8 Ways This Northern Virginia Private School Retains Teaching Staff
Both private and public education have been dealing with high teacher attrition and fewer people choosing the teaching profession for years. These problems magnified many times over with the pandemic. Over the years, Westminster School has managed to avoid these problems. How do they attract and retain teaching talent, and what lessons can be learned from their approach to staff retention during the trying and difficult period of distance learning?
By the Numbers: Teacher Attrition and the Future of the Profession
Before jumping into Westminster School’s teacher retention practices, let’s explore the education landscape at large.
There have been alarming trends in kindergarten through twelfth-grade education for decades. With the pandemic, many of these were accelerated and exacerbated.
Teacher attrition, for example, has been an escalating problem for years. Many factors contribute to this issue:
- Low pay.
- Overwhelming workload and expectations.
- Lack of support from administration and parents.
- Lack of autonomy in curriculum creation, assessments, and decision-making.
Whatever the reason (or combination of reasons), Ted Fish reported something startling in his recent article, an interview with Westminster School Head of School Nancy Schuler and a deeper look at this issue of teacher attrition.
“It is not uncommon for schools to report 35, 40, or even more than 50 percent turnover of their faculty over the past three years,” wrote Fish.
This problem is most prevalent in public schools, but private schools are in no way exempt.
Unfortunately, the numbers don’t look any better for the teaching profession moving forward.
Here’s the data for bachelor’s degrees awarded in education over time:
- 1970–1971: 176,307
- 2012–2013: 104,698
- 2018–2019: 83,946
Over the span of almost fifty years, that’s a 52.4 percent decrease.
These two factors together paint a bleak picture. Current teachers are leaving, and fewer people are choosing education as a career path.
Why Does Teacher Turnover Matter So Much?
Teachers can make or break the day-to-day experience of students in the classroom.
With more people leaving the profession and fewer people coming in, that leads to several potential issues:
- Disrupted learning. Especially if teachers leave in the middle of the school year, that can lead to massive learning disruptions for students. Adjusting to new teachers and styles of learning can diminish academic achievement and hurt overall student engagement.
- Loss of experience in the classroom. Teaching is a difficult, important job. It takes years of practical practice and learning to excel in the field. When teachers leave the profession, they take all that experience with them.
- Costly process. Adding new teachers to a school requires recruiting, hiring, and training costs. That diverts funds that could be used in other capacities.
- Diminished morale. Especially in schools with strong, established cultures, frequently adding new teachers reduces that sense of cohesion and team morale.
8 Ways Westminster School Avoided Teacher Turnover
Turnover among teachers had been a simmering problem within education for a long time. With the onset of the pandemic, that issue bubbled over for many schools.
This wasn’t the case at Westminster School.
Fish’s article, which explores Schuler’s efforts, details how Westminster avoided the fate of so many private and public schools around them.
1. Listening Tours
In the early days of the pandemic, uncertainty and stress were rampant among schools. Schuler proactively initiated listening tours.
She went directly to her teaching staff and asked them what they were worried about. She figured out what they needed and wanted and then got to work finding creative solutions to help where she could.
The significance of this wasn’t lost on her teaching staff.
“Nobody left during the pandemic. Nobody wants to go anywhere,” said Kate Jacobson, the history department chair at Westminster School. “Our Head has done an extraordinary job listening and responding to us. We’re like a family.”
2. Added Workdays
One recurring request among Schuler’s teachers was for student-free workdays to catch up on any necessary planning.
She found a way to make that work.
3. Thoughtful Perks
Letting her staff know they were appreciated, Schuler added small touches to brighten their days.
- Spa treatments on Teacher Workdays
- Catered breakfasts and lunches
- Social outings
- Upgraded teachers’ lounge (with new furniture, art, and decor)
- Added “open door” office hours every week
“We don’t have the resources of a lot of our area schools,” said Jacobson. “But people feel listened to. We know we matter.”
4. Retention Bonuses
Extending the gratitude to financial incentives, Schuler also implemented retention bonuses going back two years.
5. Teacher-Focused Approach
Schuler shared a simple philosophy for ensuring success at Westminster School.
“I know that if I take care of the teachers, everything else will take care of itself. They are the beating heart of this school,” said Schuler. “Happy teachers lead to happy students, which leads to happy parents.”
6. Clear, Powerful Mission and Philosophy
Westminster distinguishes itself in two important ways. One, it has a clear, powerful mission and philosophy. Two, they are consistently implemented and upheld in every aspect of the school.
This includes in the following:
- Classroom management
- Academic policies
- Behavioral and personal presentation standards
- Upkeep of the campus itself
“Teachers know they are not just isolated workers left in their individual classrooms to sink or swim,” said Susan Glazier, assistant head of school at Westminster. “They are part of something bigger than themselves. They are expected to adhere to the school’s ideals but receive administrative support to help them succeed.”
7. Independent Governance
Westminster’s entire ethos as a small, independent school is just that: independence.
“When the school faces a problem, its attitude is one of experienced problem-solving,” said Glazier. “The school could not have succeeded for sixty-two years without its can-do attitude.”
When the pandemic shut down schools essentially overnight, others were saying there was no way to deliver their programs to the students. Westminster administrators and teachers got busy figuring out how to do the job.
“There was never any question of giving up,” said Glazier. “The attitude from the top and, therefore, throughout the teaching staff was, ‘Unless the governor says no, Westminster School will open come September.’”
And it did. It provided students from kindergarten to eighth grade with a full curricular year, whether in person or at a distance.
When teachers returned to orientation in August, the school’s thorough, science-based COVID-19 mitigation plan was in place. The teachers felt as safe as it was possible to feel.
“We never gave up on the enrichment side of education. We simply found new ways to honor school traditions and to keep our community connected,” said Glazier. “Our teachers knew they could count on the school to come through, even under the toughest challenge it ever faced. Who would want to leave a school they can count on?”
8. High Communication Standards
Westminster consistently maintains high communication standards with all constituents.
- Calendars and schedules published on time
- Policy explanations sent
- News conveyed via regular outlets and targeted messages
Teachers, students, and parents are kept well informed and know they can count on the school to do what it promises.
Each one of these eight factors strengthens ties between the school and its staff. They make teaching—one of the most difficult jobs—easier.
“Teachers at Westminster are relieved of so many of the frustrations and roadblocks they face at other schools,” said Glazier. “They are free to do what they have been trained and want to do: teach.”
Does This Sound Like the Right Private School Environment for Your Child?
If you’re looking for a standout Northern Virginia private school (preschool to grade eight), check out what Westminster School has to offer.
Schedule a tour today to see the beautiful Westminster campus for yourself.