District Trendline

Building a school climate that makes teachers want to stay

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This spring marks what have undoubtedly been two of the most difficult years on record for teachers. With teacher morale low and burnout high, education leaders at every level are asking: How can we improve teachers' experience at work? Moreover, how can we make sure they stay?

In this District Trendline, we gather together research on the role of school climate—or "the quality and character of school life"—as a key factor in teacher success and retention, and provide steps for how school leaders can act on this information.

While most educators know from experience that school climate matters a great deal, there is also a strong body of research that supports its relationship to student outcomes. Positive school climate is associated with greater student achievement, attendance, and likelihood of graduating.370 Of course, it also has a discernable impact on teachers: it is associated with teachers' reported job satisfaction, sense of self-efficacy, and their likelihood of remaining in their job.371 School climate even has a documented relationship to the clinical symptoms of burnout, with positive climate reducing reported symptoms like emotional exhaustion.372

Importantly, a school's climate is not fixed; it is malleable, and as it changes, so does teacher turnover.373 It is also not experienced by every teacher in the same way, and elements can fluctuate over the course of a year.374

Both school principals and district leaders can and should play a key role in improving school climate. A range of evidence-based, holistic school climate improvement programs and strategies have been developed and validated over the years, leaving district officials with a range of options to consider when looking at school climate as a whole.375 Beyond improving climate overall, what more can districts do to intentionally support teacher retention? Across studies, principal leadership, collegial relationships, and collaboration have all been shown to have a strong influence on teacher retention.376 We suggest four steps districts can take to improve climate with teacher retention in mind:

1) Track climate data. To track progress in improving school climate, districts need good information. Many schools and districts already collect valuable data that may help diagnose specific areas for improving climate conditions for teachers. Many already administer climate surveys to members of the school community, including teachers. There are a number of surveys available that specifically track teachers' engagement and satisfaction tied to what research says matters most for efficacy and retention. With better data, districts may be able to uncover answers about whether negative climate is contributing to attrition patterns they currently see in schools, and if so, what specific issues should be addressed. Each of the steps described here would benefit from having this data as a starting point, and to track the effects of interventions over time.

2) Foster principal leadership. In 2018, a study from the University of Chicago found that principals' greatest influence on student learning was through their impact on school climate.377 Consistent with this finding, multiple studies have validated the importance of principal leadership in how teachers view their school's climate, too.378 One recent study found that principals' leadership was the strongest dimension of school climate that mattered to teacher turnover,379 and others have validated that this finding is especially important for teachers of color and teachers in the most challenging school environments, respectively.380 A range of studies show that teachers value trusting relationships with their principals, and are less likely to leave when they view their principal as a strong and collaborative instructional leader.381 One Australian study found that teachers who see their principals as approachable and supportive have a greater sense of self-efficacy and report higher job satisfaction.382

Given the strength of this relationship, supporting principal leadership may be one of the stronger levers districts have to improve both school climate and teacher retention. In the work to recruit, train, and retain talented school leaders, districts could look for opportunities to focus on providing principals the time and tools to build a positive school climate, foster effective relationships with and between teachers, and act as an instructional leader. That may mean looking carefully at how the district has defined, supported, and evaluated the principal role. One practical consideration may be to check that the school climate survey includes questions that reliably gauge how well teachers feel that their principal supports their work.

3) Foster Collaborative Relationships. Having strong, collegial relationships matters to teachers, increasing their likelihood of staying in their current role and experiencing a sense of success.383 Relationships with families appear to matter, too. One study of school climate and teacher retention in Chicago Public Schools found that elementary schools where teachers reported high levels of trust with parents had a staff retention rate about five percentage points higher than schools reporting low trust, even when controlling for teacher and student characteristics.384

Relationships with colleagues matter considerably. The same Chicago study found that schools where teachers reported a high sense of collective responsibility—when teachers perceived that their colleagues all felt responsible for supporting students' development, set high standards for practice, and took responsibility for improving the school—posted significantly higher retention rates than schools with weaker climates. Interestingly, this finding was actually stronger for high schools, countering long-standing stereotypes about high school teachers' preferences for autonomy over collaboration.385 Another longitudinal study of early career teachers in Massachusetts teachers found that those who reported collegial, collaborative relationships with colleagues were less likely to leave.386

