Professional Learning for Teacher Retention

One of the most striking characteristics of our modern educational system, in both public and private school settings, is that even as we want all our students to take ownership of their own growth and to invest the time and energy necessary to acquire the skills and gain the knowledge that will enable them to succeed, adults responsible for instilling these values too often do not hold the same expectations of themselves. Professional learning, or its somewhat analogous term, “professional development,” is treated as oddly separate from the essence of the teaching and learning cycle—an add-on, rather than the engine that drives student learning. Teachers tend to operate as technicians performing a set of tasks, rather than as exemplars setting a standard for their students on what it means to be a lifelong learner.

An unfortunate, and unsurprising, result of this tendency is that teachers’ psychological investment in both their careers and their workplace is more limited if they do not hold the self-perception (and the external encouragement) to take their own growth seriously. If educators are not oriented toward striving for improvement, and setting and achieving goals to do better for their students and themselves, then they are likely to have lower motivation to continue in their work or to be satisfied with their work environment. CASJE, in its landmark study of Jewish educators, found a meaningful correlation between participating in professional learning activities and teachers’ emotional attachment to their jobs and, perhaps even more importantly, their sense of self-efficacy.

Therefore, in this era when day schools are struggling to find and keep teachers in their classrooms, one of the essential means to address this challenge is for school leaders to simultaneously encourage and empower teachers to achieve their own professional growth while holding them accountable to do so. Simply put, we must make a concerted effort to nurture teachers’ motivation to improve their practice. In so doing, we demonstrate in the clearest possible terms that we value them for their power to shape the next generation of Jews.

So what does such effort entail? We offer below five distinct ways schools can transform the frequently isolated activities known as “professional development” into a permeating and productive culture of professional learning. We articulate these lessons learned from two different perspectives: first, as leaders of a day school (480 students, infant-Grade 8) that takes our faculty’s professional growth seriously and have, in turn, experienced low staff turnover year to year; and, second, from the perch of a national organization that documents where professional learning has blossomed and tracks the potential impact of such learning on both educational efficacy and on teacher retention. 

We have collaborated here to emphasize that building a robust culture of professional learning requires a commitment to fostering relationships between and among teachers and school leaders, to implementing practical strategies and deploying resources effectively and, vitally, to describing how the system that works for one school holds the potential to bolster the kinds of professional learning we aim for in day schools everywhere. We note, too, that even as the five items are presented separately, they should really take root as an integrated whole and work in concert with one another for maximal impact.


Formalized Expectations for Performance

At the beginning of each year, the Epstein School of Atlanta sets forth principles of professionalism for each of our teachers to uphold. These “essential expectations,” as we call them, include, among other things, being supportive of students and colleagues, executing effective instruction, and “engaging in ongoing self-reflection and ongoing personal professional development.” Twice each year, the division principal meets with each faculty member to review their performance in these essential expectations. In cases where a teacher is performing below the standard expectation, we work with them to support their continued growth, always preferring to support improvement rather than to have to let go of a staff member for being ineffective.

Beyond the obvious impact of these standards acting to ensure the quality of our teaching staff, their effect on the faculty is powerful, for these essential expectations send the message that each colleague they work with is similarly “up to snuff” on a range of basic elements of our school. Within the context of professional learning, the system of accountability means that each and every teacher is invested in their own growth. Building a strong professional learning culture must rest upon this foundational belief that every teacher has committed to the same aspiration of continuous self-improvement.


Support for Individual Pursuits

As part of the protocol for assessing how teachers are meeting the essential expectation of professional growth, we strongly encourage each member of our faculty to request a professional development activity or opportunity that they would like to take advantage of in the coming year. And our school will pay for it. 

Such requests range from attending a conference or training to bringing in an expert to speak to a subset of faculty (science of reading for primary teachers, how to have difficult conversations) to visiting another school to observe a particular practice in action. We try very hard to say “yes” to all requests, believing that if a teacher has a passion to explore, we, as their employer, should honor and encourage that enthusiasm so that they then bring that passion for their learning to their classrooms.

