Deep dive: Why PD is emerging as one of the top teacher retention tools

More districts are focusing not just on PD but on highly personalized professional learning.

The sentiments expressed by exasperated teachers in Wyoming this summer are probably familiar to superintendents across the country. Nearly two-thirds of educators there said they would leave K-12 if they could afford to, citing mental health, lack of support and standardized testing as their biggest challenges, according to a poll conducted by the University of Wyoming.

That “lack of support” is a factor many in the education world are now zeroing in on to prevent large-scale attrition in the coming years. The Univerity of Wyoming, for instance, has launched the Wyoming Teacher-Mentor Corps to build a network of teachers who can coach pre-service and first-time teachers. The mentors themselves will first get some professional development in assessments, communication, providing feedback and maintaining a work-life balance.

“There is more to mentoring than showing a new colleague where the office supplies are,” said Colby Gull, managing director of the UW Trustees Education Initiative, which leads the program. “The teacher mentors already contain invaluable wisdom and, after mastering the competencies of the Wyoming Teacher-Mentor Corps, they will be able to share that knowledge to support pre-service and early-career teachers.”

Propelling your PD programs

It’s estimated that a few hundred thousand teachers, accounting for more than 10% of the workforce, leave K-12 for a variety of reasons every year, research has shown. One way of increasing retention is to give teachers more autonomy in choosing professional development topics and then letting them lead the training, a study of several districts in Connecticut found.

Professional development is one of the five pillars of the state of Pennsylvania’s plan to retain teachers over the next three years. The initiative, developed in response to COVID and other pressures that are causing K-12 attrition, aims to ensure teachers have access to relevant professional growth and leadership opportunities. Because education officials believe too few teachers have access to effective PD, the plan’s goal is for 75% of teachers to complete a high-quality learning experience by 2025.

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State education officials intend to work with districts, PD experts, vendors and early childhood providers to develop new professional growth programs that prioritize culturally responsive education, professional ethics and structured literacy, among other key topics.

Some districts are focusing not just on PD but on highly personalized professional learning that guides teachers in, for example, engaging students in the curriculum. In Mesa Public Schools in Arizona, teachers who participated in ongoing AVID training were retained at a rate that’s nine percentage points higher (82%) than peers who did not take the company’s PD (73%), the district says.

The program focuses on rigorous instruction and the development of student agency. “Teachers leave the profession because of a lack of instructional skills,” says Michael Garcia, Mesa’s director of opportunity and achievement. “Instead, they can connect to a larger community and build collective efficacy across a national network of teachers who share the same language and are doing the same work.”

More shortage solutions

Student behavior was the leading cause of teachers leaving in a recent Chalkboard Review survey of midwestern teachers. A smaller number of teachers cited “progressive political activity” as the primary reason for departing.

Treating teachers more like other workforce professionals would go a long way toward solving shortages now challenging district leaders, according to the American Federation of Teachers’ latest analysis of K-12 working conditions. Job dissatisfaction among pre-K-12 teachers has risen by a staggering 34 percentage points since the start of the pandemic, surging from 45% to 79% in a poll of more than 1,300 educators conducted by the union earlier this year.

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The union’s members are also urging K-12 leaders and other policymakers to enact to increase pay, transform schools into social service hubs and improve building climates by lowering class sizes and focusing less on standardized tests.

Moving to a four-day work week is another solution that is gaining traction. Some schools, like those in Twin Rivers School District in Missouri, are making the switch this school year. However, while the four-day week might help attract new teachers to districts, it could have little impact on other key elements of job satisfaction, according to an Oregon State University study.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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