Presenting at the 39th Annual Head Start Association Conference: Preschool Teacher Turnover Rates

At the 39th Annual Head Start Association Conference I presented on some preliminary research findings on the issue of teacher retention in a presentation called Relationships Matter: Qualitative Interviews with Head Start Preschool Teachers on Turnover Rates.

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To see the actual presentation powerpoint, click Teacher Retention Research Results NHSA.

Many, in fact, most or nearly all preschools have a problem retaining qualified teachers. Many teachers leave after a short period of time, for a number of reasons. This impacts the young child’s learning, since 1) they are constantly bombarded with new teachers and new personalities and new styles of teaching and 2) they are being taught by less experienced teachers.

Teacher retention also affects the parents. In fact, I had several parents tell me that their child had between 3-8 different preschool teachers all within a school year (depending on the parent–of course these are more extreme cases, but it does happen). And parents find it difficult to form relationships with teachers and in turn may not always be the most up-to-date on their child’s learning and what they need to work on at home.

This also greatly impacts the quality of a preschool program: 1) it’s financially costly. Hiring and training new employees is not easy and takes a lot of man hours and therefore money (not to mention all of the benefits associated with that organization, like health care, which isn’t cheap). 2) New teachers typically means less quality, as they are trying to learn how that organization operates, how the children learn and what their needs are, etc. 3) Old employees become fed-up with having to do a greater share of the workload while new employees are being hired and trained (which can take a long time to find qualified teachers)–which can create a snowball effect of having promising, qualified, experienced teachers leave due to (what some term) “workplace abuse”–where they become agitated by not being fully staffed, which impacts them in multiple ways (such as their work load or trying to take vacation).

In other words, the aim of the study was to learn why Head Start teachers would leave and what changes they want to happen in order to continue working for Head Start

So I sought out what makes preschool teachers at our 10 Head Start centers stay or leave the organization. I conducted qualitative interviews using a clustered randomized designed, where I went to each preschool and interviewed one lead and one assistant preschool teacher (all of which were chosen at random from each school) leading to a total of 10 lead and 10 assistant preschool teacher interviews.

The preliminary results showed 4 themes:

Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 7.33.03 PMIn relationships matter, the more influence an individual had with a person, the more important they were towards determining if that person would stay or leave the agency, based on their relationship with that person. So for example, if they were the lead preschool teacher, their relationship with their assistant was the most important relationship in determining if they would stay or leave the agency since they spent the most time together (40+ hours per week). Their supervisor became the next important relationship, as they would typically see their supervisor daily. If they had strong relationships with these people, they typically wanted to stay (and some even stated that the only reason they are still here is because of those relationships–despite any other issues that they may have).

Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 7.37.09 PM Another theme on why teachers would stay or leave the agency revolved around paperwork. Preschool teachers have a lot of paperwork to do. And Head Start teachers have more paperwork than other preschool teachers because of all of the federal guidelines. Not surprisingly then, the preschool teachers were stressed about the paperwork. However, not in the way many imagine. The teachers weren’t stressed that they had to do the paperwork. In fact many of them even thought that most or all of the paperwork was necessary and important. However, the teachers stated that they lacked the time to complete the paperwork. And it was not having built-in reflection time that made them stressed about the paperwork, as the teachers either had to do all of their paperwork while the children were in the classroom, while the children napped (which was often confounded by at least one child not sleeping and therefore needing attention, or they had to bring the paperwork home in order to complete it, which wasn’t ideal for their work or home life). Teachers suggested having a half an hour to an hour either before school or after school each day that was built in for paperwork, where children were not allowed to be there (i.e. starting school at 8am, but having teachers start work at 7:30) or to have half or all day Friday to complete their paperwork). In fact, those who had part-day classrooms had Fridays to complete their paperwork, and those in part-day classrooms were much more likely to be satisfied with the paperwork aspect and therefore stay with the company, while those in full-day classrooms never had a break to do their paperwork and were more likely to leave due to not having time to complete their paperwork.

Teachers working with children in a Head Start program are often aware of child behavior problems. There has been a lot of research to support the idea that young children have behavior problems but that those from poor/impoverished families have about three times more behavior problems than the middle-of-the-road preschool does. Teachers often complained about the severity of the behaviors, alluding to acceptable behavior problems and other problems that should be beyond the reach of any preschool teacher who is trying to teach 19 other children with only one other supporting teacher. Therefore, many teachers suggested that not every child be allowed into the program, as they simply couldn’t serve everyone’s particular needs and that some children might be better served in classrooms or schools that deal with severe behavioral problems.

Lastly, teachers required support. The teachers who stated they either received or did not need support said they would like to stay with the agency while those who needed support, requested support, but didn’t feel they had received support were more likely to state that they would leave the agency.

In addition to these four themes, all of the teachers discussed if they viewed their position as a job or a profession. As it turns out, preschool teachers in the Head Start program very much see their position as a career, albeit with some hurdles to overcome. However, they want to stay in early childcare, especially with disadvantaged children, like those in Head Start, for their whole career.

This means that if teachers leave, it’s because their needs aren’t being met, not because they didn’t want to be in this particular field. Therefore each agency should look at what needs the teachers require and then try to satisfy those needs in order to retain valuable qualified competent preschool teachers.

In this case, making sure they are paired up with leads/assistants that they communicate and get along with well, provide teachers time to complete their paperwork, reconsidering child behavior problems, and providing enough support to teachers who request it, taking their requests seriously and providing valuable, applicable feedback to their issues.

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