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Thriving Teachers, Thriving Centers: Improving Teacher Satisfaction and Reducing Turnover, in partnership with Region 9 Head Start Association

Thriving Teachers, Thriving Centers: Improving Teacher Satisfaction and Reducing Turnover, in partnership with Region 9 Head Start Association
Kati Vaughn, BA, MA
November 4, 2019

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Today's course includes some reflection activities so it is recommended that you have a notebook, pen and paper, or a program opened in your computer where you can jot something down or make notes. In addition, please be sure to download the course handouts and have them accessible as you read through this course.

A Tale of Two Principals

I want to start by building the case for why this topic matters. To paint a picture, I'll tell a tale of two principals: Principal A and Principal B have both assumed an interim principal role this year. They took on the role late due to leadership transitions. They have jumped right into the work with new responsibilities and constant decision-making. Their plates are really full. I share this with empathy and free of judgment but I will link it to the retention they each have for next year because the difference is pretty stark.

Principal A is really task-focused and takes a no-excuses approach. While high expectations matter for putting great teachers in the classroom, we have to also acknowledge that teachers are human. They sometimes have off days, sometimes have sick days, they make mistakes, and they may fall short. Principal A really leans into this no-excuses approach. She is not consistently visible in hallways, or classrooms, or professional development sessions because she is usually booked with meetings. Or, she works in her office with the door closed. Teachers and students don't necessarily see her or connect with her on a regular basis. She often communicates to teachers through other people such as instructional coaches or Human Resources (HR). She delegates a lot of tasks. She tends to send emails over the weekend or late at night, which can send a confusing message to staff members about work-life balance.  She's sometimes slow to respond over email and is even sometimes a no-show to meetings with teachers. Teachers feel that Principal A doesn't feel like their time is valuable together. 

Principal B approaches her work with an orientation in favor of people. She tries to honor their needs and make them feel seen, heard, and valued. She prioritizes time for teachers to meaningfully connect on a personal level. Before every professional development meeting, there is some type of icebreaker or warm-up for teachers to tell stories, to share anecdotes, and reflect together as people. She has consistent time blocked on her calendar every week to spend in classrooms. While I'm sure it's not as much time as she wishes or she hopes, it's still sacred time where teachers and students get to connect with her and feel supported throughout the day. She's also quick to step into a classroom to cover a teacher who needs to use a restroom or who might have a personal emergency. She says, "Hey, I got you, do what you need to do." She drops what she's doing and pops into that classroom to be present with students. She shared a This I Believe statement with the team when she first took on the role.  She did this to share more deeply about her own values and beliefs when it comes to education and explain how she brings her own unique self to the work. This modeled vulnerability for her staff and built trust from the very beginning. Finally, she holds student and teacher panels every few weeks to get feedback on their experience at school and to be responsive to their needs.

So, Principal A is a task-oriented principal, and Principal B is a relationship-oriented principal. They both have the same responsibilities and a similar workload. Let's take a look at the retention numbers. Principal A is expecting 65% of her staff to return next year based on intent to return forms that were sent out this spring. Principal B is looking to retain 82% of her team for next year. This is a significant 20-point difference between the Principals' retention numbers. They make vastly different decisions based on their orientation. As we further explore person-centered support and person-centered coaching in this course today, I want you to keep in mind this example of how that orientation can affect retention.


I want to share a little bit about myself to help you understand my perspective and how I approach this topic.  Last year, my partner Tyler and I moved to Sacramento, California from D.C. I was born and raised in D.C. and it's a big part of my identity. I was a Head Start teacher in Los Angeles for a few years and my students continue to be the most important thing that drives me every single day. I even cycle their names as passwords to my computer. I try to keep them top of mind in everything that I do. After leaving the classroom, I transitioned into a coach role back in the D.C. I coached early childhood and elementary teachers for six years. In my final year, I managed coaches. I worked with over 200 teachers. Over time, I noticed trends around what was making people successful and then what caused them to leave. I saw more and more teachers leave for mental health reasons. We put on the exit form that they had an inability to cope with the stressors and the emotional labor of the work. That is ultimately what brought me to Stay the Course, which is a venture that I launched last year. It's called Stay the Course because it's what my mom would tell me during my first year of teaching. My mom's a former preschool teacher herself. On those mornings when I was struggling and couldn't get out the car in the school parking lot because I just dreaded the day, she would say, "Put one foot in front of the other.  This work is too important. You've gotta stay the course."  The work that I do tries to acknowledge that emotional labor, and create time and space for teachers to make sense of their experiences in the classroom. At the school level, I develop experiences for teams to feel connected to create an inclusive school climate. This quote perfectly encapsulates my work: Some nights, I come home and think about quitting. I go to bed overwhelmed with anxiety and frequently wake up between 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. unable to quiet my mind. Other nights, I come home energized and invigorated, filled with hope and conviction. This work deserves no romanticizing. It is deeply challenging. But because of that, it is occasionally rewarding in ways that nourish and sustain oneself even through the hardest days. I'm growing in ways I probably do not yet understand. The greatest challenge so far is keeping an even emotional keel.

