Superintendents Share Their Secrets to Getting and Keeping Quality Teachers

Colorado’s K-12 teachers are paid less on average than their counterparts across the country, but money alone won’t fix the state’s teacher shortage.

That’s according to state education and business leaders who met in Denver on Wednesday, November 16, to discuss ways to attract and keep quality teachers in Colorado. At a forum hosted by the Public Education Business Coalition, a nonprofit that supports teacher training, superintendents from five of the state’s school districts shared their strategies for fighting too-high teacher turnover rates and recruiting young people into the profession.

“We talk about having a talent shortage,” said panelist Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, one of the largest districts in the state. “Only in education am I expected to share the tricks of my trade with my competitors.”

Munn was joking, but with a fast-growing population and an ever-increasing demand for a well-educated workforce, Colorado’s teacher shortage is no laughing matter. In Denver alone, enrollment has increased 25 percent over the last eight years, according to DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg, the highest growth rate not only in Colorado, but also among all U.S. cities.

Experts warn that the state is poised for a crisis if its public schools cannot adequately staff classrooms with highly effective licensed educators and keep the teachers they hire. Currently, the Colorado Office of Economic Development estimates that the state’s elementary, middle and high schools are short by about 1,500 licensed teachers, and the shortfall will only worsen as a result of high turnover and a sharp decline in the number of candidates in teacher-prep programs.

According to a nationwide study by the Learning Policy Institute, Colorado ranks near the bottom in “teacher attractiveness,” which takes into account factors like compensation and working conditions. Only Arizona and the District of Columbia scored worse.

The General Assembly is likely to take up the issue of education finance reform in the next session, so the PEBC discussion focused on the non-monetary ways schools and districts can keep their educators engaged and employed over the long haul.

Every district has its unique challenges. Keeping highly qualified teachers around is particularly troublesome in schools that serve mostly minority students. The Learning Policy Institute also ranked Colorado low in “teacher equity” because the state’s schools with high minority populations are disproportionately staffed by inexperienced or uncertified teachers.

DPS has more applicants for its teaching positions than it has jobs available, according to Boasberg, but it has more trouble keeping good teachers than other large districts. Colorado Department of Education records put DPS’s turnover rate at 22 percent, slightly higher than the state average of almost 20 percent and the highest among districts with more than 1,000 licensed teachers. In contrast, Jefferson County has a lower turnover rate overall, about 16 percent, but some of its urban schools have seen a higher percentage of their teachers leave each year, according to superintendent Dan McMinimee.

“Principals spend a lot of time hiring and training teachers,” McMinimee said. “And teacher turnover affects student achievement, especially in low-performing schools.”

To combat the problem, the Jeffco district allowed schools more autonomy over their budgets and governance structures, which gave teachers a greater voice, fostered a sense of belonging, and made teachers “partners in decision-making as to what was going on in their buildings.” Another key was creating highly structured “professional learning communities,” or PLCs — formal groups of teachers who share expertise and collaborate to improve teaching skills and student performance. The result has been an improvement in those schools’ turnover rates.

Several of the panelists stressed the need to treat and train teachers as professionals. For DPS’s superintendent, great teachers are made, not born, and professional development is paramount. Traditionally, teacher development has been the job of the principal, who may be responsible for 25 or more educators in his building, Boasberg said, a model that doesn’t cut it anymore.

“The learning curve to be an effective teacher is as steep and challenging as that for a surgeon, a person in high-tech or an architect,” he said, and those professions have a better model — a team approach — for career development. DPS’s teacher-leadership program creates teams of no more than eight educators led by a “teacher leader,” who teaches a half-day and is free the other half to observe, assist and guide the team members.
The peer-to-peer collaboration results in greater job satisfaction, Boasberg said. “Ninety percent of our teachers say their teacher leader is helping them learn and grow as teachers,” he said. "And the teacher leaders have a career opportunity that they love.”

In the Cherry Creek school district, efforts at teacher retention start in a new teacher’s first year, which superintendent Harry Bull called “the most challenging time for a young teacher.” Each new educator has a mentor from a pool of master teachers, who provide support, reassurance and feedback.

“If we’re successful with a first-year teacher, then we know we can retain them,” said Bull.

Aurora superintendent Munn recommended that districts tap into what motivates teachers — whether it be personal profit or personal passion.

“When you can’t outdo other people on the profit,” Munn said, “you focus on the passion,” by creating a brand and providing the best possible setting. “Four years ago,” Munn continued, “my teachers weren’t able to tell their colleagues ‘This is a place where you want to work,’” partly because of discipline problems and a high number of expulsions. After two years of a restorative-justice program for students that emphasizes listening, relationship building and leadership development over suspensions, Aurora Public Schools has a greater “sense of readiness” for higher academic performance, and teachers are happier.

APS also sought to lighten educators’ workloads so they could spend more time teaching. A few of the more understaffed schools employ assistants who shoulder some of the administrative, clerical and supervisory tasks — think lunch duty — that would otherwise fall to teachers.

Keeping good teachers is just part of the equation; the initial hurdle is in recruiting young people to enter the profession in the first place. It doesn’t help, said Cherry Creek’s Bull, that public education gets a bad rap from certain quarters.

“There’s a national rhetoric that’s very critical of K-12 public education — and a state rhetoric,” Bull said. “Public education is being blamed for a lot of the evils in America, but it’s not true.” In a recent Gallup Poll, he said, the majority of Americans gave public education a grade of A or B.

The profession is more complex than ever, Bull said, with teachers expected to be educators, mental-health practitioners and disciplinarians all rolled into one.

“We don’t recognize that, and we’re wondering why our millennials are not coming into the profession. We need to change the rhetoric. We need to change that conversation or we won’t have teachers,” Bull said. “The reality is that at some point, for those of you with small children, we're not going to have qualified teachers to teach your children.”

Teacher recruitment is especially difficult in rural or remote districts, like the Archuleta district in Pagosa Springs, in the southwest corner of the state. When there are no big-city amenities, said Archuleta superintendent Linda Reed, you have to sell candidates on other community assets, like proximity to the mountains and outdoor activities, and seek out those who actually want to live in a small town.

Some creativity is called for in recruiting for a small district, Reed said. When she received a resume from a young woman looking for an administrative position, Reed realized that the candidate’s education and background were just right for high-school math — a position Reed had been struggling to fill. Today, she said, Archuleta High School has a stellar math teacher.

“There’s an extraordinary sense of moral purpose that our teachers bring to their jobs,” said Denver’s Boasberg. “They want to see a change in our world, create opportunities and erase the opportunity gap we see in our schools.”