And these individual passions take expression not just in general excitement for teaching, but in specific curricular offerings that we provide our students. For example, one of our teachers has become a master at childhood yoga and holds sessions for her students. Another faculty member has become adept at computer coding and will begin to offer a course in artificial intelligence.


Leveraging Internal Expertise

The quid pro quo dimension to our agreement to pay for teachers’ individualized professional development is the understanding that they will convey what they have learned back to peers. That is, each teacher’s new (or continued) expertise should not be isolated, but shared more broadly. The precise means of this knowledge sharing entails presenting during a whole-faculty meeting, and all teachers are required to sign up for the presentations that interest them.

As each teacher takes on the responsibility for sharing their learning, the twofold impact is clear. First, that we expect teachers to take on the role as internal experts in a particular area conveys the value that we place upon their personal learning. They are not going to a conference or visiting another school for fun, but rather gaining a set of insights and information that are essential to the work of the entire school. Second, by insisting on sharing what they have learned, we emphasize the need for each teacher to think of themselves as a member of a vibrant learning community, where each individual member depends on their colleagues to achieve their own best practice. This models our school’s value of lilmod ulelamed, that every member of our community, students and adults alike, are learners and teachers.


Fostering Teacher Collaboration

Encouraging teachers to learn from one another in more formal settings sets a standard of mutual responsibility for each other’s skill development, but a more significant vehicle through which to reinforce this principle is during teacher collaboration sessions. At Epstein, we have developed our schedule in alignment with our expressed values by ensuring that each classroom teacher has roughly two hours per day for planning; of these times, at least one hour per week is reserved for collaborative discussions of specific students and another hour for exploration of curricular matters. Often, teacher teams will meet more than the required minimum.

The structure of our schedule sets up a virtuous cycle where teachers have the opportunity to collaborate, do so effectively and continue to use their time together to bolster student learning.


Prioritizing Resources

We recognize the rarity within the day school world of our teacher schedule, with its two hours per week of common planning, as part of nearly 10 hours per week for planning time. And we also readily acknowledge that such a schedule—not to mention our investment in teachers’ own personal professional development pursuits and our many schoolwide staff learning sessions—is not cheap. Annually, we dedicate approximately $150,000 directly to professional development, roughly 5% to 7.5% of our budget, excluding compensation. 

In addition to this specific line item, our staff may be a bit larger than a school of a similar size because we break students into smaller learning groups at various times throughout the day, all of which are facilitated by a certified instructor. (For Grades 1 to 8, we have leveled Hebrew and math groups, and for Grades 1 through 4, leveled reading groups as well.) Additionally, we also regularly assign substitute teachers to classrooms in order to provide coverage for teachers who are engaged in professional development activities off (or sometimes on) campus.

For Epstein, the heavy investment of dollars and staff time in developing and sustaining our intentionally built culture of professional learning more than pays off. The dividends appear in our low turnover rate, and in the high morale of our professional community, all of which, in the end, have a positive impact on student learning, school culture, finances and operations. Simply put, our demonstrated and deep commitment to valuing teachers for their work stands as a powerful antidote to the staffing challenges that so many other day schools encounter. 


The Power of Example

These structural and operational matters aside, we are eager to spread the underlying message and the strategies of how we built and sustain our professional learning culture because of the impact we see on our students. In their teachers, our young learners see role models for how they should dedicate themselves to personal advancement. If our day school community is really serious about producing the next generation of Jews who are continually striving to improve and grow, we, as educators, must take responsibility for this same striving ourselves.


The authors are grateful to the educational leadership team at The Epstein School for their essential contributions to this article and to shaping the school’s professional development system, including Susanna Ames, Idit Ben David, Aaron Griffin, Emily Heflin and Stephanie Wachtel.

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Jewish Educator Pipeline
Spring 2024
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