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Field Trip: Keeping Great Teachers
A large suburban school district. An 18% year-over-year teacher turnover rate. A superintendent who said, “We need to plug the hole in our bucket.” This is how one school district set out to give teachers more voice and increase teacher retention.
In this interview we speak with Dr. Jeannie Stone, Superintendent of Richardson ISD in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Dr. Stone talks about the factors that contributed to a the highest attrition rate of any district in their area — and what they did about it.
- Conducting “stay interviews” with teachers to identify what their district was doing well in teachers’ eyes, and where they could grow
- Action steps they took, such as early release days to free up time for teachers to plan and collaborate, and incorporating teacher voice in planning professional development
- Incentivizing teachers to teach at high-need schools, transforming the culture in the process
“I have four completely transformed schools right now and we’re already seeing all kinds of data that’s showing that it’s going to work — and it is working.”
Stay Interview Questions
When the administration at Richardson ISD conducted the Stay Interviews, the interviews were simple and accessible for teachers, designed to get at what as truly on teachers’ minds. Here are the questions they asked teachers:
- How long have you worked on your campus? In the district?
- When you think about your job, what do you love most?
- How would you describe your campus to a prospective new hire?
- In what ways do you or don’t you feel supported in your professional growth?
- If you left RISD, what would you miss the most?
- If you had a magic wand, what would be the one thing you would change about your work, role or responsibilities?
- What would make RISD an even better place to work?
- What would lead you to look at opportunities outside of RISD?
- What types of recognitions and acknowledgement increase your loyalty and commitment to RISD?
- Is there anything else you would like to share?
Teacher Turnover Calculator
Wondering just how much teacher turnover costs your district? Our Teacher Turnover Calculator gives you an estimated dollar figure, taking into account recruiting and hiring costs, processing and onboarding, and signing bonuses — and looks at how much you could save by increasing your retention rate.
JEANNIE STONE: When I first arrived in Richardson three years ago, I was made aware of some issues that the district was having with teacher retention and teacher turnover.
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JEANNIE STONE: We really wanted to create a culture where our teachers felt that they had a voice and that they were being listened to.
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JEANNIE STONE: This school year been the start of a school year like none other, not only in Richardson but in any of the districts I’ve been in before.
I would say to anyone who says “This won’t work,” I would say you’re wrong. Because every one of us likes to be listened to and to feel like, “I am a part of something bigger than myself.”
From Frontline Education, you’re listening to Field Trip.
We are speaking today with Dr. Jeannie Stone, Superintendent of Richardson ISD, just outside of Dallas, Texas. Jeannie, I want to thank you for joining us today.
JEANNIE STONE: Thank you for having me.
Jeannie has been superintendent since January 2017. Prior to that, she served as Deputy Superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction.
JEANNIE STONE: We are a large suburban school district. We have over 39,000 students: 4 large 6A high schools. We are a beautiful, diverse community and district. In fact, we are the ninth most diverse district in the state of Texas, and that’s one of the great things about our district that we’re really known for — just a beautiful picture of diversity for a school district.
We’re here today to talk about teacher retention, but I first want to ask you about the opposite of that — teacher turnover. What sort of teacher turnover issues have you faced Richardson in recent years?
JEANNIE STONE: So when I first became superintendent, or actually when I first arrived in Richardson three years ago, I was made aware of some issues that the district was having with teacher retention and teacher turnover. We had a fairly high teacher turnover rate — at the time it was over 18%, which was higher than any other district in the metroplex area. There were a lot of different factors that caused that, and we started immediately working to address some of those issues.
I understand that there were certain schools that had an even higher turnover rate. Can you speak to that a little bit too?
JEANNIE STONE: We found that there are some of our schools in the district where we have some of the more challenging conditions, had a higher turnover rate — and that’s not unusual for school districts. In Richardson ISD, we were very diverse in terms of demographics. We’re very diverse in terms of socioeconomic status, so we have some of our schools that have very high concentrations of economically disadvantaged in their schools.
There are challenges in those schools, and so the turnover rates at those campuses were much higher than the average across the whole district. And so at those school districts, at those particular schools where they have greater than 90 percent economically disadvantaged percentages, we found that there was well over 25% teacher turnover every year for, for a consistent number of years. And so because of that, that was really driving up our overall teacher turnover.
You’ve begun what you are calling the STAY campaign. Could you tell me a little bit about that, what it is and what it encompasses?