I came across this post in a social media network, from a friend who happened to be a first-year teacher. This was posted in October of 2018. October can be a really challenging month, especially for new teachers. I saw this post and thought, this is why I do the work that I do.  As a profession, we need to be having a discussion around how to sustain teachers over time.


Current Trends: Teacher Satisfaction and Retention

I invite you to reflect for a moment. On a scale of 1 - 10, what’s your comfort level with, or proximity to, this conversation around teacher satisfaction and retention?  Would you answer 1, which is that you have no idea about this topic, you're new in your role, or this is a new challenge for your school? Or, maybe you're a 10, and you're already implementing strategies for keeping your people, supporting your people, and you want to build on some of those strengths. As you place yourself somewhere on that scale, consider this as an intention setting. What do you want to get out of your time today? Wherever you are in that scale, where do you want to move to?  


Here is a quiz around existing research and data related to teacher satisfaction and retention. Think about how you would answer each of the following statements, and then I will review them and provide some additional context.

  • Turnover rates are highest:
  • In urban districts, it can cost up to $______ to replace a teacher.
  • In 2012, 55% of departing teachers cited ________ as their reason for leaving the profession.
  • True or False: 15% of teachers leave during their first five years on the job.
  • True or False: According to a national survey, 46% of teachers report high daily stress during the school year. This is the highest rate of daily stress among all occupational groups, including physicians, at 45%.

Turnover Rates

Turnover rates are highest where, or among whom? Is it new teachers, veteran teachers, teachers with families, in public schools, in private schools? Where do you think teachers are leaving at the highest rates? Turnover rates are highest among teachers of color and in schools with the largest concentrations of students of color.  This problem disproportionately affects people in communities of color. There are several factors here, including the fact that teachers of color are more likely to work in high-needs schools where students reflect their backgrounds or in the communities in which those teachers grew up.  They're more likely to leave because those schools are more likely to have challenging circumstances or insufficient support. That said, there's been a lot of research out lately in this area. We're starting to see the power and impact of having a diverse teaching workforce who reflect the demographics of our students. They could have incredible impact on kids who look like them or who have shared experiences and so this is a problem that we need to solve. We need to name it, we need to acknowledge it, and we need to solve it.

Cost of Replacing a Teacher 

In urban districts, what is the cost to replace a teacher? It can cost up to $20,000 to replace a teacher in an urban district. This is an expensive problem. This is costing schools and districts money. It begs the question, what do we need to be doing? What money do we need to be spending proactively so that we don't get to that point?

Reason for Leaving the Profession

In 2012, 55% of departing teachers cited ________ as their reason for leaving the profession. Do you think it was compensation or retirement?  Actually it was dissatisfaction. Maybe they were feeling like they were struggling through the work, or the rigid structure of the school day. The job demands are high. I guess you could put compensation in that as well. But general dissatisfaction is their reason for leaving.

Percent of Teachers that Leave During First Five Years

True or false, 15% of teachers leave during their first five years on the job. That's false - the research says that between 23 and 40% of teachers leave during their first five years on the job. So our newer teachers are especially vulnerable, which may not surprise you.

High Daily Stress 

Finally, is the following statement true or false: According to a national survey, 46% of teachers report high daily stress during the school year. This statement is true. This is the highest rate of daily stress among all occupational groups, including physicians who are at 45%. Teachers are reporting higher levels of stress than doctors. We have to figure out the root causes of this stress as well as potential solutions? How do we navigate that? When we as human beings are stressed, we are not capable of operating at our very best. We cannot be fully present with students. We cannot be patient with students. We cannot be responsive in the way that we need to be if our brains are firing on all cylinders because we're so overwhelmed or exhausted.

Four Main Sources of Teacher Stress 

According to a recent study, there are four main sources of teacher stress: 1) School leadership, culture, and climate; 2) Autonomy and decision making; 3) Job demands; and 4) Social and emotional competency.

