For K-12 Schools Struggling With Staff and Teacher Retention, These Best Practices Can Help

By: Cassandra Korik, M. Ed.

For K-12 school districts struggling with staff and teacher retention, these practices are imperative for creating a climate that’s positive for everyone. 

To say that the past few years have been challenging for K–12 teachers and staff is an understatement. It’s a reality that bears out in numbers, particularly when looking at pre- and post-pandemic metrics. Staff and teacher retention has become a growing challenge.

Among teachers, 33% say they are very likely to leave the profession over the next two years—a 20% increase from before the pandemic. Even before COVID-19 shuttered schools in 2020, educators who left the field frequently cited burnout and low pay. The pandemic compounded their challenges, with many saying that in the shift to virtual learning, they lost aspects of their profession that they loved. 

And it’s not just teachers. A recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that 49% of schools reported having at least one non-teaching staff vacancy. Furthermore, data from the Bureau of Labor statistics shows that the number of employed school bus drivers has fallen by 14.7%. School custodian employment has fallen by 6% and teaching assistants by 2.6%. 

I’ve seen that the schools and districts that achieve a positive recruitment- and retention-friendly climate tend to embrace some specific best practices and truths.”

With a growing shortage of professionals and an education climate where schools were already struggling to attract and retain teachers and staff, it’s no surprise that 71% of educators say that morale is lower than before the pandemic. But it’s that very climate that holds the key to the retention challenge.  

As a former teacher and school leader myself, I’ve seen the toll that burnout and other work-related stressors can take on the lives and careers of school staff, no matter what role they fill. I’ve also seen firsthand how a school’s climate can make all the difference when it comes to retaining teachers and staff and motivating them to come to work each day.  

Learn how supporting teacher wellness can boost your K–12 district’s staff and teacher retention plans. Download the webinar

Since the pandemic’s onset, districts around the nation have demonstrated a heightened focus on improving school climate. The conversation, though, has largely focused on students and, to a slightly smaller extent, teachers. But a truly positive school climate is one that allows every member of that school’s community to thrive — from students and teachers to bus drivers, custodians, and other support staff, all of whom play a crucial role in ensuring overall success. In my own work—both as an educator and in working with school districts around the nation — I’ve seen that the schools and districts that achieve a positive recruitment- and retention-friendly climate tend to embrace some specific best practices and truths. 

Extend the same empathy to teachers that you do to students and their families.

The role of the family in K–12 education and student success cannot be overstated. While student outcomes are paramount, school district decisions are (ideally) made with the whole family in mind. It’s important to remember, then, that teachers are not just teachers: They’re often parents themselves, with their own families’ well-being to consider — and they don’t stop being parents the moment they walk into a classroom.  

It’s imperative, then, that districts and schools exercise the same levels of empathy and support for teachers with families as they do for the families of students who they’re tasked with teaching. A great example of this can be found in this article from Edutopia, written by reporter Paige Tutt 

To help teachers and staff manage stress during the pandemic, school leaders at Arcadia High School, outside of Los Angeles, checked in with them via an online survey focused on wellness—and then they listened when they told us what they needed,” writes assistant principal, Michelle Lew.”

As a result, the school set up a help line where school staff can dial in for “mini check-in therapy sessions.” They organized a series of 30-minute lessons on topics teachers identified in the survey as being of interest, such as mindfulness, positive psychology, and self-care strategies. And instead of telling teachers to try yoga, the school hired a local certified yoga instructor to offer staff virtual yoga classes each week, and to lead mindfulness and breathing exercises at the beginning of staff meetings.

In a post-COVID K–12 school climate, employees expect more flexibility and understanding.

Before the pandemic, school and district leadership generally operated under the belief that productivity and success required bodies in buildings. But the shift to virtual work and learning opened up new possibilities for district employees.  

While in-person teaching and learning remains the best and preferred practice, introducing flexibility doesn’t have to mean decreased productivity. For districts looking to attract and retain high-quality employees, providing this type of flexibility can be a competitive differentiator.  

Make professional development and growth a priority in your staff and teacher retention efforts.

Finding opportunities for faculty and staff to advance their careers was often challenging even before the pandemic. The transition to virtual learning, however, made professional development opportunities even harder to come by. Still, creating these opportunities for faculty and staff is critical to retention efforts. 

Sustained professional development is associated with a 21% increase in achievement. For teachers and staff alike, that level of increased success results in higher job satisfaction and personal gratification — factors that can make a deciding difference between an employee who stays and one who goes. 

Set your teachers on a path to better professional development. Learn more about Hanover’s Educator Learning Center.

Pursue diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) with intention and commitment. 

These are challenging times for DEI endeavors in K–12 education. Beset by heightened politicization and increasingly tense public discourse, it can be challenging for schools and their faculty to navigate DEI-related conversations and initiatives. That said, even if DEI’s place in school curricula remains fraught, its role in staff and teacher retention doesn’t have to be.  

It’s critical that faculty and staff represent both the community they serve and the multicultural world in which students will one day find themselves. But the benefits and importance of DEI work aren’t limited to students: Demonstrating an ongoing commitment to creating an inclusive school climate is imperative for recruiting and retaining teachers and staff who will need to be invested in a district’s DEI work. 

Give K–12 teachers a voice — and then listen to what they say.  

Every day, decisions are made at the district level that ultimately trickle into the classroom. From how we teach math to how we discuss difficult topics like race and gender, these decisions have a direct impact on teachers’ abilities to do their jobs and to find satisfaction and meaning in the work they do.   

Ensuring the best interests of teachers in school- and district-level decisions requires inviting them to the table. While there are multiple tactics for seeking their input, the best strategy will incorporate a combination of different approaches. Teacher surveys and focus groups are a great start, along with appointing teachers to advisory and decision-making committees. Above all, however, district leaders must listen to what teachers have to say and let their voices be reflected in the decisions made. 

Demonstrate that you’re listening through transparency and accountability.

No matter how many surveys a district conducts or committee meetings they hold, there will never be a one-size-fits-all decision. Inevitably, schools and districts will make decisions that clash with at least some of their faculty and staff.  

When this happens, it’s important that school-level and district leadership clearly communicate the rationale behind their decisions and strategies. Taking the time to explain the drivers behind decisions sends an important message to faculty and staff: It tells them that their leadership believes they deserve the truth and that they’re capable of understanding the complexities and nuances of the tough decisions being made every day, whether at the school-level or district-wide. 

Figure out the root cause of shortcomings that might be affecting your staff and teacher retention efforts.

It is important to spend time identifying any factors and shortcomings that might undermine your staff and teacher retention and recruitment efforts. If you’re experiencing high turnover, conduct exit interviews or surveys to assess why. Find out what potential job candidates are looking for, and whether your district can offer it? Likewise, what is it that motivates your returning staff to stay? 

There are numerous options for research, data gathering, and analysis that your district can use to inform its recruitment and retention efforts. A benchmarking study, for example, can help you determine where your school or district currently stands compared to its peers. Ultimately, the insights gathered can help your school or district to develop and implement a comprehensive recruitment and retention strategy that not only attracts high-quality faculty and staff, but also keeps them in the district for the long haul. 

— Cassandra Korik, M. Ed., Director, K–12 Research and Professional Services, Hanover Research

What does it take to hire and retain a diverse, inclusive teacher workforce? Download the report and find out.  

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