JEANNIE STONE: We really wanted to create a culture where our teachers felt that they had a voice and that they were being listened to. So when we started trying to evaluate the ways that we had a outlets for teachers to give input about things that were possibly causing them to leave, we looked at our exit interview data and I even reached out to a number of teachers who had left the district to go to other districts, to neighboring districts.
Certainly there are always going to be conditions where teachers will leave, maybe their spouse gets transferred or they move to another city out of reach of the drive of coming to the district. But I reached out to teachers who had left and gone to neighboring districts that are just miles from us.
We were doing a lot of that, reacting to why teachers left. We really wanted to see, “Well, what could we do to talk to them before they leave?”
There’s this phenomenon that we did not invent but I had heard about called “stay interviews,” and we decided to get up to where we would have a stay interview opportunity for every single one of our teachers last year. It was a great campaign.
Talk to me about that interview process. You interviewed every single teacher? Is that correct?
JEANNIE STONE: We provided an opportunity for every teacher to come in, and every staff member, every counselor, every paraprofessional. We set up a schedule over the course of a couple of months where we had teams that went out to set up at every campus, and they spent almost a whole day there. We would allow any staff member who wanted to come either sign up to speak individually, or they could come in teams. We might have a whole fourth grade team that would come in, and they would just sit and wait and have a conversation.
We had some questions like, “Tell us what you love about working in Richardson ISD. If you could wave a magic wand and have something change, what would it be?” So they weren’t really hard questions — they were questions that were fairly easy to answer, and we found that people were very, very honest and open when speaking one on one with us. We were able to get some great information and we put some things into action because of it.
Then I’m sure that you took all of those answers and combed through them. But that really is a lot of data. What did that process look like as you compile that data and analyzed it?
JEANNIE STONE: We had a couple of our staff members, some great people who are really, really good at that analysis work — after all of it was compiled, they spent weeks going through it and looking for trends. We were able to find some trends that that came out. I made sure that I went out and sat in a number of the stay interviews at our campuses.
The whole process was a great way to connect with our team, to connect with our employees. The teachers and staff members were just so grateful that we were listening. So there were all kinds of benefits besides the data that we collected, which I can talk to you about, some of the things that we took action. But it was also the culture that we’re trying to build along the way where, when you sit in front of people and have a conversation and just listen and connect with them, that that is the kind of culture that we’re trying to create here in Richardson.
I’m going to ask you about the data that you came away with in a second, but when you talk about culture and the reaction that you got from teachers as you went out and listened to them, what kinds of things did you hear teachers say to you?
JEANNIE STONE: The first question was, “What do you love about teaching in Richardson ISD?” Almost across the board, every teacher immediately answered, “It’s the kids — being with the kids.” That’s obviously the kind of culture that we’re trying to build, and what we want is that all of our employees love kids.
That’s one of the things that I promote every time that I talk to anyone is, “If you’re going to work in this district, you have to love kids, and you also have to care about whether or not kids like you, in addition to that.” If kids love you, then you can be more effective. So that was certainly something that we heard.
And then the next thing people said is that they just love their team. They love the people that they get to work with. They love their administrators. The answer there was people. People, people, people, with kids being the lead answer. And that’s what we want. That’s definitely the first thing we want to come to mind when you ask any teacher, any employee what they love about working in the school district.
As you looked at the trends that you were collecting from the answers that teachers gave you as you met with them, what were the broad stroke trends? What were the common themes that you saw come out frequently, in terms of what would keep teachers at a school or at a district, as well as what would be the kinds of things that would make teachers say, “I’m going to leave”?
JEANNIE STONE: Not surprising to anyone who works in education, the number one thing that teacher said that if we could do anything was to give them more time. Time, time, time was just the overriding, number one thing that we heard across the board is we visited all of our campuses. Teachers’ jobs are so difficult and so challenging, and they can never have enough time. They’re teaching all day long. They get there early, they stay late, and of course take stuff home at night. So, how could… if there was any way that we could give them back more time.
That was really the big number one thing. Another thing was professional development, and really evaluating our professional development opportunities to ensure that they were things that were going to be beneficial to teachers to help them improve their skill, their craft and their pedagogy. And so those were really the two big common things.
Of course, pay and salary consideration was something that did come up, but it was lower on the list. We do not currently give a stipend for master’s degrees and advanced degrees, and that was another thing that was consistent that I was able to then take, and we’re going to evaluate as we move into budgeting in the future. So those were three big trends for us.
Let me ask you about that. It is interesting that you say that pay was lower on the list than time and professional development was. What does that tell you about your teachers?
