HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

What Do Teachers Want? Strategies for Keeping Your Best Teachers Happy and Growing

by Peter Gow Issue: Teacher Retention & Development

In recent years, the media have been alive with stories about the coming teacher shortage. As the current generation of master teachers retires and fewer young people go into the profession, we are told, it will become harder and harder for schools to populate their classrooms with excellent teachers. The numbers show that there is some truth behind the alarmist tales, and teaching continues to be seen in many quarters as a “soft,” low-paying, and low-prestige profession that attracts relatively few high-achieving students.

The era in which independent school salaries lagged far behind public school scales has passed.

As independent school educators we know that teaching is anything but soft and that there are tremendous rewards that compensate for the material shortcomings. The question remains, however: How will our schools attract and keep teachers who are energized by and committed to the work we do?

The answer is twofold, and neither part is easy or without cost. Nevertheless, it lies within the power of every school to create circumstances in which both new and veteran teachers are deeply engaged in the work they do and in the success of their students. In such schools teachers can find the personal rewards that will nourish them for the span of a career.

All educators desire a few basic things from their working lives. Like any adults, teachers wish to be taken seriously, to be good at their work and inspired and supported to become even better, and to find through their jobs both warm personal relationships and professional recognition. A school’s leadership should not find it impossible to promote these conditions in plenty.

There are two particular areas in which schools can help teachers find what they want and need. The first is salary and benefits, in which some basic principles can guide schools toward the creation of at least relatively satisfying offerings to complement the second and equally important area, which is school culture. Between a menu of best practices in material compensation and thoughtful and sincere efforts to create a working environment in which teachers feel both valued and professionally competent, even schools of modest means can compete for and hold onto able teachers at every career stage.


In 2007 the National Association of Independent Schools released results of a comprehensive teacher satisfaction survey that suggest that while the amount of money and benefits a school can offer matters, teachers most desire flexible benefits programs responsive to their specific needs. Younger teachers, for example, may be looking for childcare or help in paying off student loans or financing graduate degrees, while more senior teachers are likely to be more focused on issues such as pensions and tuition remission for their children. While many kinds of benefits are expensive to implement, a strong program will help schools keep teachers. Schools that involve teachers in the development of such programs are likely to have even better retention.

The era in which independent school salaries lagged far behind public school scales has passed, and the NAIS survey not surprisingly shows that teachers are most satisfied when their salaries approximate local public school salaries; being in the upper tier of local independent school pay scales also brings high satisfaction. It is also clear that teachers look for transparency and if possible participation in the design and application of compensation structures.

There is no easy answer to the question of how to pay for high salaries and extensive benefits. Schools with very limited resources might consider choosing to focus on benefit expansion as more slightly more important even than raising cash pay, and every school should be focusing part of its general marketing and fundraising energy on the question of teachers. “We must have the means to keep the best teachers” should be an oft-repeated mantra in any fundraising effort. Parents, alumni/ae, and the community at large should be made well aware that the school needs to sustain excellence by attracting and keeping great teachers and that offering a competitive salary structure is an essential tool in achieving this. (As a corollary, school development and communications offices should consider that prospective teachers are a significant audience for any marketing; every publication, web page, or press release has potential as a recruiting tool.)


School leaders have considerable control over the things that teachers desire most in their working lives.

More complex is the matter of school culture. The NAIS survey reveals high satisfaction among teachers who feel that their work is in tune with a school’s values and expectations and whose working conditions and school communities give the teachers an overall sense of success: class sizes allow the development of positive relationships with students, parents are engaged and supportive, teaching resources are available as needed.

School leaders have considerable control over the things that teachers desire most in their working lives, and many cost relatively little. Some reflect the style of the school’s administration, and it does not take a rocket scientist to understand that a principal or head of school who regularly engages with teachers and understands and appreciates their work is likely to be running a happy school whose teachers return year after year.

Key administrative factors in developing a positive school culture include communication, leadership visibility, recognition and appreciation of effective work, opportunities for authentic growth, transparency of decision-making, and the involvement of teachers in policy decisions. Many of these involve mutual trust; it can be a challenge for some leaders to delegate or even share authority. In the paternalistic model of old, teachers were seen as unprepared or unwilling to think or act on an institutional level, an attitude that did much to infantilize them and promote unhealthy schisms between faculties and administrations. School leaders in the twenty-first century know that involving teachers in all levels of decision-making results in more committed and engaged faculties.

Moreover, teachers invited into the process of moving a school forward are likely to become even more invested in improving the overall quality of their work. Through committee work, planning exercises, or even ad hoc collaborations, teachers grow in leadership capacity even as they gain vital institutional, rather than personal or departmental, perspective. This kind of participation in school-wide thinking is itself a kind of professional development and a potent tool for schools looking to improve not only what their teachers are doing in the classroom but also the ways in which teachers view themselves within the profession of education.


