We would not be who we are today without educators. We wouldn't be doctors, hair stylists, superintendents, or trumpet players if it weren't for the teachers who taught us to read and write, add and subtract, and instill good citizenship, resilience, and social skills. The importance of teachers in our society cannot be overstated, however, the profession continues to face adversities unlike any others in our nation.
In the 1900's, the teaching profession evolved to become a predominantly female profession due to women's role as caregivers in society. Eventually, black men and women became educators to establish income, gain social status, and exercise their intellect. At the time, the opportunity to educate gave these groups a way to contribute to their communities, despite the societal challenges they faced. Unfortunately, the increase in employees from marginalized groups made it easier for society to take advantage of and, at times, ignore the industry. As a result, sizeable discrepancies of salary, resource allocation, and respect from society exist between the teaching profession and other advanced degree professions.
Today, American educators feel the continuing devaluation of the teaching profession and an increasingly untenable teaching experience. As public education becomes increasingly externally influenced, teachers continue to lose autonomy in the classroom while facing public criticism when they can't address all of society's ills through education. The weight of increased workload and crushing expectations without empowerment leads many to reconsider their career choice. And unsurprisingly, low-income areas are disproportionately affected, making it even more of a challenge to retain teachers.
Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic significantly altered the education landscape and the challenges faced by teachers. Amid chaos, teachers were expected to accommodate the growing needs of their students, while simultaneously learning to navigate entirely new virtual environments and protecting themselves and their families from the virus. Now, as society returns to normal, teachers are expected to teach as though nothing happened even when many of their students are experiencing trauma and hindered academic and behavioral development.
As a result, the US is experiencing one of the most severe teacher shortages in our nation's history. Teachers deeply passionate about education are questioning if it's worth the unlivable pay, high-stakes accountability, and demoralization they experience daily. One study shows that a third of teachers expect to leave the profession in the next five years, and that over 50% of new teachers leave within their first five years.
While the impacts of the shortage are being felt across the nation, one US state chose to act, addressing the teacher retention issue with an approach rarely taken in the education industry: by placing the 'teacher experience' at the heart of their problem solving. This state's education agency asked our team to explore how we might utilize human-centered design to understand the experiences of the state's educators and create a North Star vision to address teacher needs, reduce attrition, and fulfill the state's goal of becoming the #1 state for teachers to work.
Research Insights Imagery
Concept Value Case
Teacher Retention MicrositeSelected pages from our Teacher Retention Microsite
Teacher Retention MicrositeLanding page depicting future state concepts in action
RoadmapExperience roadmap detailing our phasing and sequencing recommendations for concept implementation
Change PackageDocument highlighting best practices in teacher retention
Future State Concept Imagery
Our examination of the State's teacher retention challenge began with qualitative and quantitative research in the form of a scientific literature review, 1:1 interviews, national and statewide surveys, and data analysis. We developed a holistic understanding of the life of an educator in the current education system, discussed emerging trends in education with industry experts, school principals, and district leaders, and analyzed data to understand the leading causes of teacher attrition.
We learned about the unprecedented amount of legislation implemented that reduces teacher autonomy in the classroom. We examined stories of government officials and parents excoriating teachers in the media. We listened as teachers recounted their experiences of being verbally and physically mistreated by students. We heard teachers with master's degrees worry about financially supporting their families while expressing their professional calling to remain in education. Finally, we spoke with principals and district leaders who vehemently try to support teachers but often feel that the real solutions are out of their control.
After analyzing more than 50 interviews, 500 survey responses and video diaries, we synthesized the core causes of poor teacher retention into eight key insights:
1. Teachers deeply feel the effects of a significant social phenomenon: the declining respect for the teaching profession and the devaluing of the teacher experience.
Increased legislation and slander from the media reduce teachers' ability to do their jobs effectively and makes them fearful of doing what they feel is best for their students. As the job becomes more externally controlled, teaching loses the critical aspects that define a profession, most importantly, respect. Low respect is an enabler of the remaining insights that, taken together, reduce the attractiveness of the teaching profession.
2. Teachers feel that performance evaluations lack the nuance to properly reflect their craft excellence and that the weight of student testing in teacher evaluation leaves performance results out of their control.
Teachers feel that standardized tests can be a crude measure of student success and do not always accurately reflect their teaching ability. A student's test performance can be impacted by personal life, physical well-being, and other factors out of a teacher's control. Yet, it is a significant variable in a teacher's evaluation. Classroom assessments can feel highly subjective and unproductive, especially when they vary greatly depending on who is conducting them. Teachers want an evaluation process focusing on their professional achievements and providing meaningful growth opportunities.
3. Teachers rarely report leaving the profession due to their school leadership; however, school leadership is commonly listed as a reason to stay. This makes principals a high-impact opportunity area to increase retention.