JEANNIE STONE: Yeah, I mean it tells us that their priorities are in the right place. We them to care about kids, number one, and we want them to care about growing and improving as educators, number two. And then of course pay is important. It’s important to everyone, but that, that list in terms of priority tells me that our teachers and educators have their priorities in the right place.
So what did you do with this data that you collected? How did you address these issues of time always being in short supply, of teachers wanting more effective and classroom-impactful professional development activities? What are the sorts of action steps that you took as a result?
JEANNIE STONE: Immediately we started evaluating, “Okay, is there any way that we could give our teachers back more additional time?” All of this occurred last spring, and so we knew going into this school year we were also going to be implementing a brand new curriculum and we knew there were going to be some even greater challenges for teachers in terms of learning and new curriculum and planning and implementation. So what could we do moving forward that would provide more time? And of course, one of the things that we immediately evaluated was our instructional calendar. In our instructional calendar we’re required to have a certain number of instructional minutes for the school year. And so we started to look at, was there a way that we could build in some more time and still be in compliance with those minutes?
What we decided to do was we immediately came up with four days that we could have an early release day, just to give our teachers two hours on four different days this year where they could meet together as professional learning communities and have more time to plan and collaborate and work together. One might think, “Well, it’s just two hours, four days out of the year.” Those two hours to a teacher are extremely valuable. We just had our first one this last week. And it was a day where every campus dismissed – we have staggered dismissal time – so every campus dismissed two hours early and the kids went home. The feedback that has come in from our teachers about the value of that time has made it to where I know, already, it was a great decision.
I wonder if you could talk a little bit, as we think about professional development, as we think about the fact that time is such a scarce resource, how does that impact the kinds of professional development opportunities that you offer to your teachers when, you know, “We really have to make this count, if we’re going to use this kind of time”?
JEANNIE STONE: I have a philosophy that I’ve had ever since I left the classroom over 20 years ago. My mentor at the time told me, “Wherever you go in the ranks of administration, always take the teacher’s eyes with you.” And I have that on a sign that hangs on my wall in my office, and I promote it constantly. So what that means is that those of us who are making decisions, administration, those who work in our central office, anyone who’s making a decision about teachers, teachers’ time, what we expect of teachers, you have to have the teacher’s eyes. Professional development is certainly one of those things. And the way that that plays out is, whenever we’re making decisions about things that we’re going to ask teachers to invest their time in, we want to make sure that it’s valuable to them.
We call it Valuable Professional Development in Richardson ISD, that’s what we call our professional development program. We put the label “valuable professional development,” and we always say it’s only valuable if what we’re doing makes a difference for teachers to help them improve their skills and craft, and that it then translates to student performance outcomes. And so that lens is part of our culture and we constantly remind each other of that. Is this something that our teachers will benefit from or is this just a box that we need to kick off? Is this something that we could deliver in terms of an update or some type of online information rather than having them to invest their time? So that’s really become something that helps to guide us. And then whenever we evaluate [professional development] from our teachers, the question we ask is, “Was this a beneficial use of your time?”
Before we move on any further, you mentioned with regard to the budget and with time issues with special education staffing ratios. Can you talk a little bit more about that — your plans for the future as well as what are the kinds of things you’re hearing from teachers right now in special education, and why that might be especially true in special ed, and then, what you’re going to do about it in coming years?
JEANNIE STONE: So in our stay interviews, that was another trend that we saw across our campuses — that we needed to evaluate and address our special education staffing ratios. And we did that very seriously at the conclusion of the stay interviews, so much so that we built into our budget this year additional staffing allocations as a direct result of the information that we heard from our stay interviews. It became a priority, as a matter of fact, and it became a priority in our budget. And at a time where we have some very challenging budget situations right now in our district and across the state, because of state funding, last year we adopted a deficit budget and we are adopting a deficit budget again this year. But in spite of that we put these types of needs as priorities in our budget, because they’re critical to take care of our special education students, to keep our programs strong, and to take care of the needs of our teachers.
One of the things you mentioned to me the last time we spoke was the issue of feedback for teachers — about always having someone there observing and providing real time feedback that’s timely and useful. And you talked a little bit about your teacher residency program. Could you speak a little bit more in detail about that program, why it started and does that connect to this issue of teacher retention as well?
JEANNIE STONE: Certainly, yes. One of the best ways that you can help teachers grow professionally is to observe them, and then to give them real-time, immediate feedback. And that’s another issue, another thing that we heard, not only in our stay interviews, but when we’ve done surveys in our district: that teachers want feedback on how they can grow. And so, the teacher residency program is one of the best examples of that, because it has teammates in with teachers, helping and observing and watching them, and then they work together and they receive immediate feedback. That directly correlates to that trend that we heard from our teachers about wanting ways that they could grow professionally, and the teacher residency program is a great way that we’re doing that in Richardson.