To what extent are leaders effective in supporting teachers, and being present with teachers? To what extent do teachers feel like valued members of a community? I'll never forget one of my first coaching meetings with a teacher. He was in a mobile classroom away from the main school building, and I went out to meet with him and have time together. One of the first things he said to me was, "Nobody's been out here in weeks. Nobody has thought to ask me how I am. It's the leader's responsibility to say how are you, and what do you need? He was really struggling at that point and feeling isolated.

Autonomy and decision-making refers to the freedom that teachers have to be creative and innovative when it comes to making decisions on behalf of themselves and on behalf of their students. This could be anything from curriculum decisions, classroom management, structures, routines, and wanting to be able to do what's best for their kids in that classroom. It could even mean giving feedback on their experience at school. To what extent do teachers have a voice and autonomy in decisions?

Social-emotional competence refers to teachers' own ability to regulate their emotions, to navigate stress, and to model important emotional intelligence skills for their kids. We know that social-emotional learning is extremely important at the student level. We need teachers who can model those things for students. If teachers are not in a place where their social and emotional, needs are being met, they're not going to be able to model that for students.

In terms of job demands, the work is hard. Teachers don't have enough time to get the work done that they need to in a day. They're taking work home. They're not getting paid a livable wage. You can't go to the bathroom when you need to go to the bathroom at times. Routines and structures make it difficult at times to be a human being at school. It's hard to take days off. 

I share these four general sources of stress from the research, and there is one more I would like to call out. There is a general tendency towards martyrdom in the field of education. We are expected to work a lot of hours, work with urgency, be responsive at all times of the day, and give everything we have to kids and families. There's a problem with that, because if we're working ourselves into the ground, burnout is right around the corner. Also, this is a deficit-based approach to working. If you feel like you need to be in control, and work really hard, and do everything yourself, that does not give the people around you the opportunity to contribute meaningfully and chime in. It's deficit-based when you think about your colleagues, and kids, and families. It's a savior mentality, and then the tricky part is that it's often deeply rooted in who we are. There are organizations and institutions that glorify suffering. The field of education has a mindset across the board that we have to work really, really, hard because it's for the kids. But we have to also think about our own wellness and sustainability.

In her book Onwards, Elena Aguilar says, "To hell with martyrdom". She says we have to start setting boundaries. We have to start protecting our work-life balance because our students need our very best, and if we're running ourselves into the ground and not taking care of ourselves, then we cannot be our best for our kids.


Let's review the following recommendations for solving this problem of teacher turnover from the research. 

  • Teacher induction or residency programs, to offer ongoing mentorship and instructional training
  • Competitive compensation packages
  • Stress management and emotional intelligence training/support
  • Strengthening relational trust among staff

I think there are only three states that have a formal two-year induction program to support new teachers. We need to be doing more in those early years to support new teachers, not just in terms of their instructional needs, but also helping them navigate the stress that they might be encountering. I think about myself that first year, sitting in the car in the parking lot. If I just had somebody to voice my feelings to and feel affirmed by, I think that would've helped a lot.

Compensation is top of mind for many people right now. We've had several teacher strikes across the country where competitive compensation packages has been an issue on the table. Teachers are working two and three jobs just to support themselves and their families. Think about the impact of this work, and the power of a great teacher. We've got to get compensation to a level that matches that value.

Stress management and emotional intelligence training support, and strengthening relational trust among staff are really my entry points to this work and what we are discussing in this course. To what extent are we helping teachers acknowledge the stress, take steps to manage it, be able to effectively manage their emotions, and respond to the emotions of the people around them, whether students or colleagues? Regarding relational trus, you read any article out of Forbes or any other business journal and they all say that people who are engaged and connected with one another work harder and stay longer. That's a no-brainer for schools. When and how are we creating opportunities for staff to intentionally build that trust?

Coaching Framework

This section addresses skill-building. Let's look at a coaching framework. You might directly coach teachers, or you might be a manager.  Whether you directly manage teachers or you're managing a team, this is a framework for how a team can support one another.

This is a quote from Carl Rogers: "Rather than viewing people as inherently flawed with problematic behaviors and thoughts that require fixing, person-centered coaching identifies that each person has the capacity and desire for personal growth and change."

