Teachers need to be free to do what they want to do

Want to improve retention? Give teachers more control of professional development, say Michelle Barker and David Weston

CPD message: What can Ultra Nate tell us about teacher retention? That control over professional development is key, say Michelle Barker and David Weston

You’re freeeeee, to do what you want to do, sang 1990s pop sensation, Ultra Nate. Except, according to new research, teachers often aren’t.

A study by the National Foundation for Educational Research in collaboration with the Teacher Development Trust comes a year after the government published its teacher recruitment and retention strategy. While the research confirms that unmanageable workload and low job satisfaction are significant factors in teachers’ decision to stay or leave, it also sheds light on new areas of opportunity for improving retention in schools.

Feelings of autonomy contribute to higher job satisfaction but vary widely across the profession: “only around half of those with the lowest autonomy are intending to stay in teaching in the short term, compared to more than 85 percent of those with the highest autonomy.” So what makes the difference to teachers? Why are some experiencing high levels of autonomy and others not? And how can school leaders match teachers' wants with school needs?

Keeping teachers happy

According to the surveys carried out by NFER, there are three key areas where teachers report high autonomy:

  • Influence over classroom activities.
  • Teaching methods used.
  • Planning and design of lessons.

… and three where they report less:

  • Curriculum design.
  • Assessment,
  • And, rather surprisingly, personal professional development goals.

Only a few aspects of autonomy seem to make a significant difference to retention. A standout finding is that autonomy over professional development goals is most associated with higher job satisfaction and greater intention to stay in teaching – in fact, it’s by far the most significant factor.

Perhaps less surprisingly, teachers who don’t move into leadership positions don’t experience growth in autonomy over their careers. This is unlike most other professions where autonomy tends to rise with experience.

Performance management and appraisal systems can either support or hinder teacher autonomy. With this new research further confirming the connection between teacher development and teacher motivation, it seems important for schools to review how they support classroom teachers to develop in their current roles through these systems.

As the NFER’s Jack Worth, lead author of this research, said: “When teachers have greater involvement in their professional development goal-setting, and in school decision-making more widely, they are motivated to perform and stay in the profession.”

Harnessing this new information, schools should create opportunities to co-create goals for classroom teachers that meet their development needs while supporting the whole-school vision to add further purpose and connectedness. The TDT has issued a supporting resource for senior leaders on implementing robust practices around collaborative goal-setting, available to download here.

So, for school leaders, we leave you with more words from Ultra Nate:

If you gave more [autonomy] than you took, Life could be so good, Come on and try, Now's the time, 'Cause you're freeeeee.

Michelle Barker (@BarkingAbout) and David Weston (@informed_edu) are, respectively, schools programme leader and CEO of the Teacher Development Trust. Find out more here.

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