How One School Retained All Its Teachers During the Pandemic

Many schools are struggling to hire and retain teachers right now—challenges we explain and offer advice on solving in our new guide, Addressing Teacher Shortages. But Princeton Elementary School in Lithonia, Georgia, has defied the odds, retaining 100% of its teachers between the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years.

Princeton is a member of the ATL Leadership Network (ALN), a partnership between TNTP, Atlanta Public Schools (APS), and DeKalb County School District (DCSD) that has been building leadership capacity to sustain transformation in the two districts since 2018. The project is part of a five-year, multi-million dollar federal Education Innovation and Research grant.

I recently had a chance to speak with the school’s principal, Dr. Adib Shakir, and two of its teachers, Ms. Shay Wright (1st grade) and Dr. Tamia Perkins (5th grade and the school’s Multitiered System of Support chair), about how the school encourages and inspires its teachers to stay, work that was previously led by former principal of Princeton Dr. Angela Hairston and her administrative team before Dr. Hairston’s retirement in fall 2021.

The last two years have been so challenging for teachers across the country. Why do you think teachers at Princeton have chosen to stay despite those challenges?

Dr. Adib Shakir (principal): I have always had a heart for this work; the ‘If not you, then who’ type of mentality. It was very hard, tiring, and draining these past few years, but for me and a lot of those who stay in education, you feel a level of commitment to what you’re doing. You want to see it through to the end.

Dr. Tamia Perkins (5th grade teacher): I have been at Princeton six years, and the atmosphere here is wonderful. That’s one of the reasons I am still here. What’s even more than that, though, is my coworkers. I love them. It doesn’t matter to me what floor you go on, what hallway you go down, you have friends in all those places you go. Those relationships sustain you through the day; they sustain you through the hard times when everybody wants to quit.

A: Shay Wright (1st grade teacher): One of the reasons I started my teaching career at Princeton is that I had a personal relationship with the campus, and that personal relationship continues to keep me here. Both of my sons went to school here. I volunteered when they were students and I got to know the principal at that time and developed a relationship with her. As a parent, I knew the culture; I knew the environment. I saw how the staff were working and saw that Princeton was a team I wanted to be a part of as an educator. Now, 10 years later, I love my coworkers. I love my team. I love my administrative staff. We just all work well together and we help each other, you know, get through things.

One effective retention strategy is cultivating high-performing teachers as future leaders. What does this look like at Princeton?

Dr. Shakir: My core philosophy as a principal is that I really want to cultivate a school where when individuals come in, they don’t know who the leader of the building is because you have allowed others to serve, lead, and develop by giving them those spaces and opportunities. I’m always going to be supportive of the individual that wants a new leadership experience or feels that something may not necessarily be a good fit for them.

Ms. Wright: Dr. Shakir has given us opportunities to grow within the school. I’ve noticed that just since the fall, he has added on some things that will allow us to enhance our teaching skills in professional development as well as in other places. I appreciate those opportunities for leadership and advancement.

Dr. Perkins: And I am actually going to piggyback on what Ms. Wright said. I had a conversation with Dr. Shakir when he first came to Princeton about the lack of opportunities for growth, the lack of leadership positions that people can do to grow here at the school. And I’ve seen him, I mean even earlier today, we’ve had several times where he’s opening up new positions, he’s allowing new leadership opportunities. Plus, he is being transparent and putting the opportunities out there for everyone to take advantage of.

Dr. Shakir, what’s one specific leadership opportunity that you have introduced at Princeton?

Dr. Shakir One new leadership opportunity that we have at the school level is that we’ve implemented a school-based H4TQ: Hiring for Teacher Quality team, which is inclusive of several teachers within the building. I am giving them authority around how we hire and our best practices for hiring so that we vet candidates from a teacher perspective.

Not only do teachers have the opportunity to take on this leadership role, but they also have an opportunity to see who would be a good fit for our school’s culture, as well as for as individualized teams. That way, as we onboard talent, we have an opportunity to say collectively we decided that this person was a good fit. The staff is very excited now because they feel like they have some true ownership around who we bring into the school. Plus, hiring teachers who are a good culture fit leads to greater teacher retention.

Have you seen positive results in implementing the H4TQ team?

Dr. Shakir: In previous schools where we used H4TQ, we would have at least an 80% retention rate. Plus, it helped us to identify the types of new teacher and school-based mentoring programs that we needed to put in place because collectively, the hiring team was able to identify several areas that the new hires might need support. If a new teacher just interviews with the principal or assistant principal, they might see one thing. But with H4QT, you have multiple perspectives which will help to drive how you plan and support that teacher once they onboard to your school.

What characteristics should school leaders have, or what actions could they take, that could be deciding factors in a teacher’s decision to stay or leave?

Dr. Perkins: Support. I appreciate when someone takes an interest in what is going on with me as a person, not just a teacher. Plus, I like support that is coming from someone not so far removed from the classroom. I don’t like to hear, “I support you!” and then pile more and more things on my plate. You have to be relatable and transparent. You will get a bigger buy-in if teachers understand this is why this needs to be done, so let’s go ahead and get it done.

Ms. Wright: Our principal is acknowledging small milestones with the teachers, as well as with the students, little things like attendance for the week. As opposed to waiting until the end of the semester, he will acknowledge and give some type of incentive or reward on a daily or weekly basis. These incentives to motivate us to keep us going at times like this, as opposed to leadership just showing appreciation at the end of the year or during Teacher Appreciation Week.

I just want to add that I think it speaks volumes that any job that’s within the school, Dr. Shakir willing to do so. Whether that is sweeping the stairs, handling the trash, monitoring the cafeteria – he will jump in where he sees the need. I also like how he has an open-door policy so anytime you want to talk to him, he’ll talk to you right there. We know he can’t change everything, but as a teacher you want your voice to be heard.

Dr. Shakir: School leaders need to get to know their staff and recognize everyday greatness. In January, I gave our staff the Gallup’s Employee Engagement Survey. It asks questions such as, ‘Within the last seven days, have I gotten any positive feedback at work?” I took some of the questions that had the lowest results and tackled those issues. We now have a weekly email that features Weekly Snaps, which means now every week, someone is being acknowledged for something positive they have done; it can be very big or seemingly very minor.

Things like Weekly Snaps can serve a two-fold purpose. One, it helps my instructional leadership team sharpen their lens to be able to see where people are doing positive things in all areas of the building, not just academics. Then, it also builds a sense of collaboration and collegiality across the school by recognizing staff greatness.

For additional ideas on how district leaders can tackle their immediate staffing challenges and plan for longer-term solutions, read our new guide, Addressing Teacher Shortages.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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