Field Trip: Tackling Teacher Turnover
San Marcos CISD near Austin, Texas set out to boost engagement, address the issue of teacher turnover and ultimately improve student outcomes. Here’s their data-driven approach.
In this interview, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Willie Watson explains how they conducted a teacher engagement survey, what they found and the steps they’re taking in response to their findings. We also speak with Henry Wellington, founder and CEO of Upbeat, an organization that helps school districts collect and examine data around teacher engagement.
- The financial and educational cost of teacher turnover across the U.S.
- Strategies San Marcos is employing to engage and retain teachers
- The role of principal-teacher trust and parent-teacher communication
- How San Marcos collected — and acted upon — teacher satisfaction and engagement data
WILLIE WATSON: Whenever we hire a teacher or let a teacher go or a teacher departs, it takes about 10 to 12 or thousand dollars or more to replace them. So there’s a huge cost when a teacher departs us and we have to fill a vacancy.
HENRY WELLINGTON: Teacher turnover costs, they average at about $2.2 billion a year across the United States. It’s tough for the students in the building who are building these great relationships with teachers, and then they’re gone. Principals are spending a great deal of time just continuing to replenish their staff.
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From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.
Today my guest is Willie Watson, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources for San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District. He’s joining us by phone from San Marcos, Texas. Thanks for joining us today, Willie.
WILLIE WATSON: Thank you, Ryan.
A bit of background: San Marcos sits about 20 miles south of Austin, Texas. It’s a medium-sized district. It has around 8,000 students, close to 1,200 employees, 550 of which are teachers. The community is one of the fastest-growing in the United States.
Our conversation today really begins with the issue of teacher turnover. It’s a topic that San Marcos has been thinking a lot about and working to address. And I asked Willie to tell me a little bit about the specific reasons why they’re focusing on this and trying to reduce turnover.
WILLIE WATSON: I guess you would say there’s direct evidence to suggest that the more experienced the teacher is, the higher performance of our students, and also our teachers have the opportunity to be in our systems, to have our trainings, and to go through our professional development. They are stronger, our students are more successful under their tutelage, and the teachers overall feel more comfortable, not just personally but also professionally.
As you look at teacher turnover in your district but also as we consider the issue across all industries, what are you finding that the financial cost is associated with that?
WILLIE WATSON: Wow. When we looked at this in our organization, we figure that whenever we hire a teacher or let a teacher go or a teacher departs, it takes about 10 to 12 or thousand dollars or more to replace them because of the training, because we’re bringing them in almost 2 weeks in advance for different PD.
Our students on average generally perform not as well with new teachers that are new to our system, so there’s a cost there, which is ultimately the main reason why we are in this business, for student success. So there’s a huge cost when a teacher departs, as we have to fill a vacancy.
So you didn’t just look at data, you’re not just thinking about this issue — San Marcos really decided to try to tackle some of these issues. Can you talk to me about some of the steps that you took in order to gauge this issue in your district and then to address it?
WILLIE WATSON: Sure. One of the things that we did, like I mentioned, we’ve been doing our exit entities and questionnaires for years, and we have found that has been not as successful as we had wanted. So we decided to look at this a little bit differently, like I’ve mentioned.
We’ve completely revised our exit interview — we now actually have it online, so we feel that that is a better way again of obtaining that data. We also wanted to do some climate and culture surveys for people that are still here and looking at that data, and again making some inferences in figuring out why people leave before we even get to a point where they do leave. At that point, yes, we can obtain some data, but it may be too late, and it’s not very proactive.
HENRY WELLINGTON: I taught middle school special education, in Washington Heights at a public school and then had a charter school in Harlem afterwards.
That’s Henry Wellington, CEO of Upbeat, the company San Marcos contracted with to do their engagement surveys of their teachers and other employees.
HENRY WELLINGTON: Both places where I worked, I worked with some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life, just incredible teachers.
Henry noticed that some of the best teachers in the schools were leaving. He would work hard to build connections with teachers. He would ask them to mentor him, observe him teaching, help him grow — and then, they left the school where he was working. He saw this happen several times… he’d be working on curriculum with other teachers, they’d get on the same page, hit a stride, and then – boom – one of them would leave.
HENRY WELLINGTON: I remember asking people, “Are we trying to take a look at why people are leaving? Is there a common trend? Is there an issue that’s going on?” So I went to a charter school, and a very similar thing happened. Very high quality staff left after the third year, and it always struck me that there could be some better data around what was going on and maybe some more preventative measures to keep these great people in the building.
Henry decided to do something about it. He formed a company to help districts identify what schools are doing well to engage their teachers, and where there might be areas for improvement.
HENRY WELLINGTON: We started working with schools to get a really clear sense of the engagement level of teachers through a research-based survey, so I partnered with two researchers who each had spent about 10-15 years researching teacher turnover. We were able to put together a survey that looks at all the constructs and questions that influence retention, and also bring in the engagement piece around what motivates teachers and what makes them want to stay in these schools. And we use that metric to predict retention at a school. So in the middle of the year, you can get a sense of overall turnover to expect at a school, and then the strengths and weaknesses. Then we work with school leaders to come up with next steps to address those issues and to keep their best teachers.
