Q: I am a consultant that works with schools – typically regarding program evaluation. In my experience, schools and their staff seem to find it difficult to think of the school as a “workplace” for adults. Yet, in nearly every study I have conducted the climate and culture of the school appear to be significant hurdles to improvement. Most of educators’ energy is directed at the work of caring for and educating students. The pressure of the No Child Left Behind Act has added additional stress and narrowed the focus so that attending to workplace issues is not even on the radar. Any suggestions, resources, advice?

A: I know there are many school personnel, especially teachers, who will be pleased to see this question raised. Due to the rigorous demands of educating our nation’s children, it is safe to assume that many schools across the country deal with the struggle of finding adequate time and resources to address issues of developing and sustaining healthy workplaces for their employees. However, the findings you reference from your studies are also supported by national research that calls attention to the direct correlation between working conditions in schools and employee satisfaction, attrition rates, teacher recruitment, and student performance.

One noteworthy indicator of the critical importance of addressing this issue is found when examining the turnover rates for teachers. The attrition rate for teachers is higher than most other professions. According to federal statistics cited in the article Filling in the Gaps by Jonathan Watts Hull, “15.7 percent of teachers leave the profession every year, compared to an 11.9 percent average for all other fields. Turnover is particularly pronounced in high-poverty schools – 20 percent annually.”

The issue becomes even more startlingly when you examine recruitment efforts and the specific retention rates for new teachers. Hull goes on to state, “annually, approximately 100,000 teachers graduate from the nation’s colleges of education. Of that number, less than 60 percent will ever enter the classroom after graduating. Of those who do, nearly 50 percent will leave teaching within the first five years.”

In addition to being indicators of dissatisfaction in the workplace, these numbers also pose a significant financial cost to schools, and a hindrance to improving student performance. According to The True Cost of Teacher Turnover by Tom Carroll and Kathleen Fulton, on average it costs $50,000 to recruit, hire, prepare and lose a teacher. The reality behind these statistics also creates a significant roadblock to successfully meeting the No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement of having a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom.

If the leaders of our nation’s schools are serious about improving the performance of their schools, in regards to both student and teacher performance, they must address the issues behind these alarming statistics. When you take a closer look at the story behind these numbers you begin to see the steps that are needed to address the issues. Supportive working environments and effective school leadership are cited as two of the most important factors behind teachers’ choices of where they would like to work, and where they will stay. In the article, Creating a Culture of Excellence, William Ferriter and John Norton write, “teacher surveys show that empowering teachers to make decisions, providing opportunities for career advancement, and fostering a culture of collaboration and support are vital to ensuring the consistency, longevity, and quality of a school’s teachers.” Specifically, professional support in the form of induction and mentoring programs has proven to effectively reduce attrition rates, as well as enhance student performance. According to the National Education Association, new teachers that take part in induction programs are almost twice as likely to remain in the teaching profession as those who do not.

As “best practice” employers have discovered, and research supports, good workplaces also lead to increased employee engagement and productivity, as a result employees who:

  • Work longer, harder, and more efficiently.
  • Function better as parts of teams.
  • Are more creative and innovative.
  • Adapt better to organizational change.
  • Are significantly more likely to stay with their employers than employees
    who are not engaged.

Many of the concepts and ideas cited in this response may come across as very intuitive concepts. However, the challenge is for school leaders to see the critical importance of actively attending to workplace issues, as opposed to continuing to place it further down the “to-do-list.”

— Winning Workplaces, November 01, 2005