Carl Rogers was the founder of the humanist branch of psychology. His work was grounded in this belief that humans are hardwired for learning and growth, and that learning and growth is catalyzed when certain conditions are present. His framework was a counseling framework, and it was intended to improve the therapist-client relationship. I took that framework and adapted it to a teacher-coaching setting. We're going go to explore those core conditions now, but this is not clinical in any sense. I want to make sure that's clear. But, I think the core conditions are absolutely relevant when we think about the type of work, learning, and growth that teachers need to do over the course of their careers.

There are three core conditions: empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard (Figure 1).

Bulleted list of Carl Rogers' Core Conditions published in 1975

Figure 1. Carl Rogers' Core Conditions (Rogers, 1975).

Empathy literally means "in feeling". Empathy is being able to say, "I understand you." I would say the key thing here is not just being able to feel empathy for someone else, but to communicate that empathy. If I'm sitting across from a teacher who's in tears, or just really struggling, I can't just sit there and think, oh, yeah, that reminds me of my first year of teaching. I have to communicate that through my body language, my tone, the words that I use to mirror back what I'm hearing. It's about communication so that the person feels like you're right there with them in it.

Congruence is referring to authenticity. I'm going to ensure that my decisions and actions match my deeply-held values and my worldviews. I'm going to support you in doing the same. This is where high expectations come in. Empathy is about feelings, and then we transition and keep it real. For example, I may meet with a teacher who says, "I believe all kids can learn". If I go in their classroom and see kids with heads down, or I see them only calling on girls and consequencing their boys, or other patterns of low expectations, I will discuss what I'm seeing. I will say, "Let's talk about where that misalignment is happening and why." So, that's the high expectations piece of this coaching framework.

The last core condition, unconditional positive regard, is my favorite. It's very difficult and I'm still working on it in my personal and professional life. Unconditional positive regard is saying that I accept you in all of your messy humanness. We might not agree on certain decisions, we might not be best friends outside of work, but I actively choose to accept you wherever you are in your journey. This refers to creating a judgment-free space for teachers to work through whatever they need to work through. This is hard because it requires a lot of emotional intelligence on the part of the coach. It means you're hiding your face. It means you're managing your body language, your tone, trying to ensure that you're not displaying any ounce of judgment or assumption-making so that that teacher feels seen and heard. If you've ever been on the receiving end of unconditional positive regard, you know it feels good. It feels affirming, and you feel valid. You feel safe to take risks and make mistakes.  

These things together are meant to balance the high expectations and urgency that are required in our work because the kids are at the end of the line. Whatever we do impacts children and families directly. This framework balances that urgency with the fact that we're human beings, and we have needs, feelings, and baggage. We all come to the table with experiences that shape who we are at work. It's important to acknowledge that.

Core Conditions in Action 

I know you all are coming to this course with some level of experience, either with teachers directly, with parents and families, or with other people where you've experienced or displayed these core conditions in action. I invite you to reflect on what you think, based on your experience, each one looks like in action.

For each core condition, consider what you might think, say, or do. A table to help with this activity is shown in Figure 2.


Teaching core conditions listed in a table and aligned with Think Say Do actions of a reflection activity

Figure 2. Core conditions in action: Think, Say, Do reflection activity.

In the table is an example for empathy. Think about what empathy looks like in action. What are you thinking? When I'm practicing empathy, I'm thinking, okay, this person's struggling. When I plan my coaching conversation, I need to acknowledge that. I might say, oh, that must've felt really frustrating for you, or, you seem tired today. Try to put language to the feelings they might be experiencing. We try to check our own perceptions around to make sure we're understanding their feelings and experiences correctly. A strategy for something I might do to show empathy would be mirroring. Mirroring means repeating back what you're seeing or hearing to validate and affirm where that person is coming from.

For congruence, which I mentioned was similar to authenticity, I might be thinking, what I heard from this teacher doesn't match what I'm seeing. I might use a simple prompt like, "Tell me more to understand where this misalignment is happening". In terms of what I would be doing to show congruence, it would be giving direct feedback. It'd be saying, "I saw something, so I'm going to say something." It takes some courage and vulnerability on the part of the coach to be direct in that way. But again, this is where  high expectations come from.  Please take a few minutes to complete this activity based on your own unique vantage point and experience before moving on.

I wanted to offer my own interpretation of each of these, and from a concrete skill-based perspective (Figure 3).

Teaching core conditions listed in a bulleted diagram and aligned with empathy congruence and unconditional positive regard

Figure 3. Core Conditions in action.

