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Strengthening the educator workforce: A Q&A with education leaders in Louisiana

Southwest | April 12, 2024

An elementary school teacher stands in front of a blackboard looking at his students. All the students are seated at their desks with one arm in the air, looking to answer a question

In 2021, the Louisiana Legislature established the Teacher Recruitment, Recovery, and Retention Task Force (TRRR) to understand and improve Louisiana's educator pipeline. In its most recent report, the task force recommended prioritizing three focus areas in 2024: improving teacher compensation, strengthening the educator pipeline, and continuing to elevate the teaching profession.1

In line with these priorities, Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Southwest is partnering with the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) and other organizations across the state to improve supports for new and aspiring teachers through the Supporting Early Career and Aspiring Teachers (SECAT) partnership. To steer this work, REL Southwest receives strategic guidance on how to prioritize the education needs of the region from a governing board made up of members with diverse expertise and experience.

We spoke with two members of our governing board from Louisiana to learn more about the challenges facing the state as education leaders work to elevate the teaching profession. Dr. Kelli Joseph is the superintendent of St. Helena Parish School System and Dr. Don Schillinger is the dean of Louisiana Tech University's College of Education and Human Sciences.

A portrait of Dr. Kelli Joseph outside, in front of trees and green foliage

Dr. Kelli Joseph

A photo of Dr. Don Schillinger in a large gymnasium, speaking into a microphone he holds in his hands

Dr. Don Schillinger

As governing board members, you help REL Southwest prioritize the education needs of the region and provide strategic guidance on REL work to maximize local effectiveness. What made you decide to join the governing board, and how long have you been a member?

Kelli Joseph (KJ): It has been a privilege to serve for the past five years on the REL Southwest Governing Board alongside exceptional educators working to expand opportunities across our region. I was originally invited to join by a former colleague who served as president of our state's superintendent association because they felt my background could inform REL Southwest's mission.

Don Schillinger (DS): No matter the role I have enjoyed as a teacher educator, I have always been interested in understanding the research basis and practical implications associated with policies enacted by federal, state, and nonprofit organizations. I have been privileged to serve as a REL Southwest governing board member since 2018. This position has given me the opportunity to inform decisionmaking that could improve education programs, leading to increased teacher effectiveness and student performance. 

How would you describe the kind of guidance you offer REL Southwest?

KJ: My continued involvement with REL Southwest is driven by a devotion to creating equity and excellence within our education systems so every student can thrive. Through REL Southwest's research-practice partnerships, I believe we can lift up evidence-based solutions to strengthen instruction, support families, and develop educators who will ultimately improve student achievement. 

DS: I see my role with REL Southwest to be very similar to when interacting with other teacher-related groups—to review materials, listen carefully, and provide feedback through the lens of someone who has enjoyed various teacher-related and leadership positions over nearly 30 years. During my tenure on the board, there have been many REL Southwest initiatives I have been directly involved with at the state level. It has been a rewarding experience to interact with researchers at REL Southwest who view these initiatives from differing perspectives. These collaborations allow us to arrive at refined interpretations that hopefully lead to enhanced outcomes. 

For more than a decade, Dr. Joseph has led the St. Helena Parish School System and Dr. Schillinger has led Louisiana Tech's teacher preparation program. From each of your perspectives, how can schools develop teaching career pathways that support and nurture teachers that represent Louisiana's diverse student population?

KJ: Over the past decade, I've seen firsthand the concerning shortages of individuals entering the teaching profession, acutely felt in small rural districts like ours. In response, St. Helena Parish has worked diligently to cultivate pathways for recruiting, preparing, and retaining talented educators reflective of our community. Additionally, we strengthened new teacher onboarding with embedded training tailored to their needs. Partnerships with Southeastern Louisiana University also create pipelines into school administration for our teachers seeking leadership roles.

A screenshot from the video, Louisiana's New Teacher Experience, featuring two early career teachers sitting at a table in a large gymnasium with their laptops open. White text appears on blue, green, and yellow background stating, Components of the New Teacher Experience program include: Affinity group meetings, Professional learning modules addressing topics that are critical for new teacher success, Mentoring support, A New Teacher of the Year recognition program.

Through the SECAT partnership, REL Southwest developed a video highlighting Louisiana's New Teacher Experience program.

DS: To answer this question, I reached out to two of my colleagues, Dr. Amy Vessel who serves as the Clinical Residency and Recruitment Center director at Louisiana Tech University and Molly Rainwater who leads the affinity group work within LDOE's The New Teacher Experience. Together, we believe Louisiana must adopt a Grow Your Own approach that focuses on nurturing educators within local communities, especially in small rural areas like Northeast and Southwest Louisiana. These regions often struggle to attract outside educators, relying heavily on locals who choose to stay.

Recognizing Louisiana's diversity, schools must develop pathways that honor and support educators from local communities. Louisiana school districts can also collaborate with teacher preparation providers like Louisiana Tech University to establish robust residency school sites, providing new teachers comprehensive coaching support. This team approach enhances their confidence in handling diverse classroom situations.

Through the SECAT partnership, REL Southwest is examining how programs like the New Teacher Experience address Louisiana's goal of recruiting and retaining early career teachers. What other state or local initiatives in Louisiana do you wish more people knew about, and how are they meeting the state's need to develop an effective and diverse educator workforce?

KJ: LDOE's Teacher Preparation Programs deserve more attention. Through our partnership with Reach University, we started a Grow Your Own pipeline initiative engaging support staff and community members interested in teaching. This online platform provides affordable flexibility that fosters a healthy work/life balance. So far, five of our current employees are now pursuing their certification.  

DS: Teaching is incredibly demanding, often leaving new educators uncertain about critical aspects like lesson planning, classroom management, and parent communication. Affinity groups [a component of the New Teacher Experience] are crucial in facilitating conversations among educators statewide and…] educators can share experiences, support one another, and collaborate on addressing diverse student needs. Affinity groups provide a space where teachers can say "I struggle in this area of my classroom..." and another teacher can say "I used to, but this is what I have incorporated to make the necessary changes."

A critical element of affinity groups is conducting needs assessments to determine the varying areas where teachers require additional support. The results of these assessments guide monthly meetings and help us acknowledge that many teachers feel isolated and overwhelmed in their initial years. Teachers are leaving because they feel alone. Affinity groups serve as a platform where teachers can openly discuss challenges and seek advice from peers who have overcome similar obstacles. Just as we encourage student collaboration in classrooms, we should promote the same among teachers.

While affinity groups emphasize the strength of a team approach in preparing and sustaining new teachers, the Teachers, Educators, and Mentors, or TEAM Model training, has transformed teacher preparation by involving coordinators and principals more actively. This model fosters a sense of ownership and collaboration at school sites, departing from the traditional student teaching triad to a more engaged and supportive preparation process.

What advice would you offer to school leaders in Louisiana and across the country who are trying to create a supportive environment for their early career teachers?

KJ: To foster supportive environments where early career educators can thrive, I urge school leaders to prioritize consistent two-way communication centering teacher voice and feedback. By providing structured opportunities for new staff to safely share their aspirations and struggles, administrators can proactively respond to needs while building stronger relationships grounded in trust.

DS: Let's continue to collect and analyze data on LDOE's New Teacher Experience. If it proves successful, I would advise that this model provides one pathway to creating a supportive environment for early career teachers.


1 Teacher Recruitment, Recovery, and Retention Task Force. (2023). 2023 Report. Louisiana Board of Regents.


Carol Felicio

Carol Felicio

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