Principals have a considerable impact on the teacher experience.Principals who take the time to build trust and transparency with teachers can produce a culture where teacher satisfaction is high. Relationships like these are found in environments where school leadership allows teachers to be creative without retaliation. Principals in these schools act as listeners, pain relievers, and motivators for teachers rather than as controlling figures.
Research shows that a principal's impact on teacher retention is only realized once they have been at a school for 5+ years. However, the average principal tenure at a school is four years. Hence, improving teacher retention may also involve improving principal retention.
4. The enormous responsibilities and expectations placed on today's teachers are unrealistic. Teachers feel that the weight of these expectations lowers the quality of their teaching and obligates them to take on roles for which they are not trained.
In addition to teaching, an educator may also need to ensure a student has had something to eat (nutritionist). They are asked what they are doing about student absenteeism (truancy officer). They support students suffering from mental health issues (therapist) and behavioral issues (behavioralist), which have dramatically increased since the COVID-19 pandemic. These types of student needs, many of which are outside of a teacher's sphere of influence, impede learning. And poor school performance inevitably gets pinned on the teachers. Acknowledgment and appreciation of teacher duties is a start, but providing resources to alleviate the load is vital to a positive teaching experience.
5. While district administrators share the same fundamental goals as teachers, they inhabit separate spheres that can be challenging to bridge. The more removed the district is from teachers, the less teachers feel connected and supported by a district's initiatives.
Teachers often feel that districts do not understand what occurs in schools. As a result, districts create unsuccessful policies that only increase the burden on teachers. Additionally, teachers felt that district leaders rarely visited their school, and when they did, it was only to identify what was going wrong or to push an agenda. These visits disrupt the typical operation of the school and inadvertently foster a hostile and punitive relationship with teachers.
6. Teachers say their expertise is not recognized when decisions influencing the classroom are made. Teachers feel they aren't "brought to the table" when their perspective is most needed.
Teachers intimately understand pressing educational issues and are instrumental in successfully implementing any improvement strategy. However, they feel mandated to by those whose classroom experience is long past or who have never been in the classroom. Teachers are the experts in the classroom, and many have advanced degrees in education, yet they are rarely consulted for their expertise. Teachers want to be involved in higher-level planning and strategizing.
7. With few formal distinctions between a master teacher and a novice teacher, the master teacher's skills and experiences are undervalued and inefficiently leveraged.
Without a formal distinction between the two, all teachers are held to the same standards. Teachers with twenty years of experience are often subject to the same professional development as teachers with one year of experience. Additionally, meaningful career growth is non-existent for teachers who want to stay in the classroom. While growth opportunities for classroom teachers do exist, they are often informal and lack a commensurate increase in compensation or prestige.
8. Even as a backbone profession of our country, teachers across the board express difficulty making ends meet.
Teachers' salaries are stagnant, yet teachers report that expectations increase yearly. The tension is leading many to reconsider their career choice. Teacher retention can only be adequately addressed once teachers make a livable, respectable wage.
Applying Our Research
After presenting the insights to our client, we hosted an 8-hour collaborative workshop to analyze three current-state teacher journey maps (entire career, one school year, day-in-the-life) to identify pain points and opportunities for developing new solutions. Leveraging our client's expertise, we conducted rapid ideation sessions where we co-created hundreds of ideas that addressed the problems revealed in our insights.
Our team consolidated and refined the ideas into detailed concepts and presented the client with a future-state ecosystem that depicted a reimagined education system in which the concepts had been fully realized. These twenty concepts included designs for:
- A development program that transforms aspiring principals into influential leaders by training them in areas including organizational management, cognitive science, and emotional intelligence.
- A 50/50 career path that enables teacher leaders to remain 50% in the classroom while the balance of their time is dedicated to working on district initiatives, training colleagues, and improving the broader education community.
- An educator evaluation model that promotes fairness, differentiating between new and experienced educators, focusing on practice and pedagogy by emphasizing tangible strengths and areas for improvement.
- A framework for small districts to form partnerships and pool employees to gain access to better employee benefits packages by leveraging economies of scale.
- Additional concepts involving closed-feedback loops for educator evaluation, alternative school models, and local partnerships to reduce teacher workload.
We displayed these concepts on a future state roadmap, ranking them on feasibility and potential impact. Finally, to complement our future state vision, we gathered and cataloged teacher retention best practices currently in use by high-performing districts that could be quickly implemented across the State.
While the path to increased teacher retention is long, our work has already led to notable outcomes:
- Our research on teacher compensation is currently being used in government legislative sessions as evidence to justify increased teacher salaries.
- The future state ecosystem is being used as a north star tool to inform teacher committees across the State.
- The Best Practices Change Package is being distributed to districts across the State to share methodologies from top retention districts for the statewide education community to adopt.
- Finally, as a direct result of our success, we are continuing to partner with the State to bring human-centered design thinking to other challenges they face.
Our team remains inspired by and committed to the many educators who shared their experiences with us. We hope our work can help the State fulfill its goal of becoming the number one place for teachers to work and influence other states to invest in improving the teacher experience.