expressed needs.
  • We were able to engage teachers in weekly collegial conversations to deepen our understanding of student learning.
  • Teachers appreciated we were fully committed to their growth.
  • Teachers felt safe implementing new ideas and more readily accepted our recommendations.
  • Teacher and student attendance, both measures of school satisfaction, improved.
  • Teachers’ trust improved when they received feedback in a no-risk environment.

Parent-teacher conferences

Again, in collaboration with teacher leaders, our leadership team decided to reimagine the experience of parents visiting the school. We observed that though parent turnout was typically low for parent conferences, parents did come to the school when their children were being celebrated. Additionally, we found that parent conferences held during dinner time were a barrier to parents coming to the school. These observations helped to inform our redesign of parent-teacher meetings.

First, we reimagined the process as a celebration of student achievement as they move toward graduation. Our art teacher created a physical Passport to College booklet as a graphic organizer for necessary and completed graduation requirements. In the front of the passport, in the space traditionally reserved for a message from the Secretary of State, we printed our vision and mission. We included the student’s name, the guidance counselor’s name, and all graduation requirements on the facing page. Internal pages displayed boxes for “passport stamps” for each required credit, and families were told that after filling all the requisite boxes with stamps, the student would be ready for graduation. Our guidance staff reviewed each student’s transcript and entered a stamp in the passport for each credit achieved towards graduation. On parent-teacher night, we invited every student to a mini-graduation celebration, and students were called to cross the stage to receive their stamped passports with the final celebratory stamp of “You have entered the college zone.”

Neil (Naftali) Monheit works for a large northeastern school district in the United States to support the delivery of Federal Title Services for yeshivas. Dr. Monheit developed Facylitate—a toolkit for the support of genuine conversations about teacher practice and effective feedback supporting the development of trust and teacher growth through the classroom observation process.

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21 days ago

What an exciting accomplishment! Creating a risk-free environment where teachers are free to…even encouraged to try new methods to better meet the needs of their students is true to the natural learning cycle. It allows for growth in improved efficiency as well as increased effectiveness. All of which positively impacts teacher satisfaction–hence the improved retention rate.

I’m here for it and would love to hear more about the teacher bulletin boards!