School leadership key in attracting and keeping good teachers

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Good teachers can be hard to find and harder to keep, but some high-poverty schools do it. At a Catalyst Chicago forum on September 15, Harvard University Prof. Susan Moore Johnson explained how.

Her research findings were echoed by three other speakers who provided insights on teacher turnover in Chicago— Elaine Allensworth, director of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research; Sarah Slavin, director of the Chicago New Teacher Center, and Donnell White, a Golden Apple award-winning CPS math teacher.

Creating good working conditions is the key to teacher retention, all agreed. Teachers won’t stay in a place that doesn’t allow them to do their work well. And it’s up to principals, said Johnson, to create the orderly, collegial school culture that allows teachers to thrive.

By contrast, she said, offering financial incentives to keep good teachers in tough schools is a losing strategy. “Bonuses for good work [are] so offensive to teachers,” she noted. “If you’re a good teacher, you’re already working as hard as you can.”

Finding good teachers for high-poverty schools isn’t just about recruitment and hiring, speakers noted. Ongoing professional development, mentoring and collaboration with peers can make a middling teacher great.

The forum began with “What Makes a Great Teacher,” a video of student voices produced by WTTW expressly for this gathering.

The forum was produced in partnership with WTTW / American Graduate and the Chicago Public Library, with support from the Spencer Foundation. [ Download a PDF of the program. ]

Other highlights from Tuesday’s forum:

Allensworth“It’s typical in Chicago for half of a school’s teachers to turn over within five years. Some mobility is normal and expected. But many schools are caught in a teacher-losing cycle. These are not a random group of schools. Teachers tend to stay in schools where they feel they can be effective. 

Schools with high teacher loss are the schools struggling with weak school climate, that have little trust among staff. The strongest predictor of whether teachers stay in their school from one year to the next is the degree to which it is safe and orderly. It’s hard to deliver effective instruction in a school that’s chaotic.” 

—Elaine Allensworth, Lewis-Sebring Director of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research


Slavin“Teachers are most likely to begin their careers in the most difficult settings: high-needs schools in large urban districts like Chicago. It’s a paradox that contributes to a personnel ‘churn’ that can cost districts millions to hire and rehire new teachers, year after year, and costs the profession dearly in terms of talent lost. 

At the New Teacher Center, we believe that great teachers are made…not born. When we provide them with the right support, we are able to accelerate their development into highly effective teachers and encourage them to stay longer.”

—Sarah Slavin, Director, Chicago New Teacher Center


White“I [began teaching at] a school called Michele Clark Academic Prep and my principal was Annette Gurley. Wow. When you have a great leader leading you, you can become great. In my early years, I thought I was all that. She would constantly give me these [satisfactory ratings.]

I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m outstanding.’ She said, ‘No, you’ve got some work.’ She kept pushing me. I started pushing myself. I eventually became great for real. I won a Golden Apple. Then my wonderful principal got promoted up the ranks of CPS. The school atmosphere changed. The next thing I knew, I was looking for another school.”

—Donnell White, a Golden Apple Award-winning middle-grades math teacher, Oscar DePriest Elementary School


MooreJohnson“In research we’ve been doing recently in [high-performing] highpoverty schools, one of the things that was a real surprise to me was the incredible amount of effort that went into hiring new teachers. Every person who was [interviewed] did demonstration lessons for colleagues. And then the colleagues would discuss with the perspective teacher what they thought [he or she] could do better. 

The point was to see if the teacher had a growth mindset and was willing to work with colleagues. They then provided [new] teachers with an immense amount of feedback. Teachers want feedback. If someone can not only suggest what you might do better but model it for you, it’s incredibly valuable.” 

—Susan Moore Johnson, Jerome T. Murphy Research Professor in Education, Harvard University and Director, Project on the Next Generation of Teachers

Additional Reading

Teacher turnover in CPS | Catalyst Chicago examines the reasons for high-teacher turnover in CPS and uncovers a surprising fact: most teachers handpicked to replace veterans at turnaround schools quickly vanish, too.

The 100 that struggle the most | The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research finds that 100 CPS schools suffer from chronically high teacher turnover and analyzes school surveys and other data to determine the reasons why.

Teachers’ take on REACH evaluation | Consortium researchers examine teacher perceptions about the value of the new CPS teacher evaluation system.

Differences between top and bottom 100 | The Consortium undertakes a massive longitudinal analysis to discover why 100 CPS elementary schools were able to raise standardized test scores over seven years while 100 others were not.

Lessons from six high-poverty schools | In a series of studies, The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers analyzes how six successful high-poverty schools recruited and hired teacher candidates and supported their development.