The intangible apple

With schools across the country starting the new school year, tens of thousands of teachers are walking into new classrooms for the first time, either at the start of their career or after a move in search of a more rewarding experience.

By this time next year many of those teachers will have moved on again, or quit the occupation altogether. With budgets in most districts continuing to tighten, it’s becoming increasingly hard to attract and retain quality educators with greater pay and benefits.

And, that’s where the equation usually ends: with pay and benefits. But, what are some of the intangibles that make a school a great place to teach? What are some of the things administrators and parents can do to attract, retain, and reward great teachers? I explore some of these intangibles – the things that make a teacher feel valued and invaluable – in the article below.

What are some of the things you’re seeing in your community that improve, or damage, teacher retention?

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Stay or leave? Decision is more than dollars and cents

ENID, Okla. — Much, if not most, of the discussion surrounding teacher recruitment and retention surrounds pay and benefits. If you want to attract and keep quality teachers, you have to pay more money — so goes the argument.

But, there also are many intangible variables, like morale, parental support and a school culture that makes teachers feel empowered, that also weigh on a teacher’s decision to stay at or leave a school district.

And, in a budget environment that’s making it increasingly hard to solve teacher retention with bigger paychecks, some school districts and communities are embracing those intangibles.

“I think what’s needed more than anything else is some morale boosting,” said Fairview Public Schools Superintendent Rocky Burchfield, speaking of the teacher retention issue in general.

Fairview pays its teachers a higher rate than the minimum state compensation schedule, a feat that is less common among the state’s smaller, more rural districts.

Burchfield said the higher compensation level is important to attracting and keeping teachers, but what’s more important is the effort to make teachers feel supported and appreciated.

“Teachers really do enjoy working in a school that has a high level of parent involvement,” Burchfield said. “I think most teachers do greatly appreciate that, and I think they value it.”

Parent-initiated and -led mentor programs bring parents, grandparents and interested community members into Fairview schools each week to work with the kids and support the teachers. Burchfield said that kind of community involvement inside the schools is invaluable to teachers, and is a resource no budget could provide.

“Those mentors have become the biggest fans of our teachers,” Burchfield said. “We have a lot of people from the community who volunteer on a regular basis, and that kind of support is huge to any teacher.”

Burchfield said teachers also value a school board and administration that empowers them to teach, and supports their decisions in the classroom.

“I think we’ve been lucky to have a board that supports policies that are good for the teaching environment,” Burchfield said. “That creates a culture that’s positive and important to teachers who might want to come to Fairview.”

Burchfield said all of those intangible variables that make teachers feel valued “actually are more important than compensation.”

Parental support critical

Roydon Tilley, superintendent at Chisholm Public Schools, said a district’s reputation for supporting teachers in the classroom can overcome disparities in compensation rates.

Due to budget considerations, Chisholm pays its teachers according to the state’s minimum compensation schedule. Despite that, Tilley said the district has been able to attract and retain quality teachers because of a culture of support from the administration, parents and the community.

“Chisholm has an excellent reputation for the quality of a well-rounded education provided to students,” Tilley said. “Many educators want to teach in an environment where academics are a high priority.”

And, he said, Chisholm is regarded as a good place for teachers to educate their own children.

“I believe that we rely heavily on the fact that we are a great school to have their children attend,” Tilley said. “Our culture of empowering students to grow in mind, body and spirit, I believe, plays into the decision-making process for many families. Parental support is very high at Chisholm Public Schools.”

Community recognition

Community kind of support can be critical in a teacher’s decision to choose one district over another, a process Todd Woolley underwent two years ago when he moved to Northwest Oklahoma from California.

Woolley now teaches fourth grade at Coolidge Elementary School in Enid Public Schools. He previously taught in California, but moved to Okeene to be close to his wife’s family.

He said he initially chose Enid Public Schools because of the initiative to provide each student with access to a tablet or Chromebook. That’s a project funded entirely by bond funds approved by local voters — a source of revenue entirely separate from the state funds currently plagued by Oklahoma’s revenue failure.

“I drive 45 minutes here to Enid every day to and from work,” Woolley said. “When I came here, I could have chosen someplace closer to home, but I chose Enid because the technology they have here compared to the other districts is top-notch.”

Woolley said he also looked for a district with principals that supported teachers, and a community that valued their work.

Last September, he was surprised to be the recipient of one of the ways local businesses and civic organizations support teachers. Woolley was the first recipient of the Emerging E Award, a collaborative effort between EPS and Curttright Honda to recognize new teachers for their professionalism and dedication to teaching. Woolley was given a new rental car from Curttright to use for free for a month — a valuable reward for a teacher who drives 90 miles round-trip to work.

But, more than the tangible reward of using the new car, Woolley said the award was a valuable sign of how much the community values teaching, and teachers.

“That is something I have never seen or been a part of — even in California,” Woolley said. “That’s what I like about Enid: It’s not really a small town, but it has that small-town feel.”

‘Be involved’

Heather Reames, who teaches science at Emerson Middle School in Enid, first came to EPS straight out of college when she was 21 years old. She said she’s stuck with the district for 26 years because Enid has been a good place to raise her family, and the district and community have consistently worked together to make her feel valued.

“Students and teachers in this district are a priority,” Reames said. “At the end of the day, teachers don’t get into teaching for the money. You get into teaching because you have a passion for kids, and when you find a district that shares that passion you don’t want to go anywhere else.”

Reames said EPS has worked to retain other teachers who share that passion, creating a culture that makes any district more attractive to teachers.

“I do think my colleagues are fabulous,” Reames said. “I think most people in a classroom in this town love the kids, and I can’t imagine teaching with someone who didn’t get excited about what we do. We get excited when our kids learn, and we get excited when they’re excited.”

Reames is aware there are other districts within commuting distance that pay marginally better. But, she said, that doesn’t tip the scales against a culture in which a teacher feels embraced by the administration, the community and their colleagues.

“The passion I have for the kids in this town, and the things I want them to be able to do: That’s what I focus on each day as I plan my lessons,” Reames said. “I don’t focus on whether or not I could drive another hour and earn a thousand more dollars. I have former students whose children are now coming to me, and that’s really neat. I’ve invested a lot in them, and I don’t want to give that up.”

While districts are limited in ways to boost teacher pay amidst the state budget shortfall — and most individuals don’t have the means to make a significant impact on school budget cuts — Reames said every parent in every school district has one way to make a big difference in teacher retention: “Be involved.”

“Show up to the (Parent Teacher Association) meetings, e-mail your child’s teachers — just be involved,” Reames said. “Make us feel like we’re not out there alone, swimming against the stream. Let us know you’re involved and interested.”

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