The Name Game

Pairing recruit and retain when we talk about teacher policy is as common and natural as pairing peanut butter and jelly.  The Two Rs roll ff the tongue together and suggest that we give equal weight to the different stages of the teaching career.  In fact, much of the policy focus since the ‘90s has been on new teachers.  The current, growing emphasis on defining effective teaching presents an entry point for getting serious about retention.  It acknowledges a growing body of research that verifies what all teachers know to be true: There is a steep growth curve in teaching. Even the best first year teacher serves her students better when she reaches in her third, fourth or fifth year. Experience is correlated with effectiveness. Retention matters.

At Teach Plus, we seek to create a vibrant second stage of the teaching career that motivates excellent teachers to remain in the classroom, improve the lives of their students, and build a modern teaching profession.  We focus on the retention segment of the human capital pipeline.

Yet, the term “retention” conjures up an image that is neither vibrant nor forward-looking.  I picture an editorial page cartoon: a principal has caught a teacher with an oversized net and won’t let go. Retention subtly suggests stagnation—just the opposite of what students need in a teacher, just the opposite of what young teachers are seeking in a career.

My suggestion that teacher retention should be an education reform goal is often met with puzzlement. The first comment I hear is usually: “Retention of all teachers?  Not all new entrants are a good fit for teaching.“ The second is: “Retention for a lifetime? Those days are gone.”

I agree wholeheartedly with both of those points, but I don’t think that lets us off the hook from actively working to create the conditions an incentives that will improve retention… of promising teachers…through a second career stage… or longer.

So what’s the term for a bounded, modernized  version of retention? I’ve consulted the thesaurus to no avail. Sure, “growth” and “development” fit in some ways, but they are not synonyms. I suppose it’s more accurate to focus on “talent management” than retention. Yet, talent management seems built on an underlying assumption that a robust pipeline of talent is already being retained.

I’m stuck. Any ideas?

–Guestblogger Celine Coggins, Founder of Teach Plus

7 Replies to “The Name Game”

  1. I’m a fan of the term “cultivation.” A diverse staffing cohort wants to take advantage of the experience of veteran teachers while keeping their education up-to-date and their reflection on their professional practice constant. Cultivation suggests not only an evaluation of high and low quality teachers (much in the same way we cultivate a garden) but implies an important life cycle from novice to veteran (seed to plant, if you will) in which our intervention as policymakers or administrators provides the continuing resources necessary for full growth.

  2. If the Feds don’t start pumping in multiple — several? — times the money they have been to prop up regressive sales- and property-tax-funded districts, I don’t think retention of the highly skilled workforce by public education is at all a likely possibility in this economic climate.

  3. In response to the question, I’m tempted to go to Shakespeare and suggest that language really doesn’t matter because “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but I think I’d rather turn to sports, and particularly baseball, because the bottom line there is, as it should be in education, results.

    Recently I attended a meeting of prominent local citizens to discuss the teaching profession in general and the career trajectories of teachers in particular. Someone in the meeting suggested that it isn’t “healthy” for someone to stay in the classroom longer than ten years. I countered that it was healthy for her to continue to teach as long as she was happy there AND producing results. Any principal would be out of his mind if he didn’t want to retain a teacher — to use the jargon now common to our time — who was “effective.” Imagine telling Nolan Ryan, who pitched in the major leagues for 27 years that he should hang up his cleats after ten years even though his fastball was clocked at 100 mph. when he was 40.

    Indeed, if I’m to stick to pitching, Nolan Ryan was the beneficiary of what in baseball is commonly known as a “player development system.” In fact, we could argue that Ryan was under development since he pitched as a child in the Pop Warner League, went on to become a dominant pitcher in high school and received his final preservice training in the minor league system of the New York Mets. I might add Ryan’s career trajectory didn’t stop on the pitcher’s mound. He’s now the President of Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers, drawing on what he learned about personnel management in a career that lasted nearly three decades.

    While there are other pitchers who are approaching or have hit the 20 year mark as effective hurlers — Randy Johnson and John Smoltz (who was recently cut by the Red Sox), to name two –, Ryan pitched with those who lasted a few games, a couple of years, five or six and even ten years, those who eventually had to hang it up long before him because they could no longer get batters out.

    Yet all of those pitchers were the beneficiaries of effective player development systems, with specialized coaches who floated among minor league teams, lots of practice games in small minor league towns across America. Once on the field of the Major Leagues, however, they, like Ryan, were expected to produce. If they didn’t, they might not have been cut immediately. They were sent back to the minor leagues for more teaching, more training. Many made it back. Some didn’t. All within a sophisticated player development system.

    Some of those pitchers are out of baseball entirely. Others are now part of that player development system, serving as coaches, managers, or front office personnel, now held accountable for the effectiveness of the players they coach or manage.

    There’s no crying in baseball and neither is there room for “talent management.” or “human capital management.” Those are far too rosy terms for tough guys. They call it what it is, a development system and would never think about retention because it’s all about results. After a generation of “professional development” where the term has become somewhat cliche’ I’d still vote for a term that retains the term development, whether it’s teacher development or educator development as long as it’s focused on the bottom line: results.

  4. Back in 2007 we made a change to the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence to move beyond the concept of employee satisfaction by using the term “workforce engagement”. We define this as “commitment, both emotional and intellectual, to accomplish the work, mission and vision of the organization”. We have found that organizations that have discovered effective means of measuring and then improving engagement, such as those that utilize Gallup’s Q12, do very well not only on retention, but in other key areas of performance as well.

    Seems like it might be a useful concept for the discussion, as I would think retention in the absence of engagement might bring diminishing returns.

  5. Engagement and Enhancement; the two Es, seems a good option. Recruitment sounds too much like press-ganging. We want people to come to the profession who are engaged by its opportunities, and yes, its challenges. Then, we want them to enhance their ability to meet those challenges over the years. I like “cultivation,” but it suggests something “rooted,” and that’s not necessarily the kind of growth we’re seeking.

  6. We should support “growth”. No one wants to be retained. People want to grow. And in order to create growth environments, we must evaluate people on how well they able to grow others. This in fact is the critical success factor for most high performing organizations. Talk to GE, Mckinsey, Pepsi and Microsoft.

    Why do they keep people? Because they enable them to grow. The problem is that the staffing models we have in education are far to structured to allow variation in career paths (this is a major innovation at a lot of charters, that needs more study).

    I was recently talking to someone about KIPP, where individuals from the CMO main office also taught. Minnesota is in the process of starting schools without Principals. It is models such as these that allow for teachers to grow, move out and back in the classroom, manage adults as well as children (which makes their skills more transferable to other industries – which would allow them to stay longer than 2-3 years, because the expectation is that 7 years out of school that you have managed people).

    Too often when policy makers discuss better teacher evaluation, they are focused on dismissal. More important is focusing evaluation on growth both for teachers and students.

  7. Let’s not forget we are talking about schools. In schools, there is supposed to be an open exchange of ideas. NCLB has promoted a “my way or the highway” mentality. Like Democracy, the spirit of Education requires dissent and diversity. Public schools are not universities so full academic freedom doesn’t apply. But people need to be much more modest and voluntarily forego many coercive measures that try to impose one model. In most cases, educators need a restoration of the power to use the the instructional methods that fit their personalites. We need to restore many principles of teacher autonomy.

    Our model should be Democracy, where we agree that if men and women aren’t capable of ruling themselves, why believe they are capable of ruling others? In education, if we really don’t know “what works” systemically, why are we qualified to impose our theories all through the system?

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