How to Keep Great Teachers Happy

Retaining top teachers is one of your most important goals as a school leader.

principal talking to teachers

Think about your most accomplished, successful teachers.  As a school leader, I bet several come to mind. Then ask yourself, how can I help them grow in their profession and give them new opportunities? One option is, of course, to go into administration and be part of the school leadership team. However, that shouldn’t be the only available option. 

One highly renowned and respected teacher recently told me that he had often been chided for not having a career path that would lead him to “something bigger, like administration.” This accomplished educator will wants to spend his career in the classroom, a feat that is remarkably difficult in today’s system. As someone who recently left the classroom, I had a visceral reaction to his words.

Here’s  a simple truth: The greatest impact an educator can have is to stay in the classroom with kids every day. Schools must evolve in order to keep great teachers and leaders in the classroom. But how?

The real challenges for administrators are thinking strategically about how to adjust course loads, developing areas for leadership, and supporting teachers who are in different stages of life and career. When reflecting on my experiences with my staff, I came up with two simple questions that I now consistently ask my teachers.

1. What conditions, professional or personal, are the biggest obstacles in the way of keeping you in the classroom?

2. What supports, personal or professional, do you need to stay in the classroom?

The first question focuses on what teachers are experiencing. And the second focuses on how to keep teachers in the classroom. 


These questions are simple and straightforward, but they provide two acknowledgements. First, they acknowledge that staying in the classroom isn’t just okay. Rather, it represents the most important work in education.

Second, these questions acknowledge that there are personal and professional obstacles great teachers may face that can be overcome through collaboration and creativity. Here’s how administrators can help.

Provide genuine growth opportunities.

In Educational Reform and the Ecology of Schooling, arts and education visionary Eliot Eisner wrote that the unfortunate reality is that “moving up” in education often means moving out of the classroom—and it’s cemented for good. 

Eisner writes, “Once such a decision is made, for all practical purposes, there is no return to the classroom—as the caterpillar, once it becomes a butterfly, remains a butterfly until it dies.”

What Eisner describes so accurately is the pressure teachers feel to leave the classroom in order to increase their status or personal freedom. And when they do, there’s no turning back. But what do teacher’s turn their back on?

Schools can be structured to retain our most dedicated and passionate teachers who want to create deeper impact. Eiser points out that the opportunity to participate in curriculum development, design improved evaluation methods, and serve in teacher-mentoring programs can feed teacher aspiration and passion. And again, your greatest source is their voice. Ask them. What will help them to flourish—and stay?

Praise their impact with words and action.

I stopped by that beloved teacher’s room the same day he vented about the pressures to leave the classroom. His dedication needed encouragement. He was surrounded by a dozen of students who were preparing for the school’s spring musical. Not wanting to interrupt, I walked out and headed home.

I was envious that his classroom was filled with kids after school, something I loved in my days as a teacher. My mission now was clear. I’d not only encourage him to stay a teacher as long as possible, but always remind all teachers that their work in the classroom is more important than any other work that occurs within a school.

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Plus, four hard things teachers want principals to know.