By Angus S. Mungal, PhD and Richard Sorenson, EdD

“Many principals simply take teachers to where they want to be. Exceptional principals take teachers to where they do not necessarily really want to be—but ought to be!”  – Unattributed

When teachers feel connected to their instructional team members, their principal, and their school organization, they are 10-times more likely to remain employees for another three-to-five years (Jouany & Mäkipää, 2022). So, two questions are posed for serious principal consideration:

Question #1: How does the school leader foster strong, compassionate, and even transformational leadership, and create a teaching, leading, and learning environment made to achieve and succeed during an era of constant change, and staffing shortages?

Question #2: How do principals take teachers to that place teachers ought to be but often do not want to be?

Interesting, if not thought-provoking questions. However, let’s ponder another query:

Question #3: “What is effective, if not exceptional and/or transformational, principal leadership?”

Answer to Question #3: Outstanding principal leadership has long been defined in the research literature as a series of engaging traits or connective characteristics. Therefore, before delving into the first two questions presented, principal readers must determine how they are defined by answering Question #3. According to Lathan (2022), those outstanding principals are:

  • Builders of relationships and community.
  • Effective communicators.
  • Utilizers of tough love combined with earned praise.
  • Firm, fair and consistent.
  • Organized and prepared.
  • Visionary and planners.
  • Empowerers of others.
  • Analyzers of data.
  • Collaborators and facilitators.
  • Sustainers of well-being practices.
  • Passionate about students.
  • Risk-takers.
  • Life-long learners.
  • Mentors who lead by example.
  • Committed—staying with a school for at least five or more years.

Honestly, how many of the above-noted 15 exceptional principal traits, characteristics or indicators did you affirmatively respond? Yes, yet another exacting, if not demanding, question!

Teacher Retention in an Era of Great Resignations
Teacher retention during this arduous and most challenging era is complicated by what has become labeled as the Great Resignation. If it could only become the Great Retention era, as in teacher retention. Dare another question be imposed? Why are teachers leaving the profession? Consider, as an example, the staffing shortages of a major Texas school district. At the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, the Cypress-Fairbanks ISD (northwest Houston) had a total of 1,063.5 vacancies, more than any other year during the pandemic. Of that number, 300 were teachers and to further complicate the dire circumstances, the district experienced a 4% higher substitute fill rate from 2020-2021 to 2021-2022 (Lloyd, 2022). This concern is evident in districts across the nation that are overwhelmed by teacher vacancies and shortages.

What’s a principal to do? First, principals must recognize that many teachers, today, contemplate many reasons for resignation:

  • Inadequate salary and benefits.
  • Feeling overwhelmed, overworked, or non-/under-supported.
  • Possessing a need for a better work-life balance.
  • Lacking principal recognition and/or appreciation.
  • Student disciplinary issues and/or disrespectful or unruly parents.
  • Dissatisfaction with the campus morale, principal leadership, and/or district culture.
  • Frequent instructional changes.
  • Consuming pandemic concerns and associated politics.
  • More desirable opportunities in other professions.

It’s quite a list and one that far too often identifies the reasons why teachers are more apt to depart their students and schools.

Teacher Retention Strategies Start with Principals
Teacher retention is fast becoming a key competitive differentiator. A school district’s ability to maintain a talent pool has profound ramifications for the districts to operate at an elevated level, without the disruptions that teacher turnover is likely to bring. Numerous studies reveal that recruiting teacher talent has become more difficult (Schanfield, Lopez, & Lachlan-Haché, 2020). Competition is fierce and while school districts cannot always stop teacher poaching by other districts, principals can aid in a slow-down of personnel seeking opportunities to resign and depart. How? By what means? Principals must:

1. Understand that teacher retention begins with recruitment. Staggering Statistic #1: 53% of teachers report feeling exhausted (Moss, 2021). Retention starts with recruitment. To aid new teachers and to keep them in the profession, principals must identify those aspects of teaching that can be overwhelming if not immediately recognized. Principals can initiate nurturing strategies which emphasize well-being practices during the recruitment phase and moreover, develop said strategies into long-term, day-to-day practices with both new and tenured teachers (Sorenson, 2022).

2. Identify teacher applicants who will commit to stay. Staggering Statistic #2: 73% of teachers are considering leaving their jobs (Dean & Hoff, 2021). Seek teacher candidates with longevity at previous positions. Such speaks to loyalty, perseverance and engagement—a stick-with-it mentality! Teacher-hoppers are a gamble. What is a quick method of determining if a potential teacher is committed to long-term employment? For example, seek to learn if the aspiring candidate plays team sports, or volunteers at church or serves in some capacity in the community outside of school. These can be indicators of an applicant’s willingness to be a long-term employee.

