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Special Feature: Teacher Recruitment and Retention

A high-poverty high school in Eastern Washington has found that the most effective way to recruit and retain teachers is to appeal directly to their "moral purpose," create systems of support, and elevate teacher voice.

By Bracken Reed | February 14, 2018

PASCO, WASHINGTON—When Raúl Sital became principal at Pasco High School more than a decade ago, staffing was at the top of his priority list. He had a vision for the school, and he wanted to build a staff that shared that vision.

At first, finding teaching candidates who were a good fit was not especially difficult—for most job openings, there were as many as a dozen applicants. In the past five years, however, that began to change.

"Finding the right people is getting harder and harder," Sital says. "Now, you get maybe two applicants for each position."

Washington state teacher turnover stats

Sital is not alone. Washington, like many other states, is experiencing a teacher shortage that some have called a full-blown crisis. Recent studies show that fewer people are entering the field, which is a problem, but that the inability to retain teachers poses the bigger challenge.

According to a 2016 study from the Learning Policy Institute, 90 percent of the teacher shortage in the U.S. can be attributed to early attrition (teachers leaving the profession for reasons other than retirement). Early attrition rates are even higher for minority teachers and teachers who begin their careers in high-poverty schools.

Stakeholders at all levels of the education system want to know why this is happening. Although Pasco High doesn't claim to have all the answers, a recent visit to the school revealed an approach to teacher recruitment, support, and retention that is making a difference, as evidenced by two important statistics: The school's teacher turnover rate has been consistently below the state average for five years, and the diversity of its workforce is nearly three times higher than the state average.

Recruiting the Right People

As in many areas of public education, low-income, racially diverse, urban, and rural communities are hit hardest by teacher recruitment and retention challenges.

Based on demographics, Pasco should fit that profile. Of the approximately 2,250 students at Pasco High, 78 percent are Latino, 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (a common measure of poverty), 35 percent are English learners, and 10 percent are eligible for special education services.

In addition, Pasco is a relatively rural community that is at least two hours from a major city, and most of its approximately 70,000 residents have agriculture-related jobs.

When it comes to recruitment, these factors could make Pasco High a hard sell. Instead, Sital turns the school's challenges into a positive.

"I tell them, 'If you really want to make a difference, come here,'" he says.

That appeal to teachers' motivation—what Sital calls their "moral purpose"—is a key element of Pasco High's approach to recruitment.

Sital and his staff also believe it is essential to hire people who know what they are getting into. Specifically, they should understand the student population, believe in their students' ability to be successful, and purposefully decide to work in a high-poverty, majority-minority context.

"We're really looking for teachers who have common experiences with our students," says Assistant Principal Omar Escalera. "That means teachers who have experienced poverty, who have experienced migration, who have experienced agricultural life. That's very, very important to us. It takes a special kind of person to understand and to deal with some of the baggage our students come to school with. If you don't get the right people, then chances are you're going to get turnover."

Angelica Mejia, a Spanish/bilingual teacher who has been at the school for seven years, is the daughter of first-generation Mexican-American parents. She says the students at Pasco High drew her to the job.

"I needed to be sure that the students I taught were going to be the students who needed me, the ones who needed to see themselves reflected in the school—someone who looks like them and shares a very similar story," Mejia says. "There are a lot of teachers who can work with other kinds of students. I needed to teach the kids who needed me."

Graphic showing teachers of color stats in Washington state

Most of Pasco High's teachers grew up in Eastern Washington and earned a degree at nearby colleges and universities. Many of the more recent hires did their student teaching at the school, and a few are even Pasco High alumni.

"We go after our own," Escalera says. "When you have someone across the table from you who shares those expectations, shares that language, shares that culture, shares that passion for students, then you go after them, and you do whatever it takes. We know we can train those people, we can provide instructional strategies and support. Those other qualities are harder to come by."

Providing Teachers with a System of Support

Students in high-poverty, majority-minority schools, including Pasco High, are often taught by less experienced teachers. The state average for novice teachers at a school (that is, those with less than one year of experience) is typically fewer than 10 each year. Pasco High averages 12.

To offset any negative effects of this relative inexperience—and to promote teacher retention—the school has instituted a comprehensive, three-year induction program for new teachers.

Each year, all new Pasco High teachers are grouped into a cohort that stays together for all three years of the induction program. The cohort meets monthly with the school's two instructional coaches: Jim Brown, who has spent his entire 44-year career at Pasco High, and Laura Jones, a former state teacher of the year who joined the school in 1996.

Each year of the program, the coaches lead a professional development initiative centered on a topic chosen in collaboration with the teachers. Typically, the professional development focuses on classroom management in the first year, explores a specific instructional approach in the second year, and centers on differentiating instruction in the third year.

Each teacher also meets regularly with an instructional coach, who provides one-on-one mentoring and feedback outside the formal teacher evaluation process.

Julia Dudley, a chemistry teacher and co-chair of the science department, was one of 12 new teachers when she came to Pasco High in fall 2013. Four years later, nearly everyone in her cohort is still there.

"We don't have closed doors—we're really open with each other," Dudley says. "It creates a culture of collaboration that has spread throughout the entire school."

"You kind of get this other family outside of the school," she says. "Along with the support you get from the administration and the staff, you get this extra support from being able to connect with the people in your cohort."

New teachers are also assigned a mentor from their department, and they participate in monthly departmental professional learning communities.

In addition, new teachers have multiple opportunities throughout the three-year induction program to observe other teachers' instruction and to have their peers observe them.

"We don't have closed doors—we're really open with each other," Dudley says. "It creates a culture of collaboration that has spread throughout the entire school."

Elevating Teacher Voice and Choice

Research has shown that the quality of school leadership is one of the most important factors in whether teachers stay at a school or even in the profession.

Marcie White, Social Studies Teacher
Marcie White, Social Studies Teacher

Particularly at the high school level, teachers want to feel supported by administrators, to know they are being evaluated by a fellow professional who understands their subject area, and to have a voice in how their department is run (who is hired, how the master schedule is set, what professional development they receive, etc.).

High school teachers also want opportunities to take on leadership roles and some degree of autonomy and flexibility to express themselves through their classroom instruction.

Sital refers to these issues collectively as "voice and choice," and they are at the core of his leadership approach.

Marcie White, a social studies teacher who has been at Pasco High for nine years, says these are the reasons she has stayed at the school.

"I wanted to be in a place where, if I invested the time and energy, then the people I worked with and worked for would invest trust—and sometimes funding—in me," she says. "I have found that here. I have the freedom and support to try things that are often untried. I have the ability to grow in my own teaching and to step into leadership roles. That has kept me very loyal to Pasco High School."

Angelica Mejia, Spanish/bilingual Teacher
Angelica Mejia, Spanish/bilingual Teacher

The combination of flexibility, support, and professional growth opportunities has also been critical for Mejia.

"They [administrators] allow us to show who we are as people, and they're also very knowledgeable," she says. "Both of my evaluators have been Spanish speakers, and they have had experience working with Spanish-speaking students. That is very important to me as a professional, that I can get the true feedback I need to get better."

Pasco High's approach to both recruitment and retention is a mix of well-defined policies, clear vision, dedicated funding, strong leadership, and a robust system of teacher mentoring and support.

Underlying it all is the philosophy that the best way to attract and keep teachers is to create a school culture that speaks to their more fundamental needs and motivations: doing meaningful work, being treated with respect, being part of a community, growing personally and professionally, and being able to give back.