Why Retaining Deeply Experienced Teachers Is Critical During a Global Pandemic

Gretchen Weber

Image of graphic showing importance of retaining qualified teachers during the COVID pandemicThe COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly disrupted our education system, changing what classrooms and learning look like on a day-to-day basis. Educators are navigating a constantly shifting landscape, with the health of students, teachers, and the community at large at stake. In this series, AIR experts provide their insight into evidence-based practices and approaches for facilitating high-quality instruction—from attracting, preparing, and retaining teachers to providing them with professional learning opportunities—even during uncertain times.

When schools closed without much advanced notice this spring, teachers had very little time—sometimes only 24 to 48 hours—to completely switch from in-person classes to remote learning. Often, they did this without guidance or structure and had to quickly gain expertise in potentially unfamiliar online learning platforms. During this time, they worried about whether their students could even access virtual learning tools, as well as whether students had enough to eat without school-provided breakfasts and lunches. They also wondered how they could support students’ social and emotional well-being from a distance, especially in potentially chaotic and stressful home environments.

My kids are struggling with the anxiety of the unknown … [They’re] really worried about family health, safety, and stability … [But my students] have always been resilient … It’s amazing to me to see those kids continue to put one foot in front of the other and continue to move forward.”

– 2016 State Teacher of the Year

These stresses and uncertainties that educators experienced raise serious concerns about teacher retention, particularly among more experienced teachers. The loss of experienced teachers hits everyone hard: these teachers know how to motivate students with many different personalities, strengths, and needs; they know which instructional practices work; they’re trusted in their communities; and they’re able to mentor and support newer or younger teachers. Experienced teachers have developed this knowledge over years, and the value they bring to instruction can’t easily be replaced by a new teacher. Most schools cannot afford to lose their most experienced instructors.
 

Pandemic-Related Uncertainty Could Amplify Veteran Teachers’ Exodus

Factors That Contribute to Teacher Flight in Typical Years
  • Lack of support from school leadership.
  • Poor school culture, climate, and working conditions.
  • Growing demands on teachers to respond to multiple challenges, such as chronic absenteeism and student trauma.
  • Misalignment between the preparation and training teachers receive both before they enter the classroom and throughout their careers—and, potentially, an additional misalignment between these growing demands and the way teachers are evaluated and recognized.

As the pandemic turns into a longer-term crisis with no end in sight, planning for the fall raises even more questions for teachers about school policies and their own futures.

Here are some of the things teachers want to know:

  • Will students be in classrooms? If so, should we expect another situation where learning will suddenly switch to virtual or distance?
  • Will there be a split schedule, with only some students in classrooms and the others online? How will I, as a teacher, juggle in-person and virtual learning at the same time? How will I plan? Create materials? Assess? Engage students? Manage communications with families and caregivers about each type of instructional experience?
  • How will I teach both students who kept up with learning until the end of the spring semester and those who disengaged sooner and experienced a “COVID-19 slide” worse than the normal summer melt or summer slide?
  • If masks are required, will I have to be the “mask police?” Will I be responsible for enforcing handwashing? How will schools successfully enforce social distancing? How will I teach in a room with poor ventilation (e.g., the windows are painted shut, there isn’t air conditioning, etc.)?
  • How will I protect myself and my family from the virus? What will I do in classrooms where students share materials and equipment (art, computer labs, physical education, science labs, and engineering) or require a large group of students together to be successful (music, drama, and media)?

Unfortunately, curriculum planning and health policies aren’t the only uncertainties teachers face. The economic fallout of the pandemic has led many schools to lay off both teachers and support staff, like teacher aides and instructional coaches. All of these factors could further discourage veteran teachers from staying in the profession.
 

Treat Veteran Teachers Like Emergency Responders and Prioritize Their Retention

“Right now, I don’t feel as if I’m doing my best job … I don’t feel that I’m ‘techie’ enough, I don’t feel that I’m reaching [my students] enough, I don’t feel that I’m qualified to do this. This technological learning curve is extremely high.”

– National Board Certified Band Director

We are relying heavily on experienced doctors and nurses, even though none had seen a global pandemic before, to keep our communities healthy and safe. We need to think of teachers in the same way. The most experienced teachers will know how to “treat” the summer/COVID-19 slide; they will possess a deep wealth of strategies for student engagement; they will know how to reshape curriculum into the components required for in-person, remote, and digital learning. And like doctors and nurses, teachers will need more support and resources, not less, because the instructional tasks before them will be harder.

Considering that retention, preparation, development, and evaluation—all facets of the teaching career—are so interconnected, retaining veteran teachers should be a priority for schools and districts right now. There’s a simple way to do that: Tell them they’re needed and wanted. We’ve seen this work for districts in the past. Another way to support veteran teachers is to include them in the planning. If district and school leaders are not asking for teacher input, they’re missing the opportunity to trust their teachers’ voices, practice, and wisdom.

“We literally had to flip our professional duties into something that was done because of this disaster … so that’s a really big stressor for me. And then knowing full well that I wasn’t going to get 100 percent participation on any number of things that we did, no matter how we try.”

– National Board Certified Math Teacher

Our most experienced teachers are essential as we move into the unknown in the next months and even years. We need these teachers to bridge the emerging equity gaps that virtual and distanced learning have exposed. We need them to support students who have experienced additional trauma over the past few months. We need them to fill in the gaps left by aides and instructional coaches who have departed. We need them to mentor new teachers, many of whom were not able to obtain the traditional student teaching experience this year. We need them to lead us through the next phase of this crisis.

Gretchen Weber is former vice president for Policy, Practice, and Systems Change at AIR. Etai Mizrav, a senior technical assistance consultant at AIR, was the manager of Education Policy and Equity for the Washington, D.C., Office of the State Superintendent of Education before arriving at AIR.

AIR’s Center on Great Teachers and Leaders hosted a webinar series in April that featured teachers from around the country, Teaching and Leading in the Time of COVID-19. For more information on the center and AIR’s expertise on teaching and education leadership, visit gtlcenter.org.