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:
- 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.
- 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)]