3 keys to creating learning cultures that support teacher retention

First, give teachers agency and choice in their professional learning opportunities.
Shannon Buerk
Shannon Buerk

The Great Resignation may be the most impactful crisis facing public education today, and that’s saying a lot. Exacerbated by the pandemic, the crisis has lasting impacts for students as schools have been forced to replace their experienced teachers due to the historically high rates of resignations and retirements.

We must recognize that teachers are the most important and impactful lever in public education. The research is unequivocal–a teacher has three times more impact on student achievement than any other school factor. Teachers engage students, nurture them, help prepare them for life beyond school, and positively impact the trajectory for generations of families to come. Thus, we should be less concerned about hiring teachers to fill vacancies and more concerned about retaining the teachers we do have.

The what: Current state of attrition

Before pinpointing how to retain teachers, we first need to look at the current state of attrition to understand the path forward. A simple search will pull up thousands of articles detailing the various reasons for teacher attrition: higher-paying private sector opportunities, lack of support and targeted resources, increasing initiatives, overload of tools, undue focus on data analysis that keeps teachers from doing their job, student behavior concerns, increased political tension, and the list goes on.

However, one thing most dedicated educators can attest to is that you don’t become a teacher for the pay–you go into this profession to help kids. Most teachers are committed to this hard work because they are devoted to a greater mission of helping shape future generations of students to be upstanding citizens who contribute to their communities. So the likelihood of devoted teachers leaving the profession solely due to pay is highly unlikely.

According to an NCES Teacher Attrition and Mobility survey, here are the numbers of former educators who said the following factors were better in their new positions:

  • 53%: General work conditions
  • 49%: Opportunities for professional advancement or promotion,
  • 46%: Opportunities for professional development
  • 45%: Recognition and support from administrators and managers

A TNTP report found much of the same: three in four high-performing teachers with plans to leave their schools said they would stay if  feedback and development, recognition, and responsibility and advancement improved.

The how: Give all teachers what they want and deserve.

To reverse the Great Resignation, we need to recognize and honor the concerns teachers have been voicing. There is no better time than the present–the influx of federal funds makes it possible. So, let’s take what the research tells us and support teachers by creating learning cultures rooted in autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

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Give them back time and voice. And most importantly, give teachers agency and choice in their professional learning opportunities. What’s painfully evident to many in the education sector is that teacher growth and development have become an exercise in box-checking with a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.

No one wants to be told to simply “get better faster” and then be watched with a critical eye as they attempt to figure out exactly how to do that. Yet, leaders are doing the best they can with the information they have. When leaders have better data-informed insights, they can make mutually beneficial decisions. That leads to just-in-time, just-right support that empowers educators to successfully engage students at any level without being overwhelmed by information or initiatives. Teachers can then focus on what they do best and get the best out of every student.


To mirror the learning model we know works and honors students, we must hifting from compliance-based teacher training and evaluation to an adaptive approach that starts with competency-based professional growth models and equitable, evidence-based, job-embedded coaching.

If we provide differentiated support to every teacher based on their individual goals–instead of the same training for all–we will be modeling for educators the equitable learning culture we model for learners. Preparing our teachers in this way further helps ensure that the minds and hearts of our youth are profoundly prepared to solve the challenges that face our world and that everyone has equal access to that future.


It’s undeniable that the teacher lever has been pulled more often than any other lever in the quest to enhance student outcomes. When the newest silver bullet is a program or technology, the teacher lever is pulled once more as the teacher is required to implement it.

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As reported by 71% of teachers in a Quality of Worklife survey of 30,000 educators by the American Federation of Teachers, “Adoption of new initiatives without proper training or professional development” was identified as the most significant stress factor for educators–and cited as one of the most frequently named reasons for teachers leaving the profession.

It’s important to note that education isn’t at a loss for initiatives intended to help teachers and students improve. Ideas are everywhere, and educators are overwhelmed by the endless and expensive game of “Pick a Door” that often results. The crux is picking the right door and seeing that path through until true change is made. Strategically abandoning the things that aren’t working–an overload of resources, initiatives, tools, programs, etc.–will allow teachers to refocus their time and energy on the things that are working, ultimately reducing stress and burnout.

The path forward

As Sir Ken Robinson said, “Let’s remove the barriers to learning and stop doing anything that gets in the way.” For hundreds of years, education culture has focused on what teachers should teach. But this old way of thinking ignores the reality that human change comes from learning. And everyone learns differently– administrators, teachers, and students deserve the unique support and resources they need to be their best selves.

What’s needed now is a systemic change that creates agency, autonomy, and accelerated learning for everyone. When educators stop the endless pursuit of trying to get better the old way, they can embrace the type of change that creates an equitable learning culture and supports everyone’s unique ability to learn and grow.

Shannon Buerk, who has 28 years of K-12 experience, is the founder and CEO of engage2learn.

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