Retaining Teachers Through Reimagined Career Pathways

December 5, 2023

By: Jessica Kato, NBCT

Recently, I attended a conference session for mid to late-career educators, which I expected to be focused on strategies to support teacher retention, an issue I care deeply about. Instead, I was surprised to find myself actively participating in a passionate and emotional conversation about what it means to have an impact and what we want our lasting impact in education to be. When faced with that question, I was moved to tears because my initial reaction was to think nostalgically about the time I have spent with students and how I long to return to the classroom.

The longer I sat with the question, the more I realized that my impact now is in supporting teachers and considering what teachers need to stay in the profession in a way that feels meaningful and allows for growth. In our current educational landscape, many teachers feel the need to leave the classroom to grow their careers by either becoming an administrator or another type of instructional leader. And though these roles in education are crucial, they exacerbate the teacher shortage by pulling talented educators looking for new challenges out of the classroom. In truth, these are often the people we should want to stay in the classroom with our students.

My children are public school students in the early years of their learning journeys, and I fear that by the time they get to high school, there won’t be any teachers left to teach them. Yet, as I write this, I myself am a high school teacher who is no longer in the classroom. I am a Literacy Resource Teacher who serves 18 schools, including their school, and I know my work is impactful. I ensure that schools have the resources and materials they need. I create space for teachers to collaborate, learn, and grow together. I am a bridge between those in positions of authority and those in the classroom.

But I wonder why such a bridge is necessary. Why don’t those in the classroom have the authority to make decisions that reimagine public education? Why can’t we create more hybrid positions where teachers can participate in aspects of instructional leadership that support their growth while teaching students?

I love teaching. I miss teaching students. But I also love working with adults, developing systems, and moving towards change. In the current reality of public education, I cannot do both, not really. We could reimagine what it means to be a teacher leader, though. We could create positions with more 12-month teachers who have a class of students and support professional learning and other initiatives. This would help with the teacher shortage because there would be more teachers in the classroom, even if for part of the day. This would help school leaders be reminded of the complexities of day-to-day teaching while also learning what it means to teach in the current reality. This might also create pathways for teachers to grow into, which may be attractive to those considering the teaching profession, pathways that do not lead away from students. 

Systemic career pathways for classroom teachers would not only retain talented teachers but would also serve as a recruitment strategy. The Teacher Career Pathways program in New York City has identified five critical areas of instructional leadership, which include Peer Coaching and Mentoring, Intervistiations and Lab Classrooms, Leadership Conversations and Advocacy, Facilitation of Professional Collaboration, and Designing Professional Learning for Adults. 

According to the 2022 Hawaii Department of Education School Quality survey, two of the lowest-scoring indicators among teachers were: “I am satisfied with the professional development opportunities the school provides me.” and “I am satisfied with the opportunities I have to affect the policy decisions at my school.” If we intentionally created career pathways with leadership opportunities for teachers and teachers who had more of a role in developing and facilitating professional learning, as well as working on policy decisions, job satisfaction would increase, and we would retain more teachers in the classroom, even if in a hybrid role.

For example, we could have a District Master Teacher of PBL (or literacy or mathematical practices, or Universal Design for Learning, etc), who could open their classroom to teachers from across the district who wanted to learn about their topic of expertise. They could visit the classroom to see the strategy or topic in action and then attend a professional learning session facilitated by that master teacher, who is implementing the type of pedagogy others would like to learn about. Not only would this save costs on outside providers and consultants, but there would be increased credibility in the instructional leader because they are actively engaging in the approach they are promoting.

Yet, these master teachers, these instructional leaders who instruct, would need the same status and decision-making power as those in administrative roles for the positions to be genuinely appealing and impactful. And to do that is to change the power dynamic, which never comes easy. But, as Jill Harrison Berg wrote in the ASCD article “Toward Deliberately Distributed Leadership, “Leadership is naturally distributed in any system since anyone can intentionally or unintentionally influence an organization’s core work in positive or negative ways" (2023). By embracing and compensating instructional leaders with both time granted through a hybrid schedule, as well as financially, we will reinvigorate the teaching profession and ensure that teachers who are passionate, nurtured, and empowered to impact their school communities in positive ways will continue to grow, learn, and sustain their classroom practice.

Jessica Kato, NBCT

Jessica Kato, MEd, is a National Board Certified literacy educator who has been teaching for over 20 years. Jessica is the Literacy Resource Teacher for the Campbell Kapolei Complex Area of the Hawaii Department of Education, an Adjunct Professor for Chaminade University, a Hawaii State Teacher Fellow, and the Leeward NBCT Representative for Hawaii State Teachers Association. She continues to teach English for the Hawaii Online Courses program, where her students inspire her hope for the future. Jessica fiercely believes in growing joy and confidence through literacy and in the power of public education