August 2019: Staff Development

Teacher Retention Through Empowerment

PAUL S. OBERMAN, PhD

I learned the hard way that teachers really WANT to be involved in all aspects of a school. My first year as an administrator I tried to do everything for the teachers because they were so busy. It took me a while to realize that instead of appreciating this, they resented it and became less invested in the school because of my constant activity. After all, I was doing all of the work but also making all of the decisions. I also learned to stop my “shuttle diplomacy” of sharing a parent’s story with a teacher, and then going back to share the teacher version. Now I make it a point to ask parents “have you spoken to the classroom teacher yet” and refer parents to classroom teachers with a phrase such as “neither one of us was actually there, so it’s smart to speak first with the teacher, who WAS.”

At all schools, we want to retain excellent teachers. At Robert M. Beren Academy, we focus on teaching retention through empowerment. Our teachers are truly decision-makers in the big picture of the school.

For example, a committee of faculty members is in charge of professional development. These teachers help shape the training that our teachers receive each year with only barebones directives: prioritize the theme for the year and use all of the funding available. The committee developed an application for professional development opportunities, evaluates submissions, and then makes decisions about how we allocate our staff development funds. The committee had fruitful discussions about number of applications per faculty member, whether to partially support some efforts and if so which portions, and whether some of these ideas could be backed by title funding. Ultimately, they made all of these decisions and owned this portion of our school.

Teachers frequently organize and run field trips. Watching teachers run a multi-day overnight trip seamlessly is an exercise in recognizing what empowered, amazing teachers look like. Truly owning these trips is great in so many ways, as students also correctly see the teachers as adults who work as part of a team to run the school. In meetings that look back to evaluate what went well and what needs improvement, inevitably these teachers take the lead once again.

Teachers are also masters of organizing special days and weeks and events. Whether it be STEM day, Yom Ha’Atzmaut, or Splish Splash Day, having teachers solicit ideas from each other and share the responsibilities of planning and running special days is incredibly powerful. Thanking the teachers afterwards—and thanking them specifically—culminates the event. I have found that comments such as “Your decision to have the students present their projects made the entire event incredibly powerful” leave teachers feeling much more complete than throwaway comments such as “great event.”

Expressing gratitude is such a critical part of empowering teachers that it deserves a paragraph of its own. Nothing undermines an administrator’s credibility more than claiming credit for an event done by a teacher, and nothing ingratiates that administrator to the teacher than giving full credit to the deserving teacher, in writing and in speech. When I hand Starbucks cards to teachers to thank them for their work, I make it a point—either in writing or verbally—to thank them very specifically for the amazing impact they have on our school. I spend a lot of time producing comments such as “Your deliberately soft voice really makes your students quiet down and listen; that is such a clever strategy” or “I’ve seen you working with students during lunch and after school; it’s clear why the students love and appreciate you.”

Sometimes we are reminded of our priority of teacher empowerment by our missteps, such as when we solve issues that teachers have not identified as problems or when we come up with the solutions without consulting with teachers. In spite of my focus on empowerment, I have been guilty of both of these mistakes. Because teachers recognize my overall style, they will gently point out that “this decision wasn’t teacher-driven, which is unusual.” This helps me move back into our preferred mode of leadership.

When we make big decisions that affect the school, such as the daily schedule, they need to be instigated by faculty concerns. At my previous school a committee of teachers suggested and considered various schedules before opening up possible schedules to a faculty vote. Ultimately the teachers requested training in how to best run longer classes to keep our students fully engaged. Because the entire process was teacher-driven, teacher support was a given when we moved forward with the new schedule.

I have also served at schools that had an honor council empowered to make recommendations to the head of school about breaches of the honor code. This committee, composed of students and teachers, listened to all those involved in possible violations. This allowed for fruitful discussions between students and teachers and also permitted this group to make very real decisions about how our school should respond in the face of breaches of our honor code. As head of school I rarely overruled these thoughtful recommendations, which were usually more carefully considered than any other discipline system I have seen.

A final part of teacher empowerment is for me as head of school to have an open door for feedback and suggestions. While I may not agree with or implement every suggestion, teachers appreciate the willingness to consider their ideas. Of course, teachers have come to know that I am wont to say, “what a great idea—I’d love you to develop it a bit more and then if we both still love it, make it happen!” This has led to some amazing additions to the school, such as minimester, a week-long period when we stop most regular classes and ask community members to join us in teaching courses we as adults are passionate about, from backgammon to shechita to the history of video games to Cool Science.

This process of cultivating teacher-leaders has led us to working on other teacher-instigated projects. Even when teachers have to use their planning time to help, they do so with enthusiasm because they believe in what we are doing.

One wonderful carry-over from empowered teachers is that they understand how desirable it is to empower students. When you walk into a classroom and see students leading discussions, quieting each other down, and holding each other accountable…that is when you truly know that you have achieved success in this realm!

Paul S Oberman PhD is currently the Head of School at Robert M Beren Academy in Houston. He has been involved in education since 1989 and learning from his mistakes as an administrator since 2002. He loves considering education at all ages. He can be reached at poberman@berenacademy.org

Categories: August 2019: Staff Development

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