Why do teachers come? Why do they leave?

Published 3:54 pm Friday, April 1, 2016

Guest Column by Jenny Corey-Gruenes

When I think of Albert Lea, I think of people. The lakes, the historic downtown, the scarce  traffic, the reasonable cost of living — these are nice features, but for me the real value of this place is the people. I think of the teachers I taught with throughout the years and the teachers my children have had in school, the neighbors who are like grandparents, the friends who are like family, and Patty the librarian who my children will always remember as simply amazing. This is a great place to live. Why would anyone leave?

Jenny Corey-Gruenes

Jenny Corey-Gruenes

Quite often it’s for a job.

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At recent school board meetings, District 241 administration and School Board members have wisely chosen to discuss how to retain and attract quality teachers. I commend these leaders for addressing the issue and recognize their great intentions, but in following these discussions, it seems to me their focus has been a bit off track.

They haven’t addressed in any depth what really makes good teachers want to join our district or stay in our district. I’ve discovered through personal experience and much reading about the causes of our current teacher shortage that the following suggestions could apply to any school system. My hope is that our local leaders pay attention because
I care most about District 241.

Let’s start with being honest: What really makes a teacher want to leave?

• Not having a say. Do you give your employees a voice? Our teachers are highly educated professionals who are in direct contact with students. If administrators and board members listen, teachers feel invested and will spend even more time working for you. Ultimately, we can’t always all agree, and school leaders can’t take into account all opinions in all decisions. But do they really value widespread teacher buy-in, or are a few people at the top making all the decisions without collaboration?

•Not feeling supported in a healthy work environment. If teachers have to deal with bad behavior, are they at least fully supported by administration? How does district leadership respond to contrary opinions from teachers and staff?

Not feeling valued. Do teachers feel appreciated, or do they feel like school leaders are watching them, looking for reasons to fire them or to move them to a different building? Are leave requests that promote personal growth and transfer requests that utilize teacher strengths honestly considered? Teachers work too hard to feel at the end of the day like they aren’t appreciated. (And I’m not talking about complimentary doughnuts in the teacher’s lounge during teacher appreciation week.)

• Feeling overworked. Are you asking too much from teachers? This is probably one of the biggest reasons teachers leave the profession. By the way, this isn’t whining. Teaching is a lot of work. Teachers are not done at 3:30. Classroom preparation and grading always happen outside the normal day. Adding increased paperwork and documentation expectations is enough to put many teachers over the edge and out of the profession. Be careful.

What really attracts teachers to this district?

Word of mouth. Make sure the above issues aren’t problems in our district. Word gets out, and teachers ask other teachers what it is like to work in certain districts.

Advertise early. Post job openings early and hire early because the best teachers are ready to interview right away, and we might get stuck with less desirable applicants if we don’t post openings soon enough. Also, avoid nepotism. Advertising job postings early avoids questions about whether a friendly colleague was unofficially penciled in for a position ahead of time and whether the best candidates were even given enough notice to apply.

• Hire the best teacher, not the best coach.  A wise teacher once told me, “Because you chose the profession of teacher, you will likely be pulled in three directions: teacher, coach and parent. You will be able to do two of these things well.” In my estimation, that is quite accurate. There are exceptions. There are some great teachers who want to be coaches, but you are really limiting your applicant pool if you are hiring the best coaching applicant first rather than the best teacher. Let’s remember that teaching is the main job. Coaching is secondary. When I was applying for teaching jobs, I really didn’t want to coach because I wanted to put all of my effort into the classroom, and it’s a shame that some districts prioritize coaching over teaching in their hiring practices.

Supportive colleagues. In the beginning, colleagues I connected with and felt supported by made me feel like I could do it. We have a strong mentoring program in our district, and that is great!

Ultimately, we need to remember that good people aren’t simply replaceable. We lose what we have invested in them when they leave.

While I’m here in Albert Lea, I feel I’m part of a family. I make these recommendations and have done this research because I care deeply about this community. This school district has done great in the past and has great potential, mainly because of the extraordinary teachers who are already here. I hope they stay, and I hope we can recruit the best new teachers too.


Jenny Corey-Gruenes is a former high school English teacher for District 241 and recently celebrated her 10th anniversary teaching at Riverland Community College. She lives in Albert Lea with her husband and two daughters.