WILLIE WATSON: We actually interviewed all groups of employees, and that was important for us. In our last approach to this, it’s not just teachers; it’s all of our employee groups, except our substitutes, so we’re talking about 1200 employees.
When we concentrate on teachers, the area of strength was, teachers felt that they were doing meaningful work. They felt that they were conscientious. They felt that we had a fairly decent evaluation system that was scored up on high. We were concerned about that, because here in Texas we went through a new system a couple of years ago, and so that was kind of our first check of seeing how things were going with that, because normally speaking you don’t normally ask your employees what they think about their evaluation tool. It’s not a normal question that you ask, so that was some good data that we received.
We also determined that overall, our elementary teachers are the most satisfied. Nine out of 10 teachers felt, in our school system at the elementary level, that there was the right amount of principal-teacher trust. Our teachers overall, 90% of them, felt that our onboarding was at the level where it needed to be. Teacher autonomy was at a high level for 80% of our teachers, so that means that our teachers feel that they have the level of autonomy and that they can use their own personal ingenuity to have success in their classrooms.
A lot of our teachers felt as well that there were high expectations were fair from our administrator. Those are some of the areas of highlights that we were proud of.
There were also some things that came out of the survey that caught Willie’s eye — as well as the attention of other district leadership. Things that a lot of other districts probably deal with too. Such as career pathways.
WILLIE WATSON: We have 500+ teachers, and then we have roughly 50 to maybe 75, maximum, teacher leadership positions. Many of those people in the positions have been in those positions for 5, 10, 15 years. If you’re a teacher looking for the next step, oftentimes it’s difficult, there are just not a lot of positions to move to. Then secondly, for many of those people in those positions, there’s just not a lot of turnover, so for the teacher pathway, per se, it is just not as deep as maybe it is in other career fields, so that’s something that we have found, and our researchers tell us that that is somewhat normal almost in any district.
The area that we are going to be working even more on is the employee appreciation area. That was an area that did not score as high as we had wanted, and so that’s an area of refinement that we’re also working on in our school system.
So you gathered this data, you spoke with your teachers, you gained a better understanding of how they perceive different aspects of working in the district. Once you had that data, what did you do with it? Were there particular questions that that triggered for you or particular action steps that that inspired you to take?
WILLIE WATSON: It did. We came up, with our researchers, with individual tool kits for every campus principal we met with. We talked about their strengths and some of the challenges of some of the things expressed by their employees, and we came up with a plan of action to keep the good things going and then also to work on some of the areas that maybe needed some improvement.
As you shared these results with your school campuses, Willie, what did it look like as you reviewed that data and tried to determine what it meant? Did you draw connections? How did you make interpretations? Did it confirm hunches that you might have had? What did that process look like?
WILLIE WATSON: Yes, in some cases, it did confirm perceptions that were out there. In some cases, to be honest, we were kind of surprised, in good and bad areas. We took the survey and, we met with all of our principals and all of our supervisors and went through the strengths and went through some of the area of weaknesses, and then came up with some individual action plans.
Here’s Henry again.
HENRY WELLINGTON: I think the main thing is that the people that really understand what needs to be done are the teachers themselves, the principals and the school leaders. That can really come from a conversation, so teachers, if they have data to talk about, what’s going well and what’s not, that can really spark a conversation that can lead to, “Here are a couple of things that are really affecting everybody, the whole staff. Here’s something we can do about it.” That can be a really powerful thing to influence whether or not people can stay and ultimately influence school stability, which we know is a strong indicator of student achievement.
What did it look like then, as you tried to put that into action? Did you develop a plan? How did you create the steps that you were going to take systemwide?
WILLIE WATSON: We had the tool kit. It was written out. We had it developed already, but we worked with our principals, and we made changes while we had conversations, because we wanted this to be developed together. I think there is that ownership piece that you can’t forget about. You can’t just hand this over and place it on a principal’s lap.
We worked with them on ways to correct some of those challenging areas, and again, to keep those good things happening, so we let the principals kind of come up with some areas, how they feel that they can correct some of these challenging areas. We also have this list of items of best practice that we can interject, to say, “Hey, principal, I know you’re maybe at a loss on how you can make some changes in these particular areas, but we have some best practices that are done throughout the country to deal with any particular area, whether it’s teacher collaboration or employee-principal trust, or whatever it is.” So we were able to assist our principals if they didn’t have anything that they thought of that they could do.
So within that area, you mentioned principal and teacher trust. Another one of the areas I believe that you worked on was parent-teacher communication. What are the things that you’re currently working on in your district to address some of the issues that the survey identified?
WILLIE WATSON: Just more communication with parents via some of the modern ways of communicating with parents in the communities. We’ve encouraged our principals to set up a Twitter account and tweet items and good things that are happening at their schools, encourage their teachers to have campus or classroom newsletters that go out periodically to the parents, for the school to send out a newsletter to invite parents up for any activity possible; to really strengthen and become more involved in the PTA and PTO organizations.
