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Perspective | Redefining the box: A systemic approach to retaining effective educators

Pitt County Schools (PCS) had a problem. Our teacher turnover rate for the last five years was above the state average. Even though East Carolina University is in our backyard, PCS experienced a 175% increase in new hire lateral entry teachers – in 2018, nearly half of all new hires were lateral entry teachers.

We were losing teachers, often our best teachers, and replacing them with novice teachers with little to no prior education training. To compound that problem, some of our best teachers were becoming instructional coaches or filling other roles that removed them from the classroom. After asking our teacher leaders why they were leaving the classroom, we determined that a single approach to “think outside the box” was not enough.

Instead, we had to redefine the entire box. The result was a comprehensive human capital management system that provides our best teachers with career options while remaining in the classroom with increased compensation. This approach starts with identifying leaders who are beginning teachers and flows through a teacher’s entire career.

Redefining the ‘box’

The multi-year journey to redefine the box began in 2014 with the creation of two teacher leadership programs: The Key Beginning Teacher (BT) Program for beginning teachers and the Teacher Leadership Institute for more experienced teachers. These two teacher leadership pipeline programs were started at the local level with support from both the school system and business partners. Both programs started small to gain momentum to then tie into an integrated, system-level vision.

The mission of the Key BT program is to “engage and empower innovative, creative, and effective beginning teachers as collaborative leaders” for other BTs. It is a one-year program focused on engaging participants in four areas: orientation, resources, training, and advocacy. It is an efficient way to quickly engage novice leaders and professionally support them to create a vision of leadership.

The second pipeline program, the Teacher Leadership Institute, is a four-year program aimed at clarifying the identity of teacher leaders by providing them with the capabilities to lead others on a project they value. It begins with a year of intense training on how to lead adults followed by a year to complete a leadership project based on one of the Teacher Leadership sub-competencies.

What we found was that some of our best classroom teachers were unprepared and afraid to lead adults. The training and project completion allowed them to gain efficacy, craftsmanship, and competencies to overcome that fear. Upon successful completion of the first two years of training and the leadership application projection, graduates receive a two-year local supplement and then financial and programmatic support for national board certification.

The theory behind both of these teacher leadership pipeline programs is that by increasing influence and compensation, these teacher leaders are more likely to remain in the classroom. By providing our best teachers with the skills and the opportunity to lead other adults, retention increased. There was a 90% increase in Key BT retention over all beginning teachers and a 98% retention of Teacher Leadership Institute alumni over a three-year period. Both results are very promising for our most highly effective teachers.

Expanding the ‘box’

The early results of these two programs played a key role in Pitt County’s successful application for a combined $21.1 million state and federal grant called The R3 Framework: Recruit, Retain, Reward. It’s designed to expand the program into a full advanced teaching-roles model which we call Career Pathways.

It is important to note, however, that our grant was not based on a hope. It was based on early results of the two pipeline programs that were created and sustained to address a specific need to keep our highly effective teachers in the classrooms teaching the students who desperately needed them. It was the process of starting small with two programs that led towards a larger vision that allowed the “box” to be redesigned and expanded.

The Career Pathway program utilizes two separate frameworks to engage highly effective teachers to tackle two different needs: 1) instructional problems of practice and 2) building teacher capacity and effectiveness.

The first career path, the Community of Practice, involves a facilitating teacher and two to four collaborating teachers focused on an instructional problem of practice.

Examples include increasing rigor in elementary math or using rubrics to support feedback in AP U.S. History. The facilitating teacher leads the team and receives a 15% supplement and the collaborating teachers receive a $2,000 supplement annually. Early results of the Collaborative Inquiry Projects demonstrate the positive impact of how teams used data in a cycle of inquiry to focus on a specific theory of causation and action steps to address the problem.

The second career path, the Multi-Classroom Co-Teaching Model, involves a multi-classroom teacher who is paid a 30% supplement, and a co-teacher who is a novice or under-performing teacher. The multi-classroom teacher gives up his or her own class in order to co-plan, co-instruct, co-assess, and co-reflect with two to three co-teachers. The goal of this program is to build the capacity and skills of the co-teachers so they can have a positive, long-term influence on student achievement for years to come.

The combination of the two pipeline programs — Key BT and Teacher Leadership Institute — along with the two Career Pathways, the Community of Practice and Multi-Classroom Co-Teaching model, provide highly effective teachers in Pitt County an innovative, career-long vision for teaching. As of October 2019, 93% of facilitating teachers and 100% of multi-classroom teachers were retained in the district.

The district could have potentially lost 41 effective teachers from the classrooms of high-needs schools without advanced teaching role opportunities. The students of Pitt County now have access to more highly-effective teachers who remained in the classroom due to an innovative, systemic approach for retention. For more information, click here.

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a week-long series on innovation. Editing support was provided by Dr. Robert Smith and Kayce Smith of UNC-Wilmington’s Watson School of Education.

Seth Brown

Seth Brown is the Director of Educator Support and Leadership Development with Pitt County Schools.