Empathy is about checking perceptions. We want to make sure we're understanding what we're experiencing. We want to make sure we're on the same page with the teacher. We might say, "That was really frustrating for you."  They might come back and say, "No, it was fine, but honestly, I'm just really tired, so I didn't respond in the best way possible." Then you find out that the teacher is not necessarily frustrated. She's just tired. That would lead me in a different direction for supporting that teacher. That's an example of checking perceptions.

Mirroring and paraphrasing is a great way to repeat back what you're seeing and hearing to make sure that that person feels heard. It's also evidence of active listening. It shows the person that you're listening and that you affirm where they're coming from. From there, ask thoughtful questions to try to uncover the root cause of whatever the stimulus is, whatever the emotions that are at the surface. I take my time with some questions to make sure that I get as deep as possible so we can move forward faster.

As mentioned, congruence requires vulnerability. Sometimes I like to say, when you feel something, say something. Sometimes we might be triggered by something a teacher says. It might be a microaggression. It might be evidence of an unhealthy mindset about our kids and communities. It requires vulnerability for you to let them know how it made you feel when they said that. It means you're giving direct feedback, and you're naming that incongruence when it occurs. It is saying, "I saw X, you told me Y, what happened there?"

For unconditional positive regard and creating that judgment-free zone, you must manage your own emotions and your reactions, which can be difficult sometimes. You're being mindful of your body language, your tone, and your facial expression. You really want to be as attuned as possible to that person, even when the person may be saying something that is triggering something in you.

This is all meant to be balanced together. You may look at this and say, are we just talking about our feelings in this conversation? No, we first want to be able to acknowledge the humanness of the people sitting across from us, and that requires some empathy. But, we don't stay there talking about our feelings. We've got to find that path forward using congruence to get to the work, to get to the feedback, to get to the problem solving, and to get to a productive place.

I wan to share an example of when I experienced unconditional positive regard. It was with a manager of mine a couple of years ago. She was giving me some really tough feedback. I think she knew I was probably going to have an emotional reaction to it. When I think back on that conversation, I didn't yet have this language or this framework. But I think she really leaned into congruence. So she kept it real with me. She said, "Kati, when you did this, "his was the impact on your teammates." And I could understand what she was telling me. And she balanced it with unconditional positive regard where she was patient, and she was kind. I did not sense any type of assumption or judgment from her, and that made me feel safe. It also made me feel like she truly had my back. In that moment, I was emotional and I had a hard time. The next day, I thought, now that's an ally. That's somebody who wants me to be the best coach I can be, and she really supports me.

It's important to note that coaching is a balance, it's a dance. Think about which core condition would be easiest for you based on your strengths, your identity markers, and your experiences. Which one would be hardest for you? It is important for us to have that self-awareness. For me, based on how I was raised (including raised in the Catholic faith) and what was modeled for me, empathy is a strength I can lean into pretty comfortably. Congruence can be really hard for me. Being direct in terms of my feedback, and being vulnerable in terms of how somebody else's actions or words impact me is challenging for me. Conflict has always been something I've struggled with, and even though I have this awareness of myself, that fear is still very real for me. As you consider your own work, also think about what kind of support you need in order to effectively live out the core conditions consistently with your team. 

Let's Practice!

I have a few scenarios here, and I invite you to think through how you might respond in these situations through the lens of the core conditions. As you read each scenario, take some time to think about how you would respond, and which core conditions you think you would lean into most. Which ones would be most salient in that particular scenario? Please take some time to think about each scenario before reading on.

Scenario #1

One of your teachers is struggling to build a positive relationship with a student's parent. He says, "This parent never returns my phone calls. They just don't seem to care." 

As a coach, I've heard this frequently from many teachers. They're quick to make assumptions about parents based on their perception of the situation. I know I will be triggered in this situation. I will hear that and think, "There's no parent out there that doesn't want the best for their kids." But, I have to manage that. I have to first acknowledge that this teacher is in an emotional place and probably isn't ready to hear that feedback. I'll probably lean into empathy first and say, "That sounds frustrating. You've been working really hard to build that relationship, and you're not getting much back". And he might say yes, that he is really frustrated. Now we've acknowledged the feeling. And you might wait and let him work through that feeling. Then, I would be direct and lean into congruence. I would say, "You're assuming that this parent doesn't care because they're not returning your phone calls."  I would be direct, and give him a chance to respond. He may get defensive, and if so, we have to spend some time there. Then move into the work and problem solve. Ask what he has already tried. If he's only using phone calls, what about a text? How about a home visit? How about meeting that parent in the morning when they drop off their student at school?  In this scenario, I would lean more heavily into empathy and congruence, while maintaining unconditional positive regard. That requires me to check my facial expressions and body language when he makes assumptions about the parents.

