A Key Teacher Retention Strategy

by Ann Blakeney Clark

As the pool of highly qualified teachers shrinks nationally, it is imperative that public education administrators focus on a strategic plan for retention of outstanding classroom teachers. Focus groups with "star" teachers reveal that the quality of the principal leadership and meaningful professional development are the two most significant variables in a teacher's decision making regarding a particular school assignment.

All too often public school principals focus on teachers who need support and corrective action and fail to recognize the need to support life long learning for master teachers. The Yale National Initiative provides an opportunity for urban school districts to foster and rekindle the yearning teachers have for increased knowledge of content and the development of strategies to actively engage students.

The opportunity for public school teachers and college faculty members to engage in dialogue and debate about subject area expertise and pedagogy is rare and a most powerful professional development tool. For two summers, I have watched some of the finest teachers in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leave for seminars with the Yale National Initiative and return wide-eyed with the possibilities of deeper teaching and learning. Simply the opportunity for a teacher to collaborate with a college faculty member with relevant subject area expertise and then publish a curriculum unit is an amazing professional growth stretch for most teachers.

Unfortunately, in the fast-paced reality of public education, teachers rarely find the time for reflective thinking on what and how they teach. The Yale National Initiative seminars provide an opportunity for teachers to step off the daily treadmill and immerse themselves in an environment that encourages self-reflection about content and pedagogy. The gift of time for such reflection is a prized treasure for public education teachers. Teachers are expected to differentiate instruction in the classroom to meet the learning needs of each student. Public school principals must also be expected to provide differentiated professional development for teachers in order for teachers to acquire deeper content knowledge, raise the bar of expectations for student achievement, teach with zest and enthusiasm and enhance skills in working with the most difficult to reach students.

Realizing that research points us to the vital weight of teacher quality in the formula for improved student achievement, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has invested in a focus on a continuum of professional development for teachers. These initiatives have included a new teacher orientation, full time mentors for first and second year teachers and a nationally recognized program for National Board Certified Teachers.

After two years of participating in the Yale National Initiative Teachers Institute, the synergy among the participating teachers has created an extraordinary level of interest in Charlotte. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System team has initiated conversations with faculty at several local colleges and universities to gauge interest in participation. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System is fortunate to have well established partnerships with each of our local colleges and universities so there is a strong foundation on which to build interest and enthusiasm for replication of the Teacher Institute model in Charlotte.

Next steps for Charlotte included sending a team to the fall conference sponsored by the Yale National Initiative in October 2006. This allowed the Charlotte delegation to interface with public school districts across the country who are at different stages of implementation. At this conference, the Charlotte team developed a strategic plan for presentation to our newly appointed superintendent in early November.

With eighteen years of experience as an elementary, middle and high school principal, I believe that the investment in professional development of all teachers is a nonnegotiable component in any public school system budget. Unfortunately, the challenging budget constraints often place superintendents in the untenable situation of having to cut professional development resources. Reduction of professional development dollars is in direct opposition to the research that points us to the quality of the teacher as the single most important factor in student performance. Given the continuum of professional development for teachers available in Charlotte, a natural next step for the district is to investigate the best professional development options for teachers beyond the National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) Program. In order to continue the journey for the NBCT teacher, the professional development model must embrace many of the tenets of the Yale National Initiative: engagement and collaboration with college faculty members, self-reflection on pedagogy, increased subject knowledge expertise, professional learning community that serves as a catalyst for continued passion for teaching and publication of curriculum units.

Supporting our best teachers in becoming better teachers is just as important as supporting our struggling teachers in becoming better teachers. As public school districts across the country prepare for a significant reduction in the teaching force in the next decade, it is imperative that public school administrators invest now in the professional development of teachers in collaboration with our higher education partners. A proactive investment in professional development is well advised prior to needing to be reactive to the reality of a shrinking pool of qualified teacher candidates. The Yale National Initiative is a shining national beacon of professional development worthy of thoughtful study by public school districts across this nation.

Ann Blakeney Clark is Regional Superintendent for Charlotte-Mecklenburg High Schools.