Teacher retention is, of course, a perennial challenge for many districts. The pandemic, lockdowns, and the "Great Resignation" have turned it into one that will define the next few school years. Coupled with record low numbers of new teachers entering the field and seasoned teachers retiring, the teacher shortage may be the greatest challenge facing education (and education companies) post-pandemic.
Administrators are searching for solutions. They're trying strategies that most districts haven't seen before. The many companies that serve schools will need to pay attention.
Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut is a model for delivering quality public education. That's with a low-income student body, too. By innovating with technology even before the pandemic (they were already fully 1:1 before lockdowns began) they set themselves up for success. They were able to get through the hurdles presented by the pandemic better than many other districts.
One area they've continued to innovate throughout the pandemic is teacher retention. It's an issue that Meriden Public Schools will find a little easier to face long after the pandemic is just a memory. Here’s what they’re doing to keep teachers in their classrooms, and a checklist to make sure you’re keeping up.
According to Mark Benigni, Meriden’s superintendent, who I talked with on a recent episode of The Education Insider podcast, retaining excellent teachers begins at the top.
“We've been very lucky to have great boards of education and to work for people who respect us and value our job,” said Benigni.
You need that good, positive energy. Folks need to know they can take a risk, take a chance, and if something doesn’t go right, it was worth the try. That's how we'll get some of those innovations that we know lead to student success.”
Stories play a big role in recruiting teachers to the district. They can show your commitment to supporting educators as they try to find better tools and methods to help students
“Some of it is selling our story,” Benigni said, “selling how we went through a digital transformation, how we embrace innovation, how our students need us and our parents support us in recognizing that public education for many of their children is going to be that great equalizer and lead them to future success.”
Education companies should take heed. You're busy tracking student data, and (we hope) you give students plenty of opportunities to feel accomplished. But, are you celebrating teachers? How are you helping teachers feel appreciated when they use your product? Are they able to showcase the successes you've worked together to achieve?
“I would say it's all about partnerships,” said Barbara Haeffner, director of teaching and innovation at Meriden Public Schools.
We partner with our teacher's union and our administrator's union, and we're proactive with that, so they join our COA meeting once a month.”
This open line of communication with both unions allows district leadership to hear their concerns. It also provides ways they can support each other.
“It's where teachers and administrators have a voice in the direction that the district is going and how we can improve learning and teaching for everyone involved,” Haeffner added.
Community partners are important as well, according to Haeffner. She said district leaders ask a series of questions for any group or vendor looking to support the district, including:
In the end, Haeffner said the best partners help the district create an environment where the schools are better able to support leadership because they have the community supporting them in turn. “And that's a very welcoming environment for new staff members who come into the district.”
In the next few years, education companies will need to be prepared for unique situations like this. Districts will have to get creative to keep staff and students safe, healthy, and employed. Many of these solutions will involve technology.
Education technology partners and vendors will have plenty of opportunity to facilitate these solutions. But, if they’re not prepared, they could also face plenty of technical hurdles.
For example, Meriden's community is supportive from the bottom up and the top down. Still, Meriden leaders have found themselves understaffed at times throughout the pandemic. To cover the shortfall, they turned to some creative staffing solutions.
Benigni said that including everyone—and ensuring they remained employed—maintained good morale during the pandemic. All the same, he had to do a little wheeling and dealing with another district to keep some staff on board.
“Our neighboring community, Cheshire, had a couple of teachers who could only do virtual teaching. They were compromised. They couldn't come in and actually teach in a classroom,” Benigni said.
We had a teacher who was fine coming to classrooms. So we made a teacher trade. So we sent them an in-person team, and we sent them some PD around equity, which was something we had worked on for a long time, and we gave them access to the AP and high-level courses. They sent us two virtual teachers. So we cut this trade and kept everyone employed.”
Benigni said they had to work it out with two unions since different organizations represent each district’s teachers. But, “it worked out great for everyone. It also gave both of our districts mutual respect for what we're trying to do. A win-win.”
But it doesn't stop there. Meriden also has a teacher support program. It allows substitutes who are considering a full-time career in teaching to stay in the same building every day. That way, they get to know staff and students. They also have a program that allows for former students now in college to substitute teach. The students sub in when they are back in the community on breaks from school.
Similar to their inter-district teacher swap, Meriden also pooled students from both of its high schools. They put them into single classes for courses with low enrollment. At the start of the pandemic, this was a means to educate the same number of students with a single teacher. Now, Benigni said it’s a change they’ll keep in place because it helps them to better serve their students.
These classes can be online or they may have some in-person students and others remote. They’re only available to high school students because they adapt to online learning better.
“We have some scheduling issues to be creative with,” between the schools, Benigni said, “but it's a nice way to give students more choice in their learning and great exposure to an online class, which many of them will have” to take at some point in their academic careers.
If combined classes become more common, education companies may have new opportunities. Topics that might not have been popular enough to get a course a year ago are now getting attention—and enrollment. How are you supporting these courses?
When it comes to teacher professional development, Benigni asked, “Why am I making teachers drive to sit there? They could do their PD at home and enjoy it more and be comfortable. It’s still the learning that matters.”
Benigni said they also wanted their quarantined students to be able to attend their normal classes. He had the same goal for professional development. He offered teachers professional development on teaching classes with in-person and remote learners. He included the option to complete the PD at home or in a school building.
Do you require in-person trainings or complex software installations? Do educators need specific hardware? Conversely, can your PD only be delivered on a laptop? Stay ahead of the game. Be prepared for synchronous remote and in-person PD.
Celebrating your staff’s dedication and hard work is a big part of retaining them, said Benigni. “And when I say staff, it's also our partners. So we held a big thank you,” Benigni explained. “We hired a pizza truck and gelato. We held a raffle to say, ‘Hey, thank you. We know how hard you work and we couldn't do this without you.’ And that sends a positive message that people need to hear, especially during these challenging times.”
In the end, teacher retention is a lot like the Marketing Intelligence work we do at PRP. If you want to attract and keep good teachers, you have to understand them as individuals, with challenges and concerns that you’re trying to solve for them. If you want to attract buyers, you'll need to understand that too.
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