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The Whole Teacher

    By Dr. Lori M. Koerner

    In 2019, I published an article regarding critical issues in education over the next five years. These challenges included funding, safety, mental health, technology and innovation. What I didn’t see coming was that school district leaders were going to be navigating through a global pandemic, teachers were going to become tired, and there would be a lull in teacher preparation program enrollment. Not only do I propose we add teacher preparation and retention to the list of critical issues in education, I propose we place them high on that list. Improving teacher retention serves to improve the education system as a whole.

    A 2022 poll conducted by the National Education Association (NEA) found that 55 percent of educators plan to leave the education field sooner than they had expected to, due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic. High levels of stress, increasing demands on time and energy, salary considerations, safety concerns and more are all contributing to this potential exodus. Great teachers who stay in a school district deliver the best outcomes for students, their colleagues and the school community. Yet teacher retention is one of the most challenging issues facing educational systems in the United States today. In terms of definition, teacher retention is when the teacher chooses to stay with their current school district rather than actively seeking another job, and the district does all it can to make sure they retain their very best people.

    Educators and educational leaders are constantly talking about and referring to the whole child. This requires us to ensure that we are supporting children’s social competencies and emotional stability while also making sure they’re making appropriate academic growth. It’s Maslow before Bloom, and good educators are all too familiar with this approach to child development. It means making sure children feel a sense of belonging and valued before they can learn the academics.

    Teacher retention begins with making sure we employ & nourish the whole teacher

    This means making sure we’re taking good care of the people that take care of the children. If we want to attract and retain the best teachers, then we need to establish a culture of care in our schools so people want to join our team – and stay for the long haul. Continuity is the key to increasing student outcomes. Providing a culture of care for the whole teacher requires us to be mindful of the needs of our team, and provide for those needs, essentially nurturing their socialization, emotional wellbeing and life-long learning. Maslow before Bloom is for adults too!

    Creating a sense of belonging where authentic self-expression, voice and agency are valued, not constrained — is no small venture. Attracting and retaining the best people begins with providing time for teachers (and teaching assistants, aides, clerical staff, food service workers, security guards and transportation workers) to take care of themselves. Sending the message that a work/life balance is not a luxury, it’s a necessity, helps the team to be able to shut down at night and reenergize so they are ready for a new day ahead.

    Providing purposeful professional development based on voice & choice

    Then, check in. Follow up and follow through. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Show your interest. Let people know they are valued. This is how to develop strong, trusting relationships. When the word gets out about what a great place your district is to work, you won’t need to look too far for the best candidates – they will come looking for you. I write from experience. We have had dozens of teacher candidates reach out about available positions in our district and continue to apply to other open positions within our district because they have heard about our humanitarian, whole teacher approach to building the best team. Our students, faculty, staff and families reap the benefits of our core values. There are several key considerations for hiring and retaining the best teachers; these include administrative support, mentorship, compensation, cultivating collaboration, establishing a positive school climate, and ultimately inspiring them and empowering them to lead.

    We need to ensure that we’re preparing new teachers for the realities of the profession as they are today, and for what they will look like as we move into the future. This must include courses on Social – Emotional Learning (SEL) within teacher training programs. We require teachers to provide SEL for students without training or modeling for them what that actually looks like. SEL should not be another “thing” on a teacher’s plate. It should be who we are and what we do. It should be responsive, not reactive. It’s thanking a child when he or she arrives late to school instead of demanding they relive what might have been a stressful morning for them by responding to the old question of, “Why are you late?” As we model for our teacher candidates what SEL looks like in our practice, they will be able to more seamlessly transfer it into their daily practice. This is not to say there aren’t some incredible resources and platforms available to assist teachers in sharing essential and regulation skills with kids. It’s simply a reasonable request to walk the walk and help our teachers meet success so they can help their students to do the same. Understanding and infusing SEL into our daily practice will benefit the whole teacher, and the whole child.

    Partnering with local universities

    As educational leaders it is our responsibility to offer insight and to assist in the process for acquiring a teaching certification. Instead of a semester or two of dabbling in student observation and student teaching, colleges and universities should require this to mimic medical internships, with a two year process of diving into the nitty gritty of all that this wonderful profession necessitates us to do. After two years of “professional rounds” our candidates will be ready to take on the full responsibilities of teaching, inclusive of SEL, academic, innovation, creativity, blood, sweat, tears – and joy. And if lucky enough to be hired in a district that has a focus on a culture of care, retention will be smooth sailing.

    If school leaders don’t take action to mitigate teacher turnover, the problems associated with a dwindling teacher population will only intensify in the coming years. The strategies and ideas shared here will strengthen the overall structure of schools by cultivating effective collaboration, increasing teacher success, and improving school culture. As a result, district leaders can create a school environment in which both students and teachers can thrive.

    Lori Koerner has been in the field of education for over three decades. She spent the first 26 years of her career as an elementary school teacher, having taught every grade. She is a Fulbright Specialist Scholar, and served as an adjunct professor for special education at several universities in New York.

    Dr. Koerner is currently an Assistant Superintendent in a public school district on Long Island in New York. Her research has been centered on educating the whole child; that is, developing students’ social competencies, emotional well-being, and physical fitness through recess and play so that they are best equipped to meet their maximum academic potential.

    Dr. Koerner is a mom of four, and a bold child advocate. She has written numerous articles for national magazines regarding paradigm shifts necessary for 21st century learning. Dr. Koerner has presented across the country regarding innovation in education.