If schools want to retain more of their teaching staff, the biggest factor isn’t necessarily salary, but rather administrative support, a study led by a Kansas State University professor found.
Tuan Nguyen, a professor in the K-State College of Education, led a team of researchers from other universities that essentially researched other research — the team used information from more than 120 related studies to determine key factors that make teachers want to continue teaching.
In their research, the team found that the most important factor for keeping teachers in education is for schools and districts to offer better administrative support.
"We find that if districts really encourage their principals to establish a relationship with their teachers and provide support — which can be fairly broad, like encouraging them to do well or telling them when they’ve done a good job or providing the basic materials they need — that will really keep teachers in their schools," Nguyen said.
Administrative support particularly hinges on good communication, Nguyen said, and administrators should regularly ask their teachers what materials or training they might need. That creates teacher investment in their jobs, which leads to better educational outcomes.
Salary also matters, Nguyen said, but not as much as one might think initially. If a teacher is looking to leave their job, better administrative support has a higher marginal benefit in their decision on staying than an increase in salary, per the study, and it is also typically cheaper for districts.
"The question of salary, don’t get me wrong, is very important, but for teacher salaries, they’ve already decided to become teachers," Nguyen said. "Once they’ve decided to become teachers, they really now just need support from their school to keep going.
"With a low salary, the issue is more that teachers may not want to become teachers in the first place, and that’s one of the issues that we see here in Kansas, that we have a shortage of teachers every year. Not all of that can be attributed to teachers leaving the system, and a lot of that is just that we don’t have enough people who want to become teachers."
Nguyen said one surprising finding from the research was that teachers who are regularly evaluated on their performance aren’t any more likely to leave the profession. That goes against common thinking that teachers are hesitant or somehow adversely affected by regular evaluations, or that evaluations are an extra burden, Nguyen said. In fact, teachers are more likely to stay in their jobs when higher-ups work with teachers on finding ways to improve, the study found.
"If teachers know that they’re making a difference, that their students are learning more, or good at motivating students — if they know that, or the district or school lets them know that, then they are more likely to stay in teaching," Nguyen said. "Which makes sense, because if you’re being effective and recognized, then you’re just more likely to want to stay and do a good job."
Oftentimes, education policy makers worry that teachers will be more likely to feel judged or harshly evaluated when districts enact evaluation policies, he said.
"(Teachers) are more resilient than we give them credit for, and they really want to know how they’re doing as teachers. They want to be evaluated, and observed, so they know where they are."
Additionally, teachers in districts with merit-based pay, or pay-for-performance policies, are more likely to keep teaching.
On average, about 15% of U.S. teachers turn over every year, with that figure further divided into 7.5% of teachers simply switching schools or districts and 7.5% of teachers leaving the profession altogether.
Nguyen said low teacher retention rates are among the biggest concerns for school districts, and in a school of 50 teachers, it’s common for principals to have to hire between five and 15 new teachers every year. Higher teacher turnover has been associated with lower academic performance, increased hiring costs for districts and imbalanced educational equity.
The open question in education research right now is how many teachers are leaving the industry because of COVID-19. Nguyen’s research focuses on teacher retention more broadly, and this early in the school year, researchers like Nguyen don’t yet have reliable data to track the number of teachers who have left because of COVID-19.
"It might take us six or 12 months to fully answer that question, but based on conversations that I’ve had and some preliminary evidence, it does look like teacher turnover may be higher this year, but we need to do more research to really see if that bears out," he said.