Does every teacher get to take part in that? Is this a volunteer thing? Is it something that is geared towards new teachers? What are the mechanics there?
JEANNIE STONE: So right now we have our teacher residents assigned to our campuses that I talked about, where we have our greatest needs and challenges. Our campuses that are called our ACE campuses, we have a teacher residents that are spread out across those campuses, helping our teachers in so many ways and we’re already seeing so many benefits.
I mean, this obviously ties into the broader national conversation about equity. Talk to me about the before and after that you saw when you first came into the superintendent’s role. What was it like at those schools and what is it like now?
JEANNIE STONE: When I first came into Richardson, as I told you, I was Deputy Superintendent over Curriculum and Instruction. So I had a much closer hand in — well, I still have a close hand now, but when I first came in, that was my direct work because I was over Curriculum and Instruction. I was quite surprised when I first arrived in Richardson, in terms of the disparity at some of our campuses. We have a number of campuses that are over 90% economically disadvantaged, and we have some campuses that are less than 5% economically disadvantaged. So with that come some challenges, in terms of wanting resources and everything that we provide to be equitable, but it’s certainly something that we have to do. The campus is in Richardson with our high concentrations of economically disadvantaged, that’s where the turnover was.
When I started to dig into that, I found that the morale was low at those campuses, that the teachers who were there felt like the rest of the district almost felt sorry for them. That they were assigned to teach there, because it’s so hard, sometimes, to teach at a campus with so many challenges concentrated in one area. And so I knew that we had to do something to address that, because when you have a morale issue like that and when you have teachers that are leaving because it is so hard to teach in a place, that obviously filters down to the kids. So we had to do something about that. That’s when we decided that we would implement our ACE program, which I can go into for you.
What that is, we’re following the lead of Dallas ISD and Fort Worth ISD that have implemented this with great success. Basically what we did was, last year we reconstituted the 4 campuses with greater than 90% economically disadvantaged. And what that means is, we went in and identified, first across the whole district, our teachers who were growing kids — over time our teachers who had the greatest evidence in terms of standardized tests, we looked at all kinds of different metrics and also did some qualitative evaluation. And then we invited over 300 teachers to fill the seats at these four campuses. And it was their choice. We are in the implementation right now. We just kicked off this first year with, at the four campuses, two of the principals are brand new, two of them stayed. And then we have all new staff at those campuses.
I have been in education for, this is my 29th year, and I’ve never seen a transformation so powerful and so strong, what is going on at those four campuses. The morale is high. If you were teaching at one of those campuses now, people used to feel sorry that you were assigned to teach there. Now you are a rock star, you are the best of the best, and they are making a difference. And it is a completely different. I have four completely transformed schools right now and we’re already seeing all kinds of data that’s showing that it’s going to work and it is working.
And this is the first year that this new program is in place, is that correct?
JEANNIE STONE: That’s right. So we are a little bit over a month into it, but the teachers worked additional days this summer. They worked over 10 additional days, contract days this summer, to prepare for the year. It’s just been a great kickoff and a great start to the school year.
And you’re seeing changes not only in culture and morale, but I believe you said you’re already seeing gains in student performance, is that correct?
JEANNIE STONE: Yes. So we just started our assessment for the year, and already in our first assessments, those schools are way outperforming where they were at this time last year.
What are you seeing more broadly in your district as you have gone through and conducted these stay interviews and have really set out to listen to what teachers are saying? Have you seen any indication that this is going to make a significant impact in teacher retention and reducing turnover?
JEANNIE STONE: A lot of this is qualitative, but this school year been the start of a school year like none other, not only in Richardson but in any of the districts I’ve been in before. The sense of community already that we have, we have a huge campaign going on in Richardson right now, it’s called RSD Connects. Anyone who follows us on Twitter, follows me on twitter at @3jstone would see, literally, daily, hundreds of #RSDconnects examples of ways that teachers are connecting with one another, that teachers are connecting with kids. And I really saw the last year in the stay interviews, the conversations that we had and reading through literally hundreds and hundreds of comments from teachers, that teachers want to feel a sense of connectedness with everything going on at the district.