3. Determine which teacher applicants will share the district, campus, and principal vision. Teachers tend to remain longer at a school if their values are aligned with the vision and mission of the school system, campus, and principal.

4. Provide ongoing and meaningful professional development. Principals must overcome the antiquated inservice mindset that all professional development fits all teachers! Provide professional development that is fitted to each individual teacher. Sounds difficult? Not necessarily. Read Chapter 5: Tactic #5 – Know How to Build Shared Knowledge and Leadership in Responding to Resistors: Tactics that Work for Principals (Sorenson, 2021). Teachers are motivated to learn (and stay as an employee) when professional development is instructionally meaningful and personally relatable.

5. Deliver for teachers. Recognize that teachers are multidimensional people and need to be supported as the whole person by means of relationship development. Teachers want freedom to express ideas openly. They always desire principal support and stability, and they need to participate in meaningful, student-centered instructional and/or change projects. Remember, initiated changes and reforms must be relevant and practical—not those too often put-upon, spur-of-the-moment, grab-and-go, then learn-and-forget improvisations.

Recognize, also, teachers expect and need their principal to be actively involved in and deliver professional development. Simply introducing a consultant and then quietly disappearing back to the administrative offices to do paperwork is anything but delivering. When principals deliver, teachers commit to stay!

6. Engage with teachers. Staggering Statistic #3: 71% of principals stipulate that teacher engagement is critical to their student and organizational success and career longevity (Reitsma, 2022). Connecting with teachers is a critical aspect of updating them relative to the direction of the school as an organization. Engagement, both formal (“state of the campus” meetings) and informal (daily interactions) helps teachers better understand on-going instructional strategies, methodologies, techniques, reforms, and changes.

Engagement also aids the principal. There is no better way to learn what the latest teacher concerns are than by engaging teachers, personally and face-to-face. Naturally, principals can then best address teacher concerns before they fester into overwhelming problems. Principals must recognize that teachers want to be included and sought out for ideas. Recall, everyone appreciates feeling like a partner.

Arranging for partner teachers to develop relationships leads to long lasting employees. A principal who is seen to be fostering relationships between teachers can benefit the school!

7. Utilize polling tools. Get the pulse of the instructional team quickly and accurately by means of cell-phone polling. Examine the retrieved and associated data and stay ahead of the curve as a means of uncovering negative or disruptive patterns that are developing. Such trends can lead to attrition and turnover. Recognize, January is the month of the year when employees are likely to leave or seriously consider making a conclusion of the spring semester job-status change.

8. Provide practical tools for bolstering well-being. Sorenson (2022) offers 10 practical tools a principal can incorporate to aid teachers relative to their well-being and thus, enhance campus retention. Principals should offer: 1) gratitude for a teacher’s job well-done; 2) on-campus opportunities for teacher creativity to be showcased; 3) times for faculty socialization; 4) good humor, celebrations, and lots of laughter; and 5) teacher recognition.

If, as principal, you do not already publish a weekly faculty newsletter, now is the time to start doing so. Within the newsletter offer the usual content such as: a) the schedule of weekly events; b) a duty roster; c) instructional offerings/advice; and definitely, d) a teacher recognition section highlighting the talents and good works of differing teachers each week. Nothing bolsters morale and well-being like an individual’s good name in print for accomplishing a noteworthy instructional endeavor!

9. Develop job satisfaction priorities. Staggering Statistic #4: 69% of teachers state they would work harder if they were better appreciated (Cox, 2017). Teacher satisfaction and job retention correlates with the mental and emotional connection towards the workplace and supervisor. Those teachers who feel involved, supported, appreciated, and valued are likely to be satisfied in their instructional positions and just as enthusiastic toward their commitment to their instructional leader. Teacher satisfaction + principal engagement and support = a high leverage commitment to and investment in student achievement and organizational success!

10. Transform the principal leadership role. Personal reflection is a must for effective principal transformation. The very best principals are always in a transformational mode, a means of bettering themselves. Better principals = retained teachers. Mungal and Sorenson (2020) recommend principals listen to input from their faculty; seek frequent and constructive feedback from not only supervisors but from faculty; delegate (never dump) instructional responsibilities to teacher leaders; learn from the campus pros; and seek regular professional development to improve principal leadership skills.

