School leadership: Attracting and retaining teachers

Attracting and retaining effective teachers to build and maintain a strong team can be difficult for principals and systems – even more so depending on the school’s location and subject expertise being sought.

Since 2017, the Catholic Education Diocese of Cairns has been working to tackle teacher supply and demand issues in Far North Queensland. It started with an attraction, recruitment and retention pilot program for beginning teachers, which has now been expanded.

The initial planning and implementation of the First-Year Teachers Program zeroed in on two areas aimed at building long-term sustainability: what to focus on during the recruitment process, and how to retain the teachers beyond three years.

Vicki Bell, Director – Leadership and Professional Learning, says retention of local early career teachers was significantly higher than those recruited from outside the diocese. ‘We lost 75 per cent at the end of their third year here,’ she tells Teacher, with many citing the call of family as the reason for leaving Cairns to look for opportunities in metropolitan Brisbane.

In order to gain a deeper insight into some of the issues and develop a long-term strategic response, the diocese enlisted the help of school workforce research and analytics company PeopleBench. ‘This gave us a really clear system-wide set of data around where we need to be focusing our recruitment, particularly in terms of things like age profiles and gender profiles,’ Bell explains.

And, looking beyond the pilot, she says it was equally important to think about how to use the data to not only plan for the next year and the year after, but for the next decade. ‘If we are not doing that, we are going to find ourselves in a situation where we have more classrooms than we have teachers.’

Bell says the research insights from PeopleBench enabled the diocese to be more targeted in its recruitment processes. ‘For example, I used to present to final year pre-service teachers focusing on employment conditions – permanency, additional allowances etc. Now I focus on the support offered to early careers teachers, the ability to fast track to leadership, ongoing professional growth opportunities, flexible employment opportunities and teacher wellbeing.’

Forming strong relationships with beginner teachers and providing wraparound support were found to be particularly important. The approach taken to attracting, developing and retaining beginner teachers was to start building these relationships while they were still at university.

In partnership with Australian Catholic University, James Cook University and Central Queensland University, the Cairns Diocese offers a scholarship to pre-service teachers that includes supporting them with accommodation assistance and living expenses during their practicum. Students receive $1000 during their fourth year, placement in a far northern Catholic school and six professional development sessions throughout the year.

And, it’s not just about providing help once they step foot in their placement school. Bell meets the parents of scholarship students to explain the support that’s in place, and is a personal contact point, should they need it. ‘For all scholarship holders and for anyone else who is interested from the three universities, we run a “Getting ready for Employment” Program,’ Bell says. ‘This program is extensive and focuses not just on the recruitment process, but really aims to begin the induction process. We want to be clear as to who we are as an organisation so that people can make informed choices as to whether this is where they want to work.’ It includes a country tour which has been held virtually during the pandemic.

When the beginner teachers arrive in the far north, a team from the diocese meets them and takes care of transport. They also arrange meet and greet events to introduce them to local teachers and the community. This focus on networking and relationships continues once the practicum starts; an orientation, induction and ongoing mentoring program also kick in and school leaders ensure the new teachers are given the time to take advantage of this support.

Bell says the mentoring relationship and beginner teachers’ perceptions of the support available are key factors in their development and retention. ‘The focus on wellbeing is related to our sick leave data and our data around the number of teachers we lose (or who are considering leaving at the end of Term 1). So, we have really tried to wrap ourselves around our early careers teachers in those first few months – at a school and organisational level.’

Data indicate almost all of the pre-service teachers awarded a scholarship are employed. ‘This is giving us a pool of “ready-made” employees who choose us first.’ The First-Year Teachers Program has continued to evolve, from the one-size-fits-all approach of the pilot to meeting individual needs.

‘We are transitioning into a program where teachers are able to choose to focus on particular areas of development. This is still really early days,’ Bell says. ‘We are also trying to focus on more system support in schools so that we really have a clear idea of how each teacher is faring – especially in terms of wellbeing.’

Looking at retention and succession planning, the diocese also runs a program called ‘Call to Vocation for Leadership’. This is aimed at teachers in their second to fifth year of teaching who are identified as having leadership potential. ‘At the end of the program, participants have a Career Plan – that is a purposeful plan to build their careers over the next five to 10 years, rather than leaving it to chance,’ Bell explains.

However, she adds myriad challenges remain. In regard to those at the very start of their teaching career: ‘They are almost universally surprised by the amount of planning and work needed in their first year. They are still coming into the profession thinking that high needs students are the exception, whereas now almost every class has at least one if not several high needs students. So the challenge is around preparing (capacity building) and supporting them (wellbeing).’

The team is also starting to look at how to employ pre-service teachers in related roles prior to graduation and employment as teachers – for example as school officers, in outside school hours care, and holiday care. ‘We think this will do two things – really grow their skills particularly in term of student management and also give the pre-service teachers a more realistic view of the profession. This is part of our 2022 vision.

‘We have also developed an “Aspire to Teach Program”, which is aimed at students in Year 10 in our own schools who are interested in teaching. The aim to give them a taste of teaching and support them in their career choice. We have yet to follow them through into Years 11 and 12,’ Bell says.

In addition to these challenges, competition with other educational authorities in recruitment is fierce, and schools are increasingly hiring pre-service teachers prior to their qualification under “Permission to Teach” approval – Bell says these teachers require significant support.

And finally, she adds: ‘We are a Catholic system, which requires the teaching of Religion. This can be challenging for non-Catholic employees, so requires significant formation. As our applicant pools diminish this is an increasing challenge.’

Stay tuned: In a follow-up article, we’ll be speaking to principals involved in the Cairns Diocese program about what’s happening in their own schools, and the challenges they face in building and maintaining a strong teaching team.

As a school leader, what are the challenges you face in recruiting and retaining staff?

How do you support beginner and early career teachers? When was the last time you reviewed your induction program? Do you gather feedback from teachers on the support programs available?