Scenario #2

It's October, and one of your new teachers seems to be struggling. She looks tired, and has shown up late to school twice in the last week. In your most recent observation, you saw her snap at a student.

You've observed this teacher obviously struggling. It's affecting her ability to show up to work on time and now it's impacting students. I feel pretty urgent about that. While I might spend some time in the empathy condition, and acknowledge her struggle, I would probably jump right towards congruence with unconditional positive regard at the same time. I want her to feel like I have her back. I want her to feel like I'm able to give her feedback and that I'm not judging her. Snapping at a student is unacceptable. She's not meeting expectations and she needs to hear that. Remember that coaching is a dance, so you might cycle through all of the core conditions in one conversation. These are just my best guesses on how I might approach this situation, and your approaches might look similar or different. 

Scenario #3

A teacher approaches you to share his concerns about a student who has recently experienced a traumatic event. He says, I work so hard every day to be present and emotionally available for my student because I know our relationship matters for her to feel safe and secure. But I go home completely drained and barely have any energy to spend time with my family. I don't think I can make it to the end of the year.

As a school leader, I've got alarm bells going off in my head. Although there is not much detail, there is a hint there that he might not make it to the end of the year. I want to lean pretty heavily into empathy and unconditional positive regard to create that space for him to work through the exhaustion and difficult emotional labor that he's put into the relationship with a student. I want him to feel heard, and I want him to feel valued. I want him to feel like he can come to me when he's feeling completely burnt out. I also want to know how I can help him. I don't know that there's necessarily any direct feedback here so I don't know that congruence would play as large of a role. I think this scenario is more about creating the space for him to work through whatever's on his mind. My big message to this teacher would be don't even look that far ahead, because that's way too overwhelming. I would ask him in this present moment, what he needs to sustain himself day-to-day? Then we'd move into some action-planning and identifying commitments. 

Center Support for Teacher Sustainability and Satisfaction

Now I will ask you to reflect on the extent to which your center currently supports teacher sustainability and satisfaction. Here is an activity for you to complete: Retention Audit Worksheet.

I'll walk you through this activity with some examples, then please take the time to complete the activity using the worksheet.

This activity refers back to the four main sources of teacher stress that we discussed earlier: 1) School leadership, culture, and climate; 2) Autonomy and decision making; 3) Job demands; and 4) Social and emotional competency. In the worksheet, under each source of stress, there are statements that tie back to each one. You will read each statement and assign a frequency rating that best reflects your center, your leadership, or your team. Ask yourself, how often does this happen per school year? The range is from 1 - 4, and each number is defined in the worksheet. A rating of 1 means never (0 times per school year), and a 4 means frequently (6+ times per school year).

Here are two examples.

1. Under "School leadership, climate and culture", the first statement is: Teachers have the opportunity to share personal stories, reflections, and resources with one another as a means to build trust, rapport, and strong relationships.

Let's say I'm leading a center, and we really only have the opportunity for professional development in August when we come back from the summer and we're reconnecting. We don't really do that throughout the year. I would put that as a rating of 2, which equals rarely (1-2 times per year).

2. Under "Autonomy and decision-making power", there is this statement: Teachers give feedback on their experience at school through surveys, town halls, or other methods.

Maybe a center has a beginning-of-year survey and an end-of-year survey to measure satisfaction, but that's really about it. That would be a rating of 2, even if there are some informal opportunities in between that.

Once you've given all your ratings in the worksheet, add up the total for each bucket or source of stress, and then read the reflection questions. First, think about where your center scored the highest. What are some strengths as it relates to teacher satisfaction and retention? And then next, where did you score the lowest? In what direction do you want to head in order to bring this person-centered approach to your team and to your school?

Three Commitments

Think about three commitments that you want to make: What do you want to start doing, what do you want to stop doing, and what do you want to continue doing in order to bring a more person-centered approach to supporting your teachers and staff? For example, maybe I want to start reflecting on my own emotional intelligence. I don't know that I manage my emotions really well in front of my staff. I don't know that I show the appropriate amount of emotions, or frequently share or name my emotions with my team. It is important to be able to model for teachers who will do that for students. I may research and see what's out there in terms of books, or articles, or experts who can help me figure out a good starting point for improving my emotional intelligence. I might stop taking away teachers' planning time. It happens unintentionally, but we schedule grade-level meetings, special education meetings, and check-ins, and put a lot of demands on teachers' time. Planning time has to be sacred. I may commit to stop taking away teachers' planning time and find other ways to get those things done, at least for two days a week. Here is an example for a commitment to continue doing something. Let's say I already check in personally with my teachers on a monthly basis, and that feels really good, and that's a strength that I want to continue. I hope the Start - Stop - Continue commitments help you take a critical look at what you're doing well and what you want to continue doing, and then where there are areas for growth in bringing forward a person-centered approach.