We have a vision statement that says that “RSD is a place where all students connect, learn, grow and succeed,” and we really want to promote that, and have it be more than just words on a website, words in on a piece of paper. Because of feeling that sense that that’s what teachers want. We started off the year intentionally trying to do that. I can’t tell you what kinds of great things that I’m seeing, feedback that we received from them.
What about people who might say, “Well, this stuff might work in your schools, but it wouldn’t work in ours.” Is there anything unique about your area or your district that puts you in a better position to tackle teacher retention issues then might be found in other parts of the country?
JEANNIE STONE: So the great thing about my school district and every single school district of anyone who might be listening, is that it’s all about people. This is all about taking care of our people and listening to our people. That is something that we all have in common, that’s the great thing about the education business is that it’s all about working with people, serving people, and ultimately doing so to take care of kids.
The other great thing about anyone who is in education, is that everyone has a heart for kids. We all got into this business because we love kids and we want to serve kids. Most everyone who is in education could go and probably make a whole lot more money doing something else, but they stay because they love kids and they love working together with people who share that same thing in their heart. And so I would say to anyone who says “This won’t work,” I would say you’re wrong. Because every one of us likes to be listened to and to feel like, “I am a part of something bigger than myself.”
Boy, isn’t that the truth? So what is next on the horizon for you? For Richardson? What do you think you’re going to tweak in the next year or two? What new things would you like to start doing as time goes on and this program matures?
JEANNIE STONE: We’ll continue with our stay interviews and we’ll get better and better at that because of some feedback that we’ve received from our staff members about different kinds of questions we could ask and things like that. Another extension of that is going out to a broader audience. We have paraprofessionals, we have those who work in our cafeterias, we have our bus drivers. Providing opportunities to get input and feedback from them as well, is our next level of work.
We tried it with teachers. It worked so beautifully. The input, the feedback that we’ve received has been actionable, and we know that if we go out to other audiences in our school district, then we will be able to do that as well. It has just been a great example of, if you sit face to face with people, they will be open with you. They will tell you the truth. They will tell you things that you need to hear. And then you can take action based on it. So it’s just broadening our reach to ensure that we’re listening to every employee in the district.
Jeannie, how does a district of the size of Richardson ISD with 39,000 students and the kind of diversity that you see in Texas — very high levels of diversity — what does it look like to ensure equity for every student? You’ve already talked about making sure that your high quality teachers are the ones who are working in schools where there’s the most need, but is there anything else that you’re doing, or other steps you’re taking, to make sure that you are serving, as your vision statement says, “all students”?
JEANNIE STONE: A lot of it is about culture and belief, and that has to start with our school board and filter and permeate across the whole district. But the culture of our district is such that we can continuously promote that we are on a cycle of continuous improvement, and we will not settle until we reach 100%.
A lot of people will say, “Well, how can you have a goal? You need to set a goal that’s realistic, such as 90% or 80%.” And for me, I say that we will never settle until we’re at 100%. And 100% is not a prediction of student performance, but it is a statement of our commitment that all really means all. And those three words are very important there — it’s not cliché. Everything that we work at, we will work at every single day. All has to mean all.
What that looks like is, seeing every single one of them. You can look at 39,000. It’s a big, huge number. Or you can say the first one showed up this morning across town and got off the bus. And then the next one came and the next one came in the next one came until every single one of them fills every seat in every classroom. And every single one of them has to be seen for who they are, what they need. And when we have that kind of culture, then we can have equity. And that means that once you see what they need, you see who they are, you build resources, you put things in place, you ensure that there is a rock star teacher in every classroom, that you have rock star principal in every school, and then everything is about giving them what every single one of them needs, until that adds up to 39,000.
And so equity for us is about that. We also, this last year, created a division of equity in our school district. We have an equity council that’s been developed this last year, and that work will result in an equity policy which is currently being worked on and will go to our school board for adoption.
So all of those things are real things that I believe are going to help us to achieve a big, big goal of equity for every student.
Dr. Jeannie Stone is Superintendent of Richardson ISD in Texas. Jeannie, thank you for joining us today.
JEANNIE STONE: Thank you so much for having me.
If you would like to see the questions that the administration of Richardson ISD asked their teachers in the Stay Interviews, you can. There are ten of them — they’re simple, but you can see how they provided the Jeannie and her staff with really useful insights into how to increase teacher retention. You can find them in our show notes, or on our website at FrontlineEducation.com/FieldTrip.
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Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education, home of Frontline Recruiting & Hiring — a software solution designed to help you proactively recruit more applicants, and quickly identify the best candidates and get them up to speed. For more information, visit FrontlineEducation.com.
For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.