Staffing challenges in schools nationwide have sparked a conversation about how to bring more people into the teaching profession. But as district leaders consider that important question, they shouldn’t forget an important fact that often goes overlooked amid teacher shortages: The easiest way to fill a teaching vacancy is to prevent it from becoming vacant in the first place.

That’s especially true when it comes to the most effective teachers, says Victoria Van Cleef in a column for District Administration. In fact, it can take between 6 and 11 hires to find someone of similar quality after a top educator leaves.

Teachers choose to leave the classroom for many reasons, including some that are beyond the control of individual schools or districts, Van Cleef says, but district leaders often have more sway over a teacher’s decision to stay or leave than they think. Over the course of 25 years working in schools across the country, TNTP (formerly known as The New Teacher Project) has identified several low- or no-cost strategies that can help schools retain more of their most effective teachers.

Here are the most promising:

Hold “stay” conversations with your strongest teachers
Simply asking teachers to stay can boost retention. But two-thirds of the top teachers Van Cleef surveyed as part of a report called “The Irreplaceables” said nobody in their school had encouraged them to return. Principals and other leaders should hold stay conversations with all effective and promising teachers as soon as possible, making clear that they are valued members of the community and that the school’s leadership team wants them to stay. If teachers say they’re considering other options, principals should ask what they can do to convince them to stay — a crucial step, since research showed that more than 75% of top teachers who left their positions would have stayed if their main reason for leaving were addressed.

Don’t make teachers go it alone
Teaching is hard, and the burdens of non-instructional responsibilities on top of the stress and pain of the pandemic have made teaching a lonely and exhausting job. Teamwork is more important than ever, whether that means breaking down the one teacher, one classroom model, creating teacher teams, or strengthening grade-level teams and professional learning community structures. Help your teachers do their work in the greater community. Create an instructional culture and actual differentiated roles that don’t have teachers fighting an uphill battle alone.

Survey teachers regularly
Surveys give school staff an opportunity to share their feedback, ideas and concerns. Leaders should then engage staff around the results and actions they’re taking. These surveys don’t have to be long or complicated. Even a 30-second survey sent every other week that gathers actionable, real-time information is beneficial. Try this approach with these three questions:

  • How are you feeling about your work?
  • Is there anything you’d like to share about how you’re feeling or how your work is going?
  • What supports/resources would make work easier for you?

This helps leaders identify both schoolwide concerns and specific teachers who are in danger of leaving, which helps prioritize stay conversations and other follow up.

Celebrate great teaching
It’s never been more important to recognize teachers’ accomplishments and their effect on students. Consider having district or site leaders send an email to recognize a teacher’s excellent work, or engage local media to share stories about a teacher’s dedication and hard work, especially during tough times.