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Improve Teacher Retention by Finding Out What Makes Veteran Teachers Special

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This guest post is written by Brady K. Jones. She is a PhD Candidate in the Human Development and Social Policy Program at Northwestern University studying the role of personality in teacher retention and how we can use psychology to make schools happier, healthier, and more motivating places to work and learn. 

In 2007, I began what I hoped would be a long career as a teacher. I found a job in a good school run by talented administrators nestled in a community in which parents raised happy, respectful children and valued educators. I was paid a modest but adequate salary and had very little to complain about.

Soon after, my sister Amy also began what she hoped would be a long career as a teacher. Like mine, her salary was low but livable. Where she landed, however, was quite different: a charter school in a poor urban neighborhood. She drove past pockets of drug dealers on her way to and from her classroom. She taught homeless students, hungry students. She dealt with the endless bureaucracy that is an inescapable part of working for a large city district.

I made it two years. Teaching, although endlessly rewarding, was hard for me. I drove to school nervous every day. I ruminated about mistakes and lost opportunities every night. I found it taxing to sustain the energy required to engage a room full of teenagers. Amy, on the other hand, thrived as a teacher, even in her more difficult circumstances. I've watched her work many times, and she comes alive in front of a fourth grade class. It invigorates her as much as it drained me. She loves being in the classroom and will likely retire as a teacher.

As a country, when we talk about retaining teachers, we nearly always focus on the variables that do not predict the different decisions Amy and I made. We talk about salary (usually, these days, we talk about merit pay) and we talk, sometimes, about working conditions. These two items are critical, of course. Paying teachers well and making their workplaces tolerable is foundational - we won't make strides in education, ever, without these pieces in place. But we miss out on a host of ways to support teachers and improve retention rates when we focus only on variables external to educators and ignore internal ones. In particular, we should be interested in teacher personality - those personal qualities that prompt some individuals to leave great schools and enable others to stay, long-term, in difficult ones.

There are a few researchers and practitioners who have ventured tentatively into this territory. Interest is growing in what are often referred to as "non-cognitive skills," like persistence and curiosity (although the focus is often limited to developing such skills in students, not teachers). And Angela Lee Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania has explored the role "grit" plays in teacher success and satisfaction. By and large, however, teachers' personalities - their traits, emotions, coping skills, and other personal qualities - are ignored. In fact, expressing an interest in how teachers think and feel about their jobs is often brushed off as worrying too much about the well-being of school employees and not "putting students first," as if student outcomes and teacher satisfaction were mutually exclusive.

In reality, we can learn an enormous amount about how to make schools happier and healthier places for both children and adults by studying what psychological qualities the most committed teachers possess. What role does resilience play, for example? Or perfectionism? What about extraversion or self-efficacy? Understanding how some individuals sustain a teaching career for many years is a key piece of the retention puzzle, and we're missing it.

Just as important as understanding how long-term teachers are different from those who leave the profession is identifying which of these personal qualities are changeable. Some personality traits - such as extraversion or conscientiousness - are considered by psychologists to be relatively stable across the lifespan; in other words, they are difficult to change dramatically. Other characteristics are quite malleable. Coping strategies can be taught, for example. Resilience can be practiced.

One particularly promising path that allows for a large degree of change involves exploring the stories, or personal narratives, teachers tell themselves and others about their daily work. Research suggests that the kinds of stories people tell about the events of their lives have important and measurable outcomes. For example, people who tend to tell "redemptive narratives," or stories that focus on the goodness or growth that comes from adversity, have better psychological health and a stronger desire to make a difference in society and leave a positive legacy. Other work has shown that individuals who are particularly moral and giving are more likely in their personal narratives to show "enlightened self-interest," or a unique combination of commitment to one's own ambitions and a concern for others. Most encouragingly, it seems these personal narratives can change; people can improve their lives by altering their stories.

We would do well as country talk to veteran educators, to learn from them not just how they teach well, but also how they manage to stick with the difficult work they do year after year. Researchers should study who these individuals are, how they are special. Aspiring teachers should ask them to discuss their failures and how they bounced back, their triumphs and what they took away from them. Administrators should consider how they might take these lessons and coach new teachers to process the fumbles they will inevitably make early in their careers so they can tell productive, redemptive stories about them. And policymakers should think about what makes valuable veteran teachers tick and ensure that the laws we pass and the schools we build nurture, not stifle, those motivations.

Factors like salary and work environment are inarguably important to retention. We will always lose too many teachers as long as we underpay and overdemand. But for me, and for my sister, other variables were at play - personal qualities that fortified her commitment to the classroom and undermined mine. We can make schools more stable and satisfying places to work and learn by finding out, first, what these qualities are and second, how we can cultivate them in the young teachers we hope to retain for years to come.  

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