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Keeping Top Teachers in the Classroom

Are teachers left with little choice but to “outgrow” the classroom to pursue admin roles? Find out how to identify and invest in your district’s future leaders.

Erin Werra

AK12 Blogger

A teacher’s purpose is to nurture growth. But do teachers enjoy the same opportunity for growth, paths to improvement, and purposeful coaching they provide kids? 

The way the teaching profession is structured in American schools seems to offer few options to customize career paths (even as schools embrace personalized learning). A lack of middle leadership roles leaves teachers with few career paths outside of administrative roles. But what if they don’t want to leave the classroom? And who will take their place if they do? 

In the interest of improving career paths for promising teachers: Is there a better way to keep great teachers in the classroom? Let’s explore strategies from global leaders, teacher organizations, and school leaders who’ve embraced the unknown to create new opportunities.


Reorganize the org chart

Leadership can’t be an afterthought, and it doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive to teaching. However, the average teacher’s workload (both at school and outside it) is already overwhelming. Rethinking the organizational hierarchy allows for building in additional leadership opportunities without pushing teachers toward burnout.

Consider the professional development structure in Singapore. Designed to enhance teachers’ career development, teachers receive annual evaluations to identify their potential for success in one of three tracks: master teaching, curriculum or research specialties, or school leadership. Teachers begin their evaluation process once they’ve achieved three years of experience, so they have some frame of reference for which track they might pursue.

Once a teacher’s track is identified, he or she spends time in training before applying for higher-level positions. For example, those who pursue the school leadership track spend time in middle management roles where they develop the skills to ascend to assistant principal, and later principal, roles. This incremental experience prepares them to thrive when taking on new responsibilities.

If this sounds promising, well, Singapore’s not done investing in education yet. In addition to offering the highest average salary for teachers, Singapore is committed to innovative educator development. They are studying the impact their current system has on the country’s position in global economics and identifying ways to improve. 

It’s worth pointing out innovation in Singapore has occurred over just a few short decades. After officially declaring independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore was a third-world country with  a third of its population living in densely populated slums and over 14% unemployed. Today, Singapore has grown by leaps and bounds into the first world, and boasts an incredible 2.2% unemployment rate.


Carve a path for future leaders

The #TeachStrong campaign sees what countries like Singapore are achieving, and aims to raise awareness for improving professional development and investing in leadership options for teachers in American schools.

Citing (among many) a 2012 study, #Teachstrong shares that only 16 percent of teachers wanted to become principals; however, that same study states that more than half wanted to pursue leadership opportunities. The organization points out that Millennial teachers are leaving the profession at higher rates than older teachers, noting the static career path and lack of opportunity to increase salary based on merit rather than years spent teaching.

#TeachStrong advocates for the creation of multiple career pathways for teachers in order to keep teachers engaged in advancing their careers. Among their suggestions: master teachers, who plan and administer professional development; reach teachers, who take on classes with higher-than-average populations; peer evaluators; and demonstration teachers, who model teaching for student educators.

Many of #TeachStrong’s ideas center around enhanced, customized professional development. Instead of a one-size-fits all approach, professional development should be tailored to individuals’ chosen career paths. Think of it as personalized learning applied to teachers themselves, which only makes sense.

Some of these ideas may seem daunting at first, but school leaders can consider piloting hybrid teaching programs to increase opportunities. Teachers could spend part of their time in the classroom and the other part serving in a leadership capacity throughout the school. 


Create new assignments

If inventing new positions is uncharted territory, that’s okay. With a little creative thinking and dedication, duties can evolve into opportunities for leaders to shine—and for school leaders to focus on their own priorities.

This spring, NPR spent a day shadowing Pankaj Rayamajhi, director of logistics and operations, as he went about his day at Columbia Heights Education Campus in Washington, D.C. There wasn’t a corner of the school he didn’t visit, chasing seniors out of stairwells, monitoring lunchrooms, and performing maintenance—among hundreds of other tasks which would otherwise have filled up the principal’s list. With Rayamajhi handling all of these “small fires,” the principal and other leaders are free to concentrate on raising achievement.


Investing in teachers helps everyone

Teachers keep classrooms bustling day in and day out, and they deserve the opportunity to identify their unique strengths, enhance their skills and shine in the field of their choice. By investing in teachers, school leaders can cultivate a dedicated, engaged team of professionals. 

And every student deserves a dedicated, engaged teacher.

Make mentoring work when face-to-face schedules don’t: Check out The Future of Mentoring: Say Hello to Hybrid. 

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