Research Magazine

Auburn Research
Fall / Winter 2021
Where’s the Teacher?
Pendola seeks innovative, cost-neutral interventions to address teacher turnover
A series of empty school desks

America’s teacher shortage, according to the Economic Policy Institute, is “real, large and growing, and worse than we thought.” High-poverty schools suffer the most from this shortage, and it is largely driven by high rates of turnover. Efforts to address the crisis have often focused on structural changes such as higher compensation, improved preparation or expanding certification pathways. But according to Dr. Andrew Pendola, an assistant professor in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership, and Technology, the factors that truly lead to avoiding teacher shortages are often highly personal and malleable, including supportive leadership, a sense of worth and a positive culture.

Pendola is in the middle of a study sponsored by the Spencer Foundation, a leading funder of education research whose broad mission is to improve education in the United States. His proposal, “Rewriting the Script: Mapping Constructive Alternatives to Teacher Withdrawal and Turnover,” seeks a common sense and cost-neutral approach to the shortage. In a word, it all comes down to communication.

“With lots of interviews and a statewide teacher survey, I’m looking at how targeted interventions can be developed to reduce teacher turnover,” he said. “Teachers ultimately do not leave their jobs because of things like salary or the school’s physical plant. They leave because of dissatisfaction with their expectations. Structural factors such as salary certainly come into play, but the decision to leave a school or the profession altogether is, at its core, a personal choice. And that choice is malleable.”

The COVID pandemic delayed some of Pendola’s research, but he is in the process of conducting surveys to develop interview questions, which he will pose to approximately 500 teachers across the state in the coming months.

Dr. Andrew Pendola
Dr. Andrew Pendola

“I want to target what makes teachers unhappy, how they express that unhappiness and how we can intervene and redirect it towards something positive,” he said. “Some might say they are unhappy with the school’s administration. However, I’ve found that many teachers who feel this way have never even considered sitting down and talking to their principal. They leave without ever having that conversation. What if they asked the principal to allow them to serve on the school’s curriculum committee, or to develop a collaborative outreach project to give their students new experiences? What if the principal noted the teacher disengaging and asked what could be done to reengage? That is a zero-cost, targeted intervention.”

Policy approaches such as pay raises or more stringent preparation certainly have value, but these options may not be available to under-resourced, high poverty schools. In this and other ways, uniform policy approaches are not always equitable remedies.

“We must provide a separate avenue to address the mindset of dissatisfaction,” Pendola said. “Communicating these issues must be done by both teachers and school district leadership. Universities might also do a better job preparing teachers for the job’s realities and help them understand that there is room for creativity instead of just following the status quo. Great teachers know more than techniques and subject matter. Great teachers are dedicated to their job and to their students. I want to improve commitment in that space.”

In his educational leadership classes, Pendola tells his students – who already serve in school leadership positions — that if they see a teacher starting to check out, they should be the ones to initiate the intervention.

“My research agenda is to improve educator retention in a way that will not differentiate by school resources,” he said. “This is very much in line with our profession’s emphasis on inclusive excellence. Historically underserved schools have the highest turnover, which has devastating consequences. For many of these students, school is where they find stability. It costs districts a great amount of money to replace a teacher, and it harms the students in many ways. So it can become a vicious cycle.”
As the profession seeks new ways to address the shortage, Pendola advocates that principals and superintendents engage in a form of professional development to help teachers remember and reflect on why they are there in the first place: to improve the lives of their students.

“States and districts across the country are looking at stemming the shortage by recruiting teachers from non-traditional sources,” Pendola said. “This approach can make teaching seem like a less respected profession and in fact leads to more teacher turnover once these new recruits come into the system unprepared for the job. This is a complex problem that, if not addressed, could have long-term negative consequences for our society and our democracy. Great teachers are there for a reason. Let’s look for ways to connect them with what brought them into the classroom in the first place. If modern research on turnover has shown us anything, it is that choosing to leave one’s job is not an immediate or linear event. It is a complex process that unfolds in time with hundreds of micro decisions along the way. Let’s find interventions while we still have the chance to do so.”

Last updated: October 01, 2021