Supe's View: Keeping Educators Happy, Successful — and Around for a Long Time

Suburban NY district's 3-point plan focuses professional development on teacher assistants, potential principals & administrators wanting to move up.

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Desperate to address ongoing teacher and administrator shortages, districts are pulling out all the stops to attract new staff members, from spending thousands of dollars on superintendent search firms to hiring teachers from overseas.

All the while, many of their most gifted educators sit patiently in their classrooms, waiting to be called on but overlooked in favor of individuals outside their school doors.

Instead of focusing on external recruitment to hire talent, districts need to look within to identify those educators who aspire to the next level and to invest in the training needed to help them get there.

Not only do these efforts signal to staff they are valued and respected, but they cultivate talent at a time of seemingly never-ending turnover.

For 20 years, I worked as an educator in New York City Public Schools, where aspiring leadership programs are deeply embedded. When I transitioned to a superintendent role in a small suburban district, my eyes were opened to the reality that most districts lack professional advancement programs to help educators thrive at each step in their careers.

Because promoting and hiring leaders is a significant investment of time and resources, the team at Uniondale Union Free School District wanted to ensure our educators were happy, successful and around for a long time. And the only way to do that was to provide support at every step of the leadership ladder. To achieve our goal, we applied a three-point theory of action to professional development.

The first focuses on teacher assistants, who play a critical role — particularly post-pandemic — as students need significant support with literacy, math and social-emotional learning. However, many of these experienced education professionals were frustrated over being relegated primarily to administrative tasks. That was a missed opportunity we couldn’t afford to waste.

Over the past three years, we’ve allocated a portion of our CARES Act funding toward a program called the Teacher Assistant Learning Lab that offers instructional sessions led by contracted staff development experts and in-district teacher leaders. Topics are tailored specifically to TAs and include classroom management, how to read individualized lesson plans, literacy instruction and effective use of small-group teaching.

The program, which takes place over four Saturday sessions and a three-day summer institute, also helps provide a pathway for TAs to move into teaching. Since 2022, three TAs have become teachers in our district.

Creating an effective teacher-to-administrator route required us to deconstruct the traditional pipeline. Rather than focus our efforts solely on individuals ready to step into a new role, we put the call out for any educators who were thinking about administration, but unsure if it was the right fit.

Our Aspiring Leader Program consists of an educational cohort made up of teachers from across the district who were nominated by their principals because of their leadership potential. The program is facilitated and run by Matthew Ritter, assistant superintendent of data, assessment and accountability, and focuses on understanding various leadership styles, improving school systems and facilitating change. Teachers are expected to meet with their principals regularly to develop a project for their school that impacts student learning or well-being. The last session of the program includes presentations of these projects to senior leadership staff.

One has already been hired as an assistant principal in September 2023, and having completed six months of preparation, walked in fully prepared for the challenges ahead.Last year, we had 12 participants in the program, and this year we have nine.

The program allows assistant superintendents and other senior leaders to locate the innovators in their district and provide teachers with a platform to advocate for and pursue their career goals.

Still, leadership can be lonely, with overwhelming demands and an expectation to never show weakness. After witnessing the stress our administrative staff has endured since the pandemic, we wanted to construct a districtwide network of support.

Our Administrator Development Series provides every new assistant principal, principal and dean of students with external professional coaching to ease the transition. What makes the model so successful is our commitment to confidentiality. Because their coaches are not employed by the district, participants are encouraged to be completely transparent when discussing their challenges and mistakes, knowing they won’t be shared with their supervisors. In turn, they receive objective and unbiased feedback to help them navigate a new path forward.

In addition to one-on-one coaching, administrators connect and support each other through monthly meetings to discuss problems of practice and a book discussion focused on leadership.

Our theory of action is that developing leaders will help our schools become centers of excellence and innovation, where all students will receive an education that prepares them for college and careers. This has worked well for two essential reasons. First, our school board members are supportive of our financial investment in professional development, knowing that the upfront expense of nurturing leaders internally is minimal compared with the cost of continual turnover. Second, as the program has evolved, we’ve relied on feedback from TAs, teachers and new administrators to identify learning gaps and tailor programming to their specific professional needs.

With all the talent embedded in our district, providing educators with an equitable opportunity to share their gifts has been incredibly beneficial. Our district's chronic absenteeism rate has decreased by 5% in the last two years, and participation in Advanced Placement classes has increased by 14% in the last three years. We’re not only able to watch qualified professionals rise through the ranks, we’re able to maximize their skills to launch new initiatives that help strengthen our schools overall.

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