The importance of collaborative relationships holds true through exceptional circumstances such as the pandemic. A 2021 study by Matthew Kraft and colleagues found that teachers whose schools facilitated meaningful collaboration with colleagues during pandemic disruptions were less likely to experience a decrease in their 'sense of success.'387 (This is particularly important given that research has shown that measures of teachers' sense of success is a key factor in their performance, reported stress, overall job satisfaction and their consideration about whether or not to stay or leave a role.)388

Given the overwhelming evidence that collaboration matters to both retention and success, districts can help set the right conditions for collaborative relationships. To start, districts can set aside time for collaborative planning among teachers. While nearly every large district requires that teachers have regular planning time, our analysis finds far fewer large districts (only 20%) guarantee teachers have any amount of dedicated collaborative planning time, which allows them to work directly with colleagues.

Evidence also suggests that collaboration through mentorship can be a powerful driver of teacher improvement and better retention, under the right conditions. In one survey from the National Center for Education Statistics, researchers found that 90% of beginning teachers who were assigned a mentor teacher were more likely to still be teaching two years later, compared to 78% of those who were not assigned a mentor teacher.389

Although there are many studies of mentoring initiatives that demonstrate no impact on new teachers, the presence or lack of any impact may be attributable to significant differences in how mentorship programs are designed and implemented. For example, one experiment in which schools were randomly assigned to provide comprehensive induction (including mentoring, monthly professional development, and opportunities to observe veteran teachers) found no impact on student achievement in the first two years, but a positive and significant impact on student achievement in the third year; however, this study found no impact on teacher retention.390 On the other hand, a study of the New Teachers Center's approach to mentorship found that their approach to mentorship (which included over 100 hours of mentor training and three hours of dedicated time for instruction-focused mentorship per month) produced up to five additional months of learning gains for students, although no significant differences in retention compared to other beginning teachers.391 A little over a decade earlier, a literature review by Ingersoll and Kralik found that, while strong evidence for best practices was limited, teachers were most likely to be successful when they experienced mentorship as part of a "bundle" of supports, had a mentor in the same field, and had the chance to work collaboratively with other teachers.392

In spite of its potential, mentorship is often neglected in district plans to support new teachers, which may be detrimental in more ways than one.

4) Support teachers of color: ample research confirms the importance of teachers of color for student outcomes, but most districts have struggled to build a teacher workforce that is at least as diverse as its student body. For current teachers of color, their experiences at school may play a large role. One study found that Black teachers who reported experiencing microaggressions at work heavily factored these experiences into their intentions to stay in the classroom—more than their age or salary.393 Other research has found that these negative effects for Black male teachers specifically were worse when they were the school's only Black male faculty member. These isolated teachers were more likely to report that they sensed people felt afraid of them within the school, that teachers of color had less influence on school policy than White faculty, and ultimately were more likely to say they wanted to leave their role.394

These findings highlight the importance of building a more diverse teacher workforce at both the district and school-levels. And while there is little research consensus on the evidence-based practices that work to reduce racial bias in adult relationships in schools, principals can take some common-sense steps.395 For instance, one study of Black teacher retention identified an alarming attrition trend, and ultimately found that Black teachers were more likely to see themselves staying in the classroom long-term if they rated their administrative support higher based on these conditions:

  • "The school administration's behavior toward the staff is supportive and encouraging.
  • The principal enforces school rules for student conduct and backs teachers up when they need it.
  • Rules for student behavior are consistently enforced by teachers in this school, even for students who are not in their classes.
  • The principal knows what kind of school he or she wants and has communicated it to the staff.
  • Staff members are recognized for a job well done."397

Improving the way teachers experience their school climate is just one piece of the puzzle in retaining teachers, but it is one that is deeply connected to other aspects of improvement that are likely self-reinforcing, helping to improve the quality of instruction, student achievement, and teacher well-being.