I want to leave you with concrete ideas and strategies that you can start doing tomorrow.

  • Make time for “stay” conversations with individual teachers before the end of the school year! For people you want to retain, make sure they know how valuable they are to your school.
  • In meetings, use icebreakers that invite teachers to share and connect meaningfully. Ask them to share the story of their name, or reflect on someone who has inspired them recently. Close your meetings with an opportunity for teammates to share shout-outs and appreciations for each other.
  • As you plan your center’s professional development sequence for next year, build in time for skill-building around emotional intelligence and resilience. Seek out resources, facilitators, or research to help you create meaningful learning experiences for your team.
  • Create an end-of-year satisfaction survey, to gather data around how teachers and staff are feeling about their experience at school. Use that data to set a strong vision for next year’s team culture!

Regarding 'stay conversations", tell your teachers you want them to stay. Tell them that they're valuable. Talk about your vision for them next year. Maybe there's a leadership opportunity where they can expand their impact. Make sure they know how valuable they are to your school.

In meetings, use icebreakers or warm-ups that invite teachers to share and connect meaningfully. Some ideas would be to ask them to share the story of their name. Our names are deeply personal, and often, there's a really interesting story around how we were named. Sometimes there isn't - maybe their parents just liked their name. But it's fun to uncover new things about each other and to share. Another ice-breaker is to reflect on someone who has inspired them recently. You might close your meetings with an opportunity for teammates to share shout-outs and appreciations. Gratitude is a really powerful weapon against stress, and we know that from a lot of research on the topic. Gratitude can be really powerful. Ending meetings with gratitude will not only create cohesiveness, but it also allows teachers to feel appreciative of one another.  I have an exercise called Secret Admirer, and it sounds really cheesy. But every group that I've worked with loves it. Staff members pull a name out of a hat, and for the duration of that professional development meeting, they watch that person. They observe them for leadership for how they contribute to the meeting. Maybe they said something that made you think or feel a certain way. At the end of the meeting, you have the opportunity to shout-out your secret admirer, the one that you observed, and somebody was observing you, so you get to feel the love, too. It's a really easy exercise that principals can use to build relationships and build gratitude.

For next year, as you think about your professional development sequence, include skill-building around emotional intelligence and resilience. Those are important skills and habits for teachers to build, not just to navigate stress, but also to model for students. See what's out there in terms of experts, research, and exercises to help you create those meaningful learning experiences for your team.

Finally, think about what data you're gathering. Are you currently gathering data around your teachers' experiences? Do you have exit surveys? Do you have end-of-year satisfaction surveys? How are you allowing teachers the opportunity to share their experiences so that you can be more responsive to their needs and ideas for growth?

These are concrete, specific things you can do. Now you could make the argument, I don't have time for stay conversations, or our meeting times are already so short, we don't have time to tell stories or connect. That's where I want to refer back to Principal A and Principal B. We all have this finite amount of time in the school day. We all have a million decisions to make every day. But if you're operating fundamentally from this person-centered approach, you will make time for those stay conversations. You will make time for opportunities for teachers to connect. It's not going to be perfect all the time. You will have days where you're totally in that task bucket, or you're in meetings all day and feel disconnected from the work. In those situations, I think you just practice self-kindness, and you figure out who creates the core conditions for you. Who gives you that unconditional positive regard? How do I sustain myself from the work personally?

Frequently Asked Questions 

Here are a few questions that I'm commonly asked when I give this presentation in person. 

Can you give examples of professional development topics that help build community and trust across school teams?

