Can A Person-Centered Approach to Professional Development Help Retain Teachers?

There is an integral need to provide teachers with better professional development, greater appreciation, and more resources at work to help keep passionate and dedicated individuals in the classroom
Blog Post
April 11, 2022

Almost ten years ago, I received my acceptance letter from Teach for America (TFA). A few short months later, I began my career as an early elementary educator in the Mississippi Delta. This year TFA’s incoming class is expected to hit a fifteen-year low with just 2,000 teachers being placed. This is just one-third of the number of teachers sent into the field at the height of TFA in 2013—the year that I joined the corps. The downward trend in TFA enrollment is indicative of a larger systemic issue: enrollment in teacher preparation programs has dropped and the number of education degrees earned at American colleges and universities has decreased by 22 percent between 2006 and 2019.

Last year, I made the decision to leave the classroom. Many other educators have made the same choice as part of the Great Resignation. The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, released survey data in February showcasing massive teacher shortages in public schools. Teachers are feeling burned out, with an alarming 55 percent of educators considering leaving their jobs sooner than planned. These issues exist not only within the K-12 system but within pre-K settings as well. A recent longitudinal study of early childhood educators from 2016 to 2019 in Louisiana found turnover rates of 33 percent over one year and 67 percent over three years. Although turnover rates have returned to pre-pandemic levels in states such as Massachusetts and Hawaii, there is still reason to be worried about the state of education in the long term.

Some states have increased compensation as a strategy to entice teachers to stay in the classroom. Governors in two states with the lowest average teacher pay have proposed new legislation to raise educator wages. A House committee in South Dakota just approved a bill to increase teacher pay, while Mississippi recently passed the largest teacher pay raise in state history. While increasing teacher pay is an important measure to keep educators in the classroom, attrition in the field is about more than compensation. As such, other long-term solutions should be taken into consideration. Teachers also need more support, enriching work environments, and personalized professional development opportunities to enhance their job performance.

New research suggests that a person-centered approach to assessing classroom quality can help guide customized professional development training for educators. Person-centered approaches focus on the unique capabilities and aspirations of each individual with support tailored to their needs and circumstances. Many current professional development opportunities are not personalized to address educators' strengths and weaknesses, with program administrators often adopting a one-size-fits-all approach. The current study followed 97 teachers working in center-based early childhood/pre-K settings with children aged two to five in the Pacific Northwest. Data collection took place over six months and included two sources of evidence: teacher surveys and classroom observations using the Teacher Pyramid Observation Tool (TPOT). Teachers were observed by trained members of the research team during a 90-120 minute classroom observation that was followed by a teacher interview.

This study identified four different profiles of teachers based on teaching quality, professional development experiences, job attitudes, and disciplinary efficacy. Teachers who had lower practice quality, mixed professional development experiences, mixed job attitudes, and lower disciplinary efficacy had the highest level of TPOT “red flags” and the lowest overall TPOT scores. The sources of TPOT red flags included: many children not engaged during group activities, children reprimanded for expressing emotions, and restraining a child who engaged in challenging behaviors. Researchers found that these teachers often felt less stressed in their job, but they were also not professionally engaged as educators.

Researchers found that a tailored and tiered professional development approach was beneficial not only to educators but also to the young children in these classrooms. The researchers conclude that understanding the four teacher profile types could help administrators and coaches deliver better professional development by enabling teachers to receive individualized support in the areas that will have the largest positive impact on their job performance.

In this study, educators with the highest job satisfaction and commitment also had the highest levels of disciplinary efficacy and propensity to use social-emotional learning strategies in the classroom. The use of social-emotional teaching practices has been associated with improvements in classroom quality and a decrease in suspension and expulsion from early learning programs. High levels of disciplinary efficacy are particularly pertinent at this moment, as reports of behaviors that teachers find challenging continue to soar following periods of remote learning and the collective trauma of COVID-19. Similarly, teachers who reported increased access to professional resources and higher levels of appreciation at work were more likely to use social-emotional teaching practices that are beneficial to students. These same teachers were also less likely to report depressive symptoms, exhaustion, and stress -- symptoms that are often associated with lower quality teaching practices and turnover.

Simply put, more satisfied and appreciated teachers are more likely to remain in the classroom long-term. These data, as well as my own personal experiences, showcase the integral need to provide teachers with better professional development, greater appreciation, and more resources at work to help keep passionate and dedicated individuals in the classroom. Treating educators as people first, with unique strengths and weaknesses, and allowing these professionals the opportunity to strengthen their craft through personalized training, is a model worth exploring. It is not enough to rely on only increased compensation to retain teachers. Ultimately, providing teachers with broader opportunities for growth as well as opportunities for personal and professional development benefits educators and the children in their classrooms.

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