Teacher Recruitment Armageddon

We are living in the good old days of teacher recruitment. Qualified teaching candidates are flocking to charter schools right now because they are hiring and traditional public schools are not. This has been a boon for us and our charter school clients. We have the “pick of the litter” so to speak. However, there are ominous signs that the party may be coming to a close.

Looming Teacher Shortage

Given the massive budget cuts and layoffs we’ve seen over the past 3 years, it would seem the long-predicted teacher shortage was merely a myth. After all, right now there are lots of unemployed teachers looking for positions. However, the current glut of teachers looking for work masks a larger demographic force that will drive a tremendous increase in competition for teaching talent over the coming decade: the mass retirements of Baby Boomers from the teaching force.

A 2010 report by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future concluded that nearly half of the teaching force is made up of Baby Boomers near retirement age. The report also uncovered the fact that the number of new teachers that leave the field altogether has increased by 40% since the mid 1990s. While data is not yet available, there is anecdotal evidence that the recent state education budget cuts and resulting teacher layoffs have undermined the image of teaching as a “safe” profession - which has historically been a strong incentive to pursue a career in teaching. Therefore it is likely that we are heading into a dangerous and difficult period for teacher recruitment as the system is being squeezed on both ends: Boomer retirements and declining new entrants to the profession.

The War for Talent Resumes

Traditional public schools systems will begin hiring again in earnest next year. As we emerge from recession and state budgets allow for restoration of cuts to education, the competition for teaching talent will heat up very quickly. Teaching in a charter school is extremely hard work and many of our teachers burnout in just a few years. When new opportunities open up in traditional public schools that offer shorter work hours, more job security and in many cases less socioeconomically-challenged students, the rate of attrition at charters will increase right at the moment competition for new hires picks up dramatically and the supply of talent is declining.

Further, the number of charter schools is rapidly growing and many existing charters are adding new grades each year as they grow to their full grade configuration. Not only will charters once again have to compete with traditional public schools, they will face rapidly expanding competition for talent from other charter schools.

The Solution: Focus on Retention

"26%-33% of charter school teachers leave their positions annually, while teacher turnover at district schools is in the 13-16% range."

-NYC Charter Center (2012)

So what’s a recruiter/school leader to do? The short but not so simple answer is focus on retention. The only long-term solution to your school’s human talent needs must be grounded in a strategic effort to retain the members of your team that are thriving and successful. Every aspect of your human capital effort should be measured against its impact on long-term retention of effective staff-members and preventing bad hires in the first place.

By definition, a high rate of staff attrition is the result of bad hiring decisions. If a large percentage of your staff is leaving within a year or two, the human resource acquisition and management systems need to change. Through nearly a decade of working with charter school clients, we find that the most successful schools follow these best practices:

  1. Develop a clear picture of the right candidate
    Far too many recruitment managers and school leaders do not have a clear picture of the right candidate before they begin the process. If you haven’t determined the skills (hard and soft), personality type and career goals / expectations of candidates that will thrive at your school, you need to go back to the drawing board and spend focused time and effort to really understanding who your ideal candidate is. Then you can build an effective outreach strategy to attract the right talent.
  2. Set specific, realistic, attainable goals for the instructional staff
    Many charter schools fail to provide their teaching staff with clear expectations and realistic academic goals. Sometimes the chaos of starting a new school is the cause, but far too often it stems from lack of clear directive and vision from the executive leadership team and board. Staff morale plummets and teachers “make it up” as they go or worse just check-out completely while they search for a new job. This leads to incoherence in the academic program and usually poor student achievement results.
  3. Take work/life balance seriously
    Some of our clients that run the most academically successful charter schools are losing nearly half their teaching staff every year because they expect them to be superman every day. Most of their teachers are young and aggressive and can and do produce extraordinary results, but they are so burned out after a year or two they leave. The reality is that people get older, many have children of their own and at that point decide (rightfully so) that the demands of a charter school career are simply too much to bear. Charters must be flexible and innovative in the way human resources are allocated. More money will not stop a teacher with young children from wanting to spend more time with their own children. We must be realistic in what we expect from our staff members or they will simply quit.
  4. Develop long-term career options to stay in the classroom
    One of the biggest arguments in favor of charter schools has been that the flexibility granted to charter schools would serve to foster new, innovative human resource practices. Sadly, too many charter schools fail to take full advantage of the opportunity to develop creative career paths for high performing teachers into leadership positions that allow them to stay in the classroom. There is ample research evidence that employees are more likely to stay in organizations that offer them meaningful work and the opportunity to grow their career. Most teachers go into to teaching because they want to teach, not become a principal. We must find creative ways to give teachers leadership roles, while still keeping them in the classroom.

Hopefully this article at least got you thinking about the critically important issue of teacher retention. As the competition for talent heats up over the coming years, it is imperative that you do everything you can to retain your successful team members and limit the number of bad hires that ultimately result in attrition.

This article borrowed ideas from these 2 papers that we highly recommend if you are interested in digging a little deeper:

  1. Keeping the Best: Why Retention Matters by Harvard Business School Press.
  2. The Definitive Guide to Recruiting in Good Times and Bad originally published in Harvard Business Review.

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