What does it look like to have professional development that builds relational trust, that offers opportunities for teachers to connect and feel like valued members of the community? I think those topics fall into three outcomes. The first one is self and other awareness. It's important to acknowledge that who we are and where we come from impacts how we operate at work. It impacts how we navigate conflict, and how we communicate. Make time for people to reflect on their identity markers, their strengths, and their areas for growth. It not only builds important reflective muscles as we understand ourselves but also allows for staff members to go deep and get to know each other more fully. The second topic or outcome that I would shoot for is emotional intelligence and resilience. There are many assessments available relating to emotional intelligence. Have teachers do a self-assessment and identify their strengths, what they're really good at in terms of managing or expressing their emotions. Figure out where they want to grow. Then, set goals around regulating, managing, and expressing those emotions.  The third outcome would be cultural competence. I like the phrase, "You need my differences and I need yours." Our cultural background includes how we were raised, what was modeled for us, what was reinforced or taught, and what helped us be successful growing up. All these factors influence how we operate as part of a team, as leaders, and how we build relationships. We have to be able to recognize similarities and differences with the people around us in order to effectively work as a team. Do a Google search for resources in these areas for professional development to help you build an inclusive school climate.

How can I practice unconditional positive regard when I feel personally triggered, attacked, or I'm the victim of a microaggression?

I'm sure we've all been in conversations where we've felt a certain way in response to something someone else did or said. To pretend like that doesn't affect us is really hard and actually inhuman. If you are in that situation and feel like you're unable to lean into the core conditions due to your own heightened emotional state, take a pause. Give yourself time to de-escalate and manage your own emotions and tell the person you would like to pick up the conversation another time.  Give yourself the time you need to process, then come back together after a restorative conversation. The bottom line is that you have to honor and protect your own safety and wellness. This work is hard. You're a human being as well. Coaching is a dance. Sometimes we feel successful, and sometimes we don't. It's a matter of being aware of how you are proceeding in a conversation, and if you can't, then don't.

Also, find who your allies or mentors are. Let's say you have a really tough conversation, and you're able to lean into the core conditions and offer unconditional positive regard. When that conversation ends, who do you go to for allyship or for support? Who is your go-to person that you hop on the phone with or pull into an office and talk to in order to affirm your feelings? You may need to release the tension that you're experiencing. Again, honoring and protect your own wellness in these conversations.

I often operate from this person-centered approach, but my counterpart is more task-oriented. How do I bridge that gap and how do we get on the same page?

Continue to model those core conditions and that person-centered approach when you are together and when you're around others, too. Then I think you would be able to use data. What's the impact of that modeling on your people? You've got data points. You could show that when you use this approach, for example, when kicking off professional development, the ratings were higher. In the end-of-session survey, maybe people felt more satisfied. Ask if you can discuss what you both think are the reasons for that and have a dialogue? I would create spaces for the two of you to connect and be explicit about what's working or what's not working, where there's alignment and where there's misalignment. Think about congruence. Be direct, be vulnerable, and be honest about how you're experiencing that relationship. 

Sustain Yourself

Finally, because you're only human, I would challenge you to think about who is creating those conditions for you, and to seek out those experiences so that you feel sustained in the work as well. Relationships are hard and complicated. Continue to be mindful of who's creating those experiences for you.

Additional Resources 

Here are some additional resources and books that might extend the learning for you if you are interested in deepening your understanding of the core conditions and this person-centered approach. If you have access to journals and research, you can find articles about Carl Rogers' work. It's primarily based in his counseling framework, but you get a sense as to where the core conditions came from. Another resource is Elena Aguilar's book, Onwards. It's a book all about emotional resilience in teachers, and I think gives you a strong language for understanding how to promote that resilience in your teachers, which is an important part of being a leader. Kim Scott has the book, Radical Candor, which is all about giving feedback and seeing feedback as love. That ties into the congruence core condition. There are a lot of resources and information about empathy. I like Brene Brown's Empathy video. It really stuck with me when I think about what empathy looks like in action. These are resources that have pushed my thinking in a lot of ways, and I wanted to pass them on to you. I encourage you to stay in touch and I invite you to join this community dedicated to improving teacher satisfaction and retention. I hope this was a valuable experience, and very much appreciate your time. I wish you all the best as you continue your great work with your team.

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kati vaughn

Kati Vaughn, BA, MA

Kati's path to founding Stay the Course has been fueled by a lifelong passion for teaching and leading in the classroom. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Harvard University and a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Loyola Marymount University. She brings a decade of teaching, coaching, and management experience with an emphasis on equity and inclusiveness, a career that began as a corps member with Teach For America. Over 7 years of working directly with school-based staff in Washington, D.C., she averaged a teacher retention rate of 94%, and consistently rated higher than regional and national averages on measures of teacher satisfaction and healthy mindsets. In addition to her coaching work, she has led numerous professional learning experiences focused on culturally responsive teaching, educator wellness, and values-based leadership.

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