Prioritizing Teachers

Our school district has recently struggled to attract and retain highly-effective teachers. It didn’t used to be this way. Just a few years back, we would have several highly-qualified teachers apply for each job posting. Many of these applicants were experienced teachers in neighboring school districts. Some teachers would apply year after year, trying to get a position in our schools. But this isn’t true anymore. Over the past several years, the rate of experienced teachers leaving our district has increased and the number of highly-qualified applications per job posting has declined. Why is teacher satisfaction dropping in our district relative to others? Teachers in other school districts use to see West Lafayette as a dream job; why don’t they feel that way now?

Dr. Andrew C. Johnston’s insightful research paper on teacher employment preferences finds that what teachers value most in deciding between job offers are school administrators who support them. Small class size is a close second. A preference for higher salary increases comes in much lower than having a supportive work environment and conditions that help them make a difference in the lives of their students.

It’s true that there is a nation-wide shortage of teachers and that new state regulations and mandates have increased the difficulty of being a teacher. But, as one of the best school districts in the state, we should have a long list of teachers from other districts who want to move to our district. We should have one of the highest teacher retention rates, not a retention rate that is lower than the state median and lower than our neighboring school districts.

Why are so many West Lafayette teachers increasingly unhappy working in our school district relative to other districts? I think there are two main reasons:

  1. Our school district’s financial problems directly impact teachers’ jobs and our school leaders have demonstrated that they prioritize facilities more than teachers. One recent example is from April 1, 2019 when the school board authorized a reduction in force process (RIF) for all first-year teachers in grades K through 6. The school board minutes state that the reason for the RIF was a decrease in enrollment. Teachers did not understand this rationale as enrollment had been increasing for years and was projected to continue to increase the next year (which it did by 23 students). In the same school board meeting where the school board voted to fire teachers to save money, they celebrated over 2 million in donations received for construction projects. This was not well received by teachers – their jobs were being threatened at the same time that school district leaders were starting new construction projects (the Jr/Sr HS academic wing and performing arts projects began a few months later in July). Soon after the RIF was authorized, several teachers resigned, 15 teachers in all over the next 4 months. That academic year 14 percent of all certified teaching staff left our school district as shown on the certified staff exit report.
  2. Class sizes have increased and teacher working conditions generally have grown worse. When asked by a friend, most West Lafayette teachers will say that their level of frustration with the work environment has been rising each year. However, our teachers are very careful in what they say to school administrators. Teachers who complain may receive a more difficult class, higher workloads, and may receive negative comments in their performance evaluations. In an attempt to try to share concerns, teachers have collected anonymous survey responses to share with administrators, but were told that our school leaders will not read anonymous comments. Teachers have also requested a climate audit, not something that employees request when they think their work environment is ideal. The response that “the superintendent’s door is always open to any teacher who wants to discuss a concern” is not well received by teachers who have seen what they view as retaliation and feel that no one is listening to them.

Many experienced teachers are choosing to leave our schools to teach in other Indiana school districts. Several of our teachers who had prior teaching experience in other districts have now left to go back to teach in their previous school district. Our school district seems to offer everything that a teacher would want: engaged students, supportive parents, and relatively high pay. So, why are so many teachers leaving? My view is that our school leaders should stop claiming that “all is well” and should instead listen to our teachers and make some changes to improve the poor teacher retention rates and increase the number of teachers applying for job postings. Effective teachers are more important to the health of a great school district than state-of-the-art facilities. I think we should prioritize our teachers!

[Removed the list of the last 50 teachers to leave our school district over the past two and a half years (that’s a third of the teachers over just 2.5 years)]

4 thoughts on “Prioritizing Teachers

  1. Yesterday, September 24th, something drove a lot of people directly to this post. Several people contacted me to ask questions about my having posted a list of the last 50 teachers to leave our schools (over just the past 2 and a half years). For clarity, I want to publicly answer them here as well:

    (1) I am not going to share my personal opinion about the reasons why any specific teacher may have left. The purpose of this post is to draw attention to the large number of teachers who left our district recently and to encourage you to consider talking with any of these teachers that you know personally. I suggest asking if we could have done something better to keep them teaching in our schools.

    (2) Our teachers do not all share the same perspective on the work environment in our schools. Some teachers are very happy with the status quo while others strongly desire some changes. I am not suggesting that every teacher who left our district over the past couple of years did so because they were unhappy with their job. However, the increase in the number of teachers leaving is concerning and indicates that we need to make some improvements.

    (3) I am not claiming that every teacher who left our schools over the past couple of years was an excellent teacher. This is not a list of exclusively good teachers, it is the list of all teachers who left. However, I do strongly believe that the overwhelming majority of teachers in our schools are fantastic. Years of excellence have attracted them to want to work here.

    (4) The list of teachers I shared is publicly available on the school board website in the school board meeting minutes. I’m just reproducing this information here to provide some evidence to support my point about increasing teacher turnover. I did not ask any of these teachers for permission to disclose that they are no longer teaching in our school district. Whether or not a teacher is employed in our school district is public information.

    (5) I also need to respond to the question of why I am sharing “negative” information about our schools publicly. Why draw attention to the increase in class sizes or the increase in teacher turnover in our schools? I am not trying to cause any harm to our good reputation. I only want the best for our school district. My view is that trying to suppress potentially damaging information while ignoring the underlying cause is a much larger risk to our reputation. I want to celebrate the many things that are going well and fix the handful of things that need to change.


  2. Dacia I think you make a very good point, however a good many of those teachers listed have retired, many after a long and stellar career in West Lafayette and I feel including them skews the data. I think if you subtract them you can truthfully look at the teacher turnover objectively. I am very concerned about the number of younger, usually women teachers who leave when they start a family because the school district will not allow job sharing. By not allowing job share they lose a lot of high class staff and I think this should change. I think you should be looking at retention of younger, committed and dynamic staff, and also culturally diversifying the staff selection process.


  3. Frances, I agree with you that the large number of young teachers who left teaching in our district is a concern. Our school district needs to adopt policies that enable all teachers (including young mothers) to be successful in our schools. I also agree that a teacher retiring after a long and stellar career should be celebrated, and is not at all a cause for concern. But, if we were to go through the list and remove all the teachers who retired, that might remove a few who decided to retire earlier than they had planned in part because of an increasingly difficult work environment in our schools. My point was to draw attention to the large rate of teachers leaving our schools and the list of names just puts a human face on our school district’s poor turnover numbers and gives people an opportunity to talk with any of the teachers they know personally. The list reproduced the exact same information given on the school board website in the school board minutes.

    The first three weeks, this post encouraged constructive discussion on the reasons why we have lost some good teachers. But, on Sep 24 there was a sudden onslaught of negativity insinuating malicious intentions. I was surprised as my intent was just to share public data about our schools and ask some tough questions about how we can better support our teachers. A few of the teachers who recently left our school district have told me that over this past week they have received negative attention. This was never my intention and I sincerely apologize for my part. To respond to the request of the former teachers who reached out to me kindly and suggested that this list has become contentious, I deleted the list of the 50 teachers who most recently left our district from my post. Hopefully, this will help cool down some of the inflammatory talk and help us focus on the issue of our recent difficulties retaining and hiring teachers.

    In the 2018-2019 school year, 23 teachers left our school district. That’s 14 percent of all the teachers in our district leaving in just one year; much worse than the average teacher retention rate in Indiana. Why does one of the best school districts in the state recently have such poor teacher retention?


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