Updated: Apr 2
The pressure on schoolteachers, perpetuated by the Covid Pandemic, has seen a a merry-go-round of faces coming and going. Teacher attrition is reaching all-time highs and we need to be asking the hard question “is this just to accept new challenges and widen their experiences, or is there something deeper, more sinister, at play?”.
In my first science lesson at one international school a boy asked, “How long are you staying?”. What a strange question I thought, what did he mean? Later I found out this class had experienced three different science teachers in the past year. I pondered over this question many times, wondering who were these three teachers, asking myself why had they left, in fact, where were they now? The school had world class facilities and accommodation, the salary and benefits were above average and most students willing to learn. Sure, there were challenges, but what’s new? A cynic (not us of course) might paraphrase Oscar Wilde, ‘To lose one teacher is unfortunate, to lose two sounds like carelessness'.
This was a number of years ago, but what I believe we are all witnessing today is an ongoing trend. Yet, as a relationship builder myself, I have thought long and hard about the effect of such teacher turnover on a young person struggling to build relationships, especially with other children and teachers, perhaps from another country, another culture, or language, and it struck a chord with me. When I was fourteen in England, we were most upset when our science teacher left after two years. But he wasn’t just a science teacher. He was one of the few teachers who understood us. We could joke with him, share our dreams, and he even took us fishing in his free time. I’d thought to myself, imagine if he could have stayed just two more years until we had left school, then our lives would have been perfect! I question today whether the school leadership team are aware of the systemic effects on students? Like me, do they understand or feel the heartache? If so, what is being done to encourage our teachers today to stay?
The higher turnover of teachers might be viewed by some as ‘collateral damage’, I mean every school and company has this problem, right? Though the question is: “should it?” and what can be done to improve engagement and team building, not just with teachers, but with the education system in its entirety? In her excellent book ‘Strengths-based Recruitment and Development’, Sally Bibb highlights three different responses shown by managers to address problems of engagement and retention.
The first is denial that there is a problem and its business as usual.
Secondly others accept it as the norm in that nature of work or location.
The final group however recognise there is a cause for concern and look for creative strategies to address the situation.
It is this latter one that all involved in education needs to be working towards, this includes an interdependent collaboration between staff, parents, and the children themselves.
The recent tragic suicide of Ruth Perry last week in the UK, after Ofsted officials downgraded the Ofsted rating of the school she loved and headed, has elicited a petition asking for an inquiry into what happened. Many parents use the Ofsted grading, and the associated reports of schools, to decide which school to send their children. Yet it is becoming increasing clear the negative systemic impacts inspections are having on mental and physical health of educators, leaving staff wondering if their careers may be on the line. These are individuals who dedicate their life to the education of our children yet, unlike other professionals such as lawyers or doctors, the trust and respect given to those in these vocations is not the same for educationist who, it seems, are not empowered and trusted in their vocations as caregivers and educationists in the same way.
The Eight Step Change Model, by Harvard Professor Tom Cotter, suggests we start with a sense of urgency where we admit there is actually a problem and need for change. Often, he says, a veil of secrecy keeps us in the narrative of “we don’t want to worry the troops”. This is not only true of schools, but in many of our relational situations. There are many systemic reasons why we fail to address issues, which might include being too busy to shift our focus, or it could be we are concerned about adverse publicity if something becomes public knowledge, for instance “what if the press gets to hear about it?”. Yet sadly, unresolved issues tend to have a life of their own and can erupt into something much worse than they initially began if they are not attended to. In situations such as this, a true urgency is required, but what does this look like? How should we think, feel and act in these situations?
Although there is room for improvement within the areas of Professional Development and Personal Wellbeing, many schools are making progress here. It is in the understanding the systemic impacts of high staff turnover that requires a great deal of attention. It is this third area of the Eight Step Change Model: Purpose and Direction towards goals, that seems to be missing.
Gallup research confirms that when we are able to use our unique strengths each day there is increased engagement and retention. This is because our innate Strengths and Talent Patterns come naturally to us. It is here where we feel motivated and energised being our natural selves, yet conversely feel frustrated and unfulfilled when our innate selves are stifled. Though we may still be ‘effective’ in our contributions, we can become both disengaged, or more importantly, actively disengaged, as frustration leads to dependency: where our Strengths are eventually switched off, or independence: where we find ourselves scanning the job’s page for roles and environments in our longing for an for an interdependent place in the world where we may be valued and find a space within which to contribute and thrive.
The CliftonStrength® Assessment is a key step to becoming aware of the contributions and needs of our top Strengths. With the support of a Strengths Coach, both the individual and school can set goals based on these intrinsic Talent Patterns to the mutual benefit of all involved. This focused engagement is the key to extended contracts, providing the solid base for long term school development, improved staff and student relationships, and academic progress. This can have postive systemic implications which extend into family life and communities. Of course, some of the huge financial savings diverted from attrition of our teaching staff, re-recruitment and induction programs can all be passed on to the teacher as further incentive to commit longer term.
When we have clear goals based on our Strengths that are aligned with the needs of our employer, it has a twofold effect of engaging the school's Professional Development and Personal Wellbeing programs. One headteacher recently told me that addressing teacher engagement and retention is his top priority. Perhaps we need go no further than adopting some of the above suggestions with winners all round, except for perhaps the teacher recruitment firms who will have less business as usual.
May we offer our deepest condolences to the family, friends, and communities of Ruth Perry and to those who's lives she touched. May she rest in peace ... 🙏🏼
If you are struggling with personal, professional and/or social issues don't wait to seek help from a counselling professional. Talking about your problems with a caring individual is the first step towards interdependence and recognising we are not here to live through our burdens alone.
If you are interested to learn more about how a Strength and Interdependence Programme may impact your educational environment you'll find more information here or if you'd like to work with Rob or other coaches who specialise in various areas you'll find our contact form here.
Rob Fenlon has held teaching positions on four continents, including academic and pastoral leadership roles. He led an award winning industry-education program in Australia which improved the engagement and retention of aboriginal workers in the mining industry. He helps leaders to excel in their professional and personal lives using his years of experience and insights from Gallup CliftonStrength® Assessment and Positive Intelligence (PQ). Rob has worked in some very challenging locations, and takes great pleasure in connecting people to their hidden talents and potential.
Rob and his fellow Coaches, work with motivated clients using the CliftonStrength® Assessment as a power tool for:
Assisting motivated individuals to fall in love with their careers and find the work they were born to do.
Working with high achievers to discover their value and purpose
Strength Based Interviewing & Recruitment
Working with Start-ups to gain momentum, motivation & self-awareness of the Entrepreneur
Assisting Students to gain a greater self-awareness, expediting their career path, building confidence and self-esteem.
Working with individuals to re-engage in their work environments & leveraging their strengths
Working with marriage relationships to help you love again and understand the toxicity, reduce negative experiences, create understanding and, in turn, assist with long-term strategies for lasting transformation
Finding your true Purpose, Passion and Value in Life
Falling in love with your life and work again
'Interdependent Rules of Engagement© & Vulnerability' to focus on living 'Interdependence' as the key to healthier environments - choosing this as 'rules of engagement' over 'Dependence', 'Co-Dependence' & 'Independence'.