Holding onto Millennial Teachers: What’s the Problem?

Kami Lewis Levin, Ed.D.
Apr 23 · 5 min read
Revolving Doors and Leaky Buckets. (Ingersoll, 2007)

This is the fifth piece in a series called Holding onto Millennial Teachers: Learning About Why They Stay. The series explores what motivates them to stay and how those meeting their motivational needs can generate talent pipeline and retention strategies in even the hardest to staff schools.

Attrition of educators in high-poverty, urban schools has been an ongoing issue. This high attrition has created a vacuum of experienced teachers across the country. Today, teachers are largely of the Millennial generation (born between 1980 and 2000). Millennials, like the generations that have preceded them, want to learn, want leadership opportunities, and want a voice in decision-making. As an industry, the pre-K to 12 school systems do not leverage these wants. Therefore, teachers feel they are not valued, heard, or professionally developed. As a result, the retention rate for many new teachers is approximately three years. While there is research that indicates why these educators choose to leave, less is known about why others choose to continue in the system.

from U.S. schools struggle to hire and retain teachers. (García & Weiss, 2019)

The implications for why some teachers choose to stay in the system are important because the acumen of American students in the areas of both reading and mathematics is slipping. The Nation’s Report Card indicates a frightening reality: our children are increasingly less prepared to become competitive members of a democratic society. They are struggling to persevere, to think critically, to read closely, and to monitor their own progress by checking their work as they complete math problems, for instance. They want to be given the right answer, rather than understand the process to apply it across contexts.

Concurrent with this reality is another one, just as frightening: our teachers, coaches, and school leaders are increasingly less prepared to teach our children how to become competitive members of a democratic society. The pandemic is shining a light on the inequity inherent to the system of education in this county while exacerbating the lack of preparedness on the part of both the educators and the students. We are struggling to retain our high-performing pre‑K through grade 12 educators, particularly in high-poverty schools, the schools where the students require the most support. And the data around distance learning (the remote school that replaced brick-and-mortar schools once American cities were locked down) suggest that American students could potentially fall seven months behind academically, while students in high-poverty schools, particularly children of color, could have lost a year of schooling due to the closures in March of 2020.

COVID-19 and learning loss — disparities grow and students need help. Dorn, Hancock, Sarakatsannis, and Viruleg. McKinsey & Company, 2020.

Exploring these two interwoven realities is critical to the health of this country’s school system. Researchers forecast that within 10 years, there will be considerably fewer skilled teachers, and considerably fewer skilled school leaders. The pool is shallow already. Given the complex and adaptive nature of the work in high-poverty schools, the need to retain talent is great. And given the widening academic gaps that children in these schools must bridge in order to be successful in society, the need to retain talent is even greater. Putting children at the forefront, readying them to enter the workforce as it exists today, demands innovation around how to hold on to talented educators. The literature suggests myriad reasons they might leave. But who stays? And why?

I have provided a number of retention strategies through the Powerful Practices portion of this series.

Powerful Practices #1 and #2: Leveraging adult learning through reflection.

Powerful Practice #3: Equity & the power of engaging in common texts.

Powerful Practice #4: Differentiated learning pathways.

Powerful Practice #5 : Developing leadership skills.

Below, I share another practice — the importance of creating a positive adult culture in schools. This is yet another tool to add to your ever-growing retention toolbox.

Powerful Practice #6: Positive Adult Culture

Who doesn’t want to work someplace with a positive culture? For Millennials (and all adults in schools, if we are being candid) this has specific connotations. In my 2021 study, Holding onto Millennial Teachers: Learning From Aspiring Leaders’ Experiences About Why They Stay, the top finding for what truly motivated folks to stick around was twofold: 1) they liked and respected their colleagues; and 2) the culture was positive.

No amount of professional learning or leadership development matters if the workplace culture is less than positive. And, in the words of the English adage above, the fish rots from the head. So, leaders, it’s time to self-assess and potentially reset.

How are you modeling positive adult to adult interactions?

Paying attention to how you engage with your teachers is a low level lift and goes a really long way to creating a safe space and setting expectations for others. Sending a “how’s it going?” text to 5 teachers each day helps them feel connected to you and cared for.

Exhibiting vulnerability by informally sharing that you too are human is also powerful for culture. You can do this by starting a meeting with something like, “I just want to be transparent with you all — I got my second Covid shot yesterday and I’m feeling a little off. How have you all reacted to the vax?”

Sharing highlights from the day is another way to create a positive vibe. Raise awareness around the positive adult to adult interactions you witness by calling them out during staff meetings or by providing positive praise privately to the individuals: “That co-planning meeting I walked in on earlier was incredible! The way you two delegated responsibility for the lesson and brainstormed strategies to differentiate for the students struggling with citing evidence to support their claims is sure to yield results!”

By implementing ideas like these consistently for a sustained period of time, you will begin to notice your teachers picking up and implementing these ideas themselves, in their team meetings, and with their students. Modeling (and being metacognitive about) the types of interactions you want to see from your staff is a great way to positively inform adult culture. And positive culture increases teacher retention.

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Kami Lewis Levin, Ed.D.

Written by

Ed reformer, adult learning expert, working mom. Supporter of all the teachers who are creating a more equitable world every single day. One student at a time.

Educate.

Educate magnifies the voices of changemakers in education. We empower educators to share their stories, ideas, insights, and inspiration. Educate is dedicated to the fusion of research + education policy and practice.

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