Shyam Kumar is the Founder and CEO of NorthStar Education Partners. Over the last several years, Shyam has led initiatives across multiple charter networks and districts to develop teacher and leader career-pathway programs focused on increasing staff development, impact, and retention. Shyam’s work has included defining excellent student and school outcomes, integrating coaching and evaluation processes, and developing extended reach teaching roles to expand the impact of high performing teachers. Previously, Shyam served as the Executive Director of Teach for America – Atlanta and has worked as a management consultant at GE. Shyam resides with his family in Atlanta, GA.
Thriving Schools: Shyam, we’re going to be focusing our time today discussing teacher retention strategies. But before we get into that, I think our audience would really appreciate hearing where your passion for education comes from.
Shyam: It’s a really personal issue for me. Both of my parents grew up in India in a very low income community and their route out of poverty involved an education and a sequence of great teachers that propelled them to America. So growing up, we were taught that education is a blessing and that it should never be taken for granted. So even though I started my career in a different field, I always knew I wanted to make my life about this profession. Because I have a ton of gratitude for it.
Thriving Schools: And at what point did you develop your expertise in teacher career pathways and retention strategies?
Shyam: I would say it started in my role as Executive Director with Teacher for America – Atlanta where I had a chance to witness the teacher career cycle first-hand. I would have these heartbreaking conversations with our teachers as they approached the end of their 2-year commitments and they would tell me that they didn’t want to stay at their placement schools and that they were leaving the profession altogether. And the reasons I heard – “I don’t have a school leader I can trust,” “My school culture makes my job unsustainable for me,” and “It’d be impossible for me to have a family” – made me realize how much better we have to get in these areas. That’s when I decided I wanted to commit my work to getting this issue solved.
Thriving Schools: So let’s talk about retention. What are the main reasons teachers leave?
Shyam: Well first, let’s take a step back and state the obvious. Our top teachers bring a more diverse skill set into the classroom than you’ll find in any other profession. For instance, they often bring skillsets in data analysis, relationship-building, content knowledge, pedagogy, and so on. And those are the teachers that are making significant breakthroughs and getting the results our children need. But the reason I start there is because I want to make clear that our top teachers leave for very different reasons than their lower-performing peers.
And the reasons I heard – “I don’t have a school leader I can trust,” “My school culture makes my job unsustainable for me,” and “It’d be impossible for me to have a family” – made me realize how much better we have to get in these areas.
Thriving Schools: So what’s the right way to think about why our top teachers leave?
Shyam: I like to start with what I consider the fundamentals of a great teaching environment. A lot of it comes down to leadership – people don’t leave organizations, they leave people. And I think this rings especially true with our top teachers. Next I think we have to talk about development and support in instruction, especially in this era of Common Core. We often have teachers receiving feedback and coaching from leaders that have never taught in their specific content areas. And this deficiency becomes more pronounced when you have a teacher looking for support on an 11th grade science standard or a pre-calculus lesson. Finally, we have to discuss the lack of support on the behavioral front. When teachers feel like a school doesn’t have their back when it comes to dealing with difficult families and students, it puts them in a really tough spot.
Thriving Schools: Are there any other reasons we should add to this list?
Shyam: Yes, of course. Moving on from the items I already mentioned, you get into issues of compensation, career pathways, and well-being. But I want to make clear – coming up with a silver-bullet solution in one of these areas, while ignoring potential cracks in your foundations, won’t get you very far.
Thriving Schools: Are there programs that are intended to improve retention but might actually make it worse?
Shyam: Yes. There are school leaders, who with all the best intention in the world, will really lean into this teacher appreciation stuff. So there’s “Appreciation Thursdays,” and other celebratory activities. Don’t get me wrong – valuing teachers and recognizing their impact is huge. But when you get under this iceberg of an issue, you realize the problem is much deeper. Most teachers come into the profession with a ton of meaning and a ton of purpose, and those aren’t channeled appropriately with the aforementioned activities. That is, this appreciation stuff rarely fuels the fire on a deeper and more meaningful level.
Thriving Schools: What are the first steps a school or district should take to improve retention?
Shyam: I’ll answer that question by telling you the easiest ways to identify if there’s a problem. For example, when I partner with a CMO or a district, one of the first easy questions to ask is – “Is there a clear and rigorous definition of excellence for both teachers and leaders?” And keep in mind the answer is going to look different at different schools. But the reason I start there is because I do believe that our best teachers want to be held to the highest standards and have the clarity of how to get there. Then, once that has been met, I’ll ask – “Is this definition something everybody understands and has internalized?” and “Is the professional development that’s being offered linked to that in a meaningful way?” Examining the professional development that a school is offering is usually quite telling.
Thriving Schools: How so?
Shyam: What I mean is this. If it’s whole-group, where teachers are listening to a session that isn’t connected to their work and not job-embedded, chances are it’s not going to move the needle and help teachers feel like they’re supported. We’re finding that instructional coaching, that’s both job-embedded and delivered in real-time, is what’s truly helping teachers get better. There’s plenty of research now indicating that we have to move away from traditional professional development and toward things that actually work.
Thriving Schools: And how does defining this bar of excellence affect recruitment and hiring?
Shyam: Well, we now know enough about hiring to get a good feeling for when a teacher might be a great fit for the school and those that may not be a good fit. And the reason that this is important is because you can start to identify candidates who might leave during their first year or who won’t be around in 3-4 years.
Thriving Schools: How do school leaders get a sense for this?
Shyam: By using data in the hiring process. That way, schools and districts can start tracking the steps they’re taking that might be helping or hurting retention. Then over time, this data will help inform school leaders about candidates that might be better fits. So again, this involves tracking who was hired, how long they stayed with the school, what their performance has been, how they were referred to the school, and other factors/issues that come up in the hiring process.
Thriving Schools: And what red flags might indicate a poor fit?
Shyam: Let me put it this way. I think one of the best things a leader can do is to ask potential teachers what their expectations of the school are. For example, what they expect the classroom environment to be like, how they expect the students to be, and what challenges they anticipate popping up. Often we see teachers with great aspirations not getting a clear sense of what they’re walking into. So if it’s a turnaround situation, are teachers made aware of the challenges related to this? If it’s a school with a diverse set of students – from ELL learners to students with disabilities – are they really clear on what this means at the classroom level? The schools that I see doing a really good job with this are being quite real with potential teachers. They have them walk through the building, they have them teach students, and they let them interview other staff members. They’re being completely transparent and not selling teachers on a story that’s not true.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our conversation with Shyam! We’ll dig in deeper and talk about defining excellence in teaching, how to design effective extended-teaching roles, and distributing leadership in schools!