A vibrant professional culture is not a matter of teachers operating or learning in isolation and being celebrated as embodying in the aggregate a school’s commitment to teaching. Instead, professional culture is built around focused and mission-driven approach to teaching and professional development. Effective professional development programs are not simply those that allow any interested teacher to attend a conference here or take a course there. While these opportunities serve individual needs, they may represent significant investment in only a few teachers without any connection to the school’s larger mission or strategic goals.

Let us be clear that the emphasis on mission and goals in considering professional culture and professional development is above all a consideration of students and their needs. After all, the ongoing improvement of students’ experience is the object of a school’s strategic thinking, and each school’s mission embodies—or should embody—a set of almost utopian ideals. From the mission flows the work, and strategic goals specify the means and intermediate steps in this work.

Professional development that keeps teachers invested serves institutional needs just as much as it does the individual aspirations and growth needs of teachers. To be most valuable it must also be universal (adjusted, perhaps, for existing levels of expertise); no teacher can be overlooked or excused. While good professional development acknowledges individual capacities and goals, it holds everyone to high standards of participation and implementation. Unlike the “go to any conference that suits you” model, effective professional development programs put resources where they will do the most good for the most teachers, and above all for the school and the experience of its students.


Excellent professional development programs start with the experience of new teachers in the school. Statistics show that the annual cohort of new teachers is the most vulnerable to whatever feelings of failure or disappointment cause people to leave teaching. New teacher programming should be well thought-out, comprehensive, and ideally a specific part of an administrative portfolio—in other words, someone needs to be in charge.

The school year should begin with a comprehensive orientation program for new teachers. Along with helping new teachers to develop their curricula and especially their lessons for the first days and weeks of school, orientation should have an anthropological focus that includes explicit attention to introducing new teachers to valued skills and techniques that are particular to the school’s programs, basic assumptions about teaching and learning that prevail at the school, important people and places in the school, and school idiosyncrasies. Every school, for example, has its own lingo—terms and usages with highly school-specific meanings—but many traditions, structures, and procedures are also unique to each school, and new teachers need every bit of help they can get in mastering these.

In the first year (and possibly the second), each teacher should also have a designated mentor whose task it is to create a safe environment for the teacher to share questions and concerns as well as to observe the teacher in action and offer feedback, all outside of any supervisory or evaluative role. Ideally, there would also be a series of workshops bringing together new teachers, mentors, and the new-teacher supervisor to work through a mentoring curriculum keyed to the trajectory of the school year: how to address classroom management issues, how to conduct parent conferences (before these are held), how to write narrative reports (before these are due), how to manage the mid winter doldrums or spring fever. Extensive research shows that teachers given such support through their first year of teaching are both more effective in their work and more likely to remain in the profession.


While mentors of new teachers should not be evaluators, the school must have a formal mechanism for monitoring the performance of all teachers. Effective systems of evaluation are first and foremost about supporting teachers in their ongoing development, based on clearly understood aims and standards that grow, once again, out of the school’s mission, values, and goals. Classroom observations play a significant part in such systems, but observers should be trained to observe and to give effective feedback; “evaluation,” or judgment, comes last.

Most of all, effective teacher evaluation exists as an established part of a school’s professional culture. Focused on the teacher as a growing individual at every stage of a career, the language, methodology, and ethos of evaluation should be about meaningful feedback, dialogue, self-evaluation, and reflection. As much as possible, it should address all aspects of a teacher’s work and include multiple points of view, including the teacher’s. Just as teachers want transparency and involvement in decision-making, they value clarity and consistency in the application of any evaluation system, especially insofar as it is part of any determination of salary or continued employment.

As part of creating a shared professional culture, all schools should develop an explicit statement of standards for effective teaching, a document that serves a number of purposes: as a basis for evaluation, but also as a statement to the community (and to prospective faculty) that the school is intentional and clear about the work of and expectations for its faculty. The exercise of creating such a statement can itself be a powerful piece of collaborative professional development.

First-year programs designed to help new teachers succeed, standards by which to measure performance and growth, professional development to inspire and support growth, salary and benefit packages that reward performance, and above all an atmosphere in which teachers see themselves regarded as valued professionals—these are what teachers want. As a teacher experiences the high and lows of a long career, what he or she needs most is to feel that the school to which they are devoting their professional passion and expertise is responsive, respectful, and willing to offer the resources required to sustain the teacher’s growth and professional and personal satisfaction. ♦

Peter Gow is a teacher and consultant who has written extensively on teacher hiring, training, and retention based on more than thirty years’ experience in independent schools. He can be reached at pgow@mindspring.com.

Go To the Next Article


This column features books, articles, and websites recommended by our authors and people from the RAVSAK network,......

Teacher Retention & Development

Teachers are the most precious resource of any school. The measure of a great school is its ability to recruit and retain great teachers who know their subject and craft, care deeply about all their students, and are passionately committed to their own development and the school as a community. Here, find guidance for finding, preparing and evaluating teachers, and keeping them happy and productive stakeholders.

Click here to download the PDF and printer friendly version of this issue of HaYidion