Oct 12 2006

Tech Debate: Tug of War to Keep Teachers in School

An IT administrator and a board of education member tackle the problem of teacher retention. What are teachers’ top complaints and how does one address them?

Is it all about money or can technology help curb teacher departure?


HERE’S A WORD PROBLEM FOR YOU. IF A TEACHER HAS WORKED IN A SCHOOL DISTRICT FOR FIVE years, but the school only pays her as if she’s taught for three, what are the chances she’ll return the following year?

No need to do the math. Dr. Sally Doyen, superintendent of schools in Lebanon, Conn., and Mal Leichter, the district’s director of business and technology, have seen the results. Although a multitude of issues factor into the equation, salary is issue number one. Out on the playground, Ed Tech spoke with Doyen and Leichter about teacher turnover and asked the question, “Can technology help slow the exodus?”

Click HereWhy are teachers leaving?

Doyen: Teachers certainly know going into the education profession that their pay will not be comparable to those of other professions. They also are aware of the disparities among districts and often have the possibility of earning $10,000 to $15,000 more per year by working in another district.

During times of booming economies teachers change districts more frequently, while during economic downturns, when there is a definite possibility of teacher layoffs, turnover decreases.

Leichter: We have about 150 teachers in our district. Last year we replaced 23; the year before we replaced 22. This year we only replaced nine. That was the result of the new contract in which the district addressed salary. Across the board, teachers received a 5.25 percent increase. But an issue remains with teachers in the middle of a pay scale grade, or “steps,” which typically relate to years of experience. Because we didn’t always correlate pay grades directly to years of experience, teachers often had fewer steps in pay grade than years of experience. As such, we had teachers with eight years of experience leave the district on step five in favor of another district, where they would be hired on step eight. The district is addressing that now by giving steps back to people slowly.

Have technology investments been helps or hindrances?

Doyen: New teachers graduating from college want and expect to have a technology-rich teaching environment and want to be able to use technology in a variety of ways with their students. Several teachers new to our district have indicated that they chose Lebanon over other school districts because of our abundance of technology resources and the support that we provide teachers in that area.

Leichter: In large part, the answer depends on to whom you speak. We have a product in place called Parent Connect, which allows teachers to keep their grades electronically and parents to go in and see how their children are doing, right down to the teacher’s grade book. The majority of our teachers love it. And probably 20 percent of them hate it because now they are accountable. It has really improved the home/school connection in terms of communications.

Is there a complaint resolution gap?

Doyen: Anyone with a technology problem would respond that a complaint resolution gap exists because we are all used to immediate answers and expect immediate service. Our technology director established a database so that teachers and other staff members can quickly e-mail questions and concerns to our technician for prompt and orderly resolution.

Leichter: Our average downtime on any given machine is less than a day. That’s tracked, documented and published. We attribute that to constant oversight of the issue resolution process. We have a problem management database system that tracks issues for timely resolution. Calls are recorded. Calls are monitored. Calls are taken. Calls are resolved.

What’s been done to improve communications?

Doyen: A very reliable e-mail system greatly improves district communications. Administrators now can communicate on a daily basis with teachers using e-mail, whereas the old telephone system caused delays and missed messages.

Leichter: We’re in the process of installing new phone systems, which will give every teacher voicemail. In conjunction with our e-mail system, teachers and administrators will enjoy improved communications.

What political issues irk teachers?

Doyen: Perhaps the biggest is the lack of funds to complete initiatives on a timely basis.

Leichter: The political issues mainly concern state and federal standardized testing. It’s a transition. Teachers would rather be purists than teach to a test.

What techniques do you use to improve morale?

Doyen: Teachers and other staff members need to know what is happening in the district at all levels. Our e-mail system facilitates those communications. We implemented a teacher recruiting and retention committee two years ago, with focus on recruiting excellent teachers to the community, as well as providing incentives for teachers to remain. Administrators work to provide the types of technology teachers want and need to use, even if on a pilot basis.

Leichter: I’m not the morale officer of the place. That would be the superintendent. We try to provide timely and effective technology support and instruction to minimize frustrations teachers may have regarding our technology infrastructure. When our technology works as it should, our teachers get to focus on teaching. We’ve even provided additional training to people who showed interest in becoming resident experts. So they don’t have to call us for help.

How do you assess teacher performance?

Doyen: Currently, we are in the process of determining what specific metrics should be used regarding teacher performance standards and the use of technology. Once we have agreement on those issues, we can tie technology skills directly into teacher evaluation.

Leichter: I don’t [assess teacher performance]. I do know the state is requiring now that teachers and administrators take a certain number of credits in technology.

How important are mentoring programs among staff?

Doyen: Connecticut requires every first-year teacher to have an assigned mentor and, in our district, we have a more informal mentoring program that assigns a new teacher to a “buddy.” We also provide a computer or technology teacher in each building to work with all staff, both new and veteran.

Leichter: Kid comes fresh out of school, has got a lot of skills, but hasn’t gone through the ropes of actually being in a classroom and there’s a lot of value brought by experienced teachers. Assuming you have the right role models a mentor can help the new teacher get started much more quickly.

Name one case where a certain action resulted in a teacher staying?

Doyen: I can think of several instances in which teachers who left the district and taught elsewhere applied to return to our district. These teachers expressed tremendous surprise that wealthier districts have not made use of the technologies we have here—the types of day-to-day technologies that make teaching easier. Our online grade book is a great example of a useful tool for teachers in communicating with parents, as well as recording grades.

Leichter: I can share one incident related to technology. One teacher regretted leaving for another school largely because of her new school’s lack of technology. She resigned to go teach in a neighboring town for more money, and that school was behind the curve in technology. She said to me, “What can I do to get a copy of this grade-book (InterGrade Pro)?” She loved the program and the new district didn’t have anything even close.