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August 31, 2023
ASCD Blog

To Address Teacher Shortages, Focus on School Leaders

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A leading researcher on teacher hiring and retention says school leaders, when given the right support, can create school cultures that are less vulnerable to teacher turnover.
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Teacher shortages are not a new phenomenon. As anyone who has been in the field for a while knows, they are a recurring—perhaps even constant—feature of U.S. education, unfortunately. 
But according to Chris Torres, an associate professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Michigan, there is something different about the shortages schools are currently seeing. In an interview on the ASCD Connect podcast, Torres explained that recent studies have found that the "prestige of the [teaching] profession is at its lowest point in 50 years," suggesting that teaching careers have been downgraded in many people's eyes—including teachers' own.
A closely related issue is the recognition that the demands on teachers have grown significantly since the pandemic—without commensurate gains in support. "There has been a lot of stress put on educators in the past few years," Torres said. That stress has led to increased burnout and turnover, creating even more challenging conditions for the teachers who remain. In his role as co-principal investigator for Michigan's Educator Workforce Project, Torres said he's worked in schools recently where as many as a third of the staff are substitutes.
Despite this challenging context, Torres said some promising avenues exist to improve teacher hiring and retention. At the policy level, he pointed to grow-your-own programs in local communities and sundry initiatives around the country ("not yet realized") to increase teacher pay. "Salary plays a big role in teacher mobility and exit, and it's really quite effective at growing the supply of people," he noted.
But Torres stressed that, especially given the nature of the current crisis, school leaders themselves can play a significant role in curtailing teacher shortages—one that is often under-valued. The research on teacher retention shows that "measures of administrative support are some of the strongest predictors of whether or not a teacher stays in or leaves their position," he said. Principals have "quite a lot of power to affect [teachers'] working conditions" and a school's professional culture, "whether it's through the things that they do or things that they frankly don't do."

Measures of administrative support are some of the strongest predictors of whether or not a teacher stays in or leaves their position.

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Torres' article in the September issue of Educational Leadership goes into detail on research-based practices school leaders can undertake to create conditions conducive to teacher hiring and retention. In the podcast interview, he noted that, at the basic level, leaders in schools with supportive professional cultures tend to be more visible. "They're in classrooms. They're greeting parents and students, and generally building relationships and building trust," he said.  
Building relationships and trust is especially critical—and one of the more nuanced aspects of principals' jobs. It encompasses:
having a handle on instructional leadership, … working to understand who your employees are as people, but also what it is that drives their sense of success. I think this is really important. And not just treating initiatives as, you know, "Well, I'm going to put this in place, this in place, and this in place, and it's going to kind of run itself." But [instead] working to continuously get feedback from the people who are doing the work and working continually … to revise as you go along.
The catch is that, to lead in this way, principals themselves need greater support. Being a school leader "is an unbelievably difficult job," Torres said, and especially today, many principals are struggling to manage a greatly expanded and often untenable workload—one that may include covering classrooms because of teacher shortages! "There are a lot of things that need be in place to support leaders as well, so that they can spend their time doing the right things [to support teachers]." 
Torres said he is "cautiously optimistic" that the teaching profession will start to stabilize soon. But to get there, he emphasized, a big part of the focus needs to be on the leaders.
Listen to the full episode:

Anthony Rebora is the chief content officer for ISTE+ASCD, overseeing publications and content development across all platforms.

Previously, he was the editor in chief of Educational Leadership, ASCD's flagship magazine, and led content development for the association's fast-evolving digital outlets.

Under his leadership, Educational Leadership won numerous awards for editorial excellence, increased the breadth of its coverage and contributors, and greatly expanded its online reach.

He was formerly a managing editor at Education Week, where he oversaw coverage of teachers and teaching policy, and played a key role in online editorial strategy. He has written and developed impactful content on a wide range of key K-12 education topics, including professional learning, school leadership and equity.

As a content developer, his foremost goals are to empower diverse educator voices and raise awareness of critical issues and solutions in education.

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