Getting parents more involved is big. San Marcos strengthened its mentor program so parents could come in and mentor students. They bring them in for sports activities, events after school, festivals, diversity nights, math night. They’re starting a district-wide science fair and getting parents highly involved in that as well.
And then, another major focus at San Marcos has been to try to intentionally bolster trust between principals and teachers.
In the area of principal and teacher trust, I know that’s something that a lot of districts and school systems are thinking through. What were some of the strategies that you developed to address there?
WILLIE WATSON: A lot of things involving more informal communication. We were told, or it was expressed in the survey that for some of our employees, they don’t really know their principal outside of the school walls, and they’re in their office. They didn’t feel at times that they could be honest with them, because they didn’t really know them well enough.
We’ve encouraged opportunities where employees and their principals or supervisors could get a chance to know each other, maybe outside of a walkthrough or outside of a formal observation or an evaluation conference. We’ve encouraged principals to do things like recognize birthdays and send appreciation notes, and when you go in a classroom, don’t just go in there and just walk in the door with your iPad and start writing and clicking and typing away, because everyone knows that you’re working on a walkthrough. Go in sometimes, and if they’re in an activity, go in and just help them out, just be a second person in the classroom, support the teacher. Make sure you edify the teacher in public, so the students know that the principal is very supportive of the teacher, and the teacher feels good about that, knowing that they have received public recognition.
Have a holiday, Christmas party. Have a summer retreat, maybe offsite. Those type of things that I mentioned earlier where the district is providing more resources so campuses can do those types of things, because we believe as a school system, those things are very important as to making sure that employees and their principals feel comfortable with one another.
What I appreciate about your story is while these are best practices that it sounds like any district could apply and see good results. You’re applying them because you looked at data, and you identified specific areas to address in order to address this broader question of teacher turnover. My question is, what are your next steps from here? Do you have in mind a series of things that you’re going to do now in order to either gauge the results of what you’re doing or further implement these strategies?
WILLIE WATSON: Well, again this was our first year of kind of going through this reinvigorated approach, so we’re excited to see the results of our engagement survey as well as our new online exit questionnaire, which gives us information about people that depart. So we’re excited about looking at those two data points this summer to determine next steps on what we should do next year. I’m confident that we’ll see positive results in many of these areas, and if not, or if other areas pop up, we’ll come up with some different plans to address those.
We want to be a choice employer, and we realize when you look at HR data across the country, when employees are surveyed, money is important. That was something that we looked at in our engagement questionnaire as well, but more often than not, it’s not — it’s who you report to that’s more important.
We do want our campuses to be a place that people enjoy to want to come work, because again there is all sorts of data out there that states that an employee that does feel happy, that feels supported, that feels they have their principal’s trust, is a more engaged employee, and at the end of the day our students will achieve more in those types of environments.
The steps San Marcos is taking are already underway, and they hope to see positive impact before the school year is out. Principals had conversations with their entire faculties about how to respond in each individual building, and set up campus-based committees to make strategic changes. I asked Willie what kind of feedback he received from principals — did they see value in it, and was it positively received?
WILLIE WATSON: The information I received was that at the end of the day, Ryan, they felt things needed to be done that way. They had some apprehension about it at first. You know, it’s always tough, I don’t care who you are, to sit up there in front of, essentially, your subordinates and talk about your faults.
The campus principal is the instructional leader, and everything starts and ends with the campus principal. Ultimately, they are the one that takes the brunt of the perception hit, but I think that people appreciated that. Their staff appreciated the fact that their supervisors went through the data. I think the staff members that work on our campuses felt like this 70-something question questionnaire, something did happen with this. This wasn’t just something that went into the black box like normal. The normal perception is no one ever knows what happens to it. No, they got the chance to see all these domains, all these areas to be illustrated in graphical format and discussed in a whole-group setting.
HENRY WELLINGTON: Consistently, what studies show is that schools that have strong stability, meaning the same staff is coming back year after year, are having higher student achievement. There was actually a study done in New York City that was done by the researcher we worked with on our survey that looked at about 30,000 teacher survey responses from 2008 to 2012. They found that schools that had better overall staff culture had 25% higher retention, and student achievement was higher on the math standardized tests.
What that is demonstrating is engaged employees are having a higher impact on students. … engaged employees are going to be more productive, and students are going to perform better, so retention is critical, and we know that retention and stability in staff is going to make student achievement better, but it’s also about employees being more engaged and performing better and ultimately promoting more positive impacts for students.
Henry Wellington, founder and CEO of Upbeat. And we’ve been talking with Willie Watson, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources at San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District in San Marcos, Texas. Willie, thank you again for joining us today.
WILLIE WATSON: Thank you.
If you enjoyed this podcast, don’t forget to subscribe. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, pretty much anywhere you get your podcasts. Field Trip is a production from Frontline Education, bringing you the Frontline Insights Platform, a holistic software solution for K12, designed to help you better recruit, hire, engage, retain, and grow your employees, and provide unparalleled insights into what’s happening in your district.
For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.