Principal Leadership Responsibilities Correlate with Teacher Retention
Strong and effective principal leadership can and will improve campus culture and teacher engagement, instill an elevated level of teacher motivation and inspiration, and moreover, enhance teacher retention. Recent research revealed that 100% of respondents surveyed cited campus leadership as a key factor in ensuring teacher happiness and thus, positively impacting retention (Frahm, 2020). There is a saying: “Teachers don’t leave schools, they leave principals.” Principals who do not responsibly engage their teachers in meaningful ways will inevitably lose them. Effective principal leadership responsibilities include:

  • Support. Teachers must sense and feel that they are backed, aided, championed, validated, defended, strengthened, nurtured, advocated for, listened to, cheered on, looked after, and sometimes, even comforted by their principal. The principal’s role is multi-varied and often multi-tasking when it comes to the care and support of faculty.
  • Communication. Principals must create a teaching environment and campus culture that is professional and based on honest and open communication where teachers feel respected, valued, and have a visionary and student-centered purpose. Few skills are more vital to successful school leadership than effective communication.
  • Transparency. Principals must always default to transparency. The trust of teachers can only be obtained and retained when they feel at ease in personal and private conversations with their principals. Consider that one-in-three teachers do not trust their principal (Miller, 2016). Principals who are direct, obvious, honest, sincere, truthful, and lacking any deviousness in their actions and behaviors are those who are believable, reliable, respected, and confided in by not only teachers but by all members of the learning community.
  • Appreciation. Teachers who feel appreciated, accomplished, and important to the overall success of the school organization are most likely to be satisfied and desirous of remaining a campus employee. Not only are regular appraisal processes key factors in achieving levels of appreciation, those ad hoc occurrences, too, are appreciated and never go unnoticed or under-valued. Teachers love to feel prized, accepted, cherished, and treasured.
  • Recognition. Principals must understand, initiate, and develop a culture of continuous recognition (as previously noted). Very much grounded in the research literature, teachers who are recognized (publicly and privately) are very unlikely to seek other job opportunities (Alberti, 2020). Teachers love a pat on the back (physically, verbally, and in writing) when it comes to their professional efforts and instructional responsibilities.
  • Principals as Transformational Leaders
  • Having been victim to a bad principal can negatively impact teacher performance and student achievement. Additionally, ineffective principals can have a long-lasting and depressing effect on teacher mental health and can thus, negatively affect teacher retention. Therefore, it is critical to know what makes for a successful, if not exceptional, transformational principal.

Transformational principals are best identified by the following top 10 leadership characteristics. These school leaders:

  1. Model integrity, trust, and fairness.
  2. Establish a clear vision and relevant goals.
  3. Set high expectations.
  4. Encourage, motivate, influence, and promote others.
  5. Provide support and recognition.
  6. Inspire team members to reach for what is often assumed to be unattainable.
  7. Help others to overcome self-interests.
  8. Act morally, ethically, and legally.
  9. Build strong relationships.
  10. Provide intellectual stimulation.

Campus pitfalls, frequently created by principals, provide for a negative climate and closed culture, and readily contribute to teachers leaving schools and even the profession. School leaders must always be consistent in displaying each of the leadership attributes, characteristics, and/or traits noted within this article and remain proactive in their approach to transforming schools and thus, retaining personnel.

Concluding Comments
At this moment in time, principals must recognize that everyone is working in an unprecedented era and teachers are seeking even more from their campus leaders. How principals respond and behave absolutely impacts how key talent will not only react and respond but will be retained. One final note: With teacher retention being a greater risk than possibly ever before, and with the acquisition of new talent presumed to not necessarily be a viable and absolute solution, principals must do all they can to safeguard the current talent within their schools. Transforming principal leadership can and will enhance teacher retention.

Dr. Angus S. Mungal is an Assistant Professor in Leadership Counselor Education at the University of Mississippi. He teaches graduate coursework in leadership and administration, focusing on research methodology, equity and cultural leadership, community leadership, and ethics in leadership.

Dr. Richard Sorenson is Professor Emeritus and former Chairperson of the Educational Leadership and Foundations Department. He served as Director of the Principal Preparation Program at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).  He has taught graduate classes in educational administration at UTEP, specializing in school personnel, educational law, school-based budgeting, and leadership development.

Dr. Mungal and Dr. Sorenson are the co-authors of “Steps to Success: What Successful Principals Do Every Day” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).

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TEPSA Leader, Fall 2022, Vol 35, No 4

Copyright © 2022 by the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association. No part of articles in TEPSA publications or on the website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association.

The Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA), whose hallmark is educational leaders learning with and from each other, has served Texas PK-8 school leaders since 1917. Member owned and member governed, TEPSA has more than 6000 members who direct the activities of 3 million PK-8 school children. TEPSA is an affiliate of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

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