Seeing Red: Now is the Time for Retention Incentives Not Retirement Incentives

by Joseph P. Masgai, Ed.D. 

Of all the topics of conversation taking place in preparation for in-person learning none is more important than the topic of teacher and principal retention.  Throughout the month of June, I experienced what I can only call a “retirement party circuit” as I bid yet another colleague farewell after a multi-decade career in education.  These veteran teachers and administrators expressed a level of disdain for remote learning stating such an approach to teaching wasn’t what they were trained to do, nor did it satisfy their need to be in the classroom with students feeling the synergy that characterizes engaging learning.  I cannot fault these educators for their decision to retire and many self-described themselves as having “done their duty” throughout the pandemic but could no longer maintain the stamina to meet the challenges the post-COVID-19 classroom will present.  They were simply burned-out. 

The loss of these experienced educators and school leaders will be felt.  When veteran teachers retire they take with them a level of expertise in pedagogy that only years of experience can cultivate.  Likewise, the retirement of administrators who have created school communities rooted in their strategic instructional capacity will have a profound effect on student outcomes.  Moreover, it is not just the students who will experience the repercussions.  Novice teachers will lose the invaluable mentorship of veteran teachers and administrators.  Addressing the double impact to students and new teachers is a topic that is rarely discussed and I cannot think of a more urgent topic for school districts across the country to wrestle as profound unintended consequences will impact teaching and learning for the next several years. 

Now is the time for school boards to budget short-term retention incentives as an option to dissuade senior staff from exiting the field at the very moment when they are needed the most.   

In a series of listening sessions organized through the principals’ association and conducted at the height of the pandemic in a large east coast state, a common theme emerged from separate meetings with elementary, middle, and high school principals.  Although each division voiced concerns specific to their context and student age group, all landed on the same shared concern regarding the quality of candidates entering the field of education and stating candidates were not as well-equipped, as hoped or expected, to meet the demands in present teaching.  Given this universal belief, the need to retain senior staff in order to provide the critical mentoring to strengthen the pipeline is obvious.   

As a graduate education major, I recall to this day an off-topic commentary that one of my professors made that I always retained as significant.  He asked the class, “Do you know why in this country barns and schools were painted red?”  No one in the class knew the answer.  He followed up with “…because red was the cheapest color of paint.”  At this moment in time, we cannot afford to be cheap, and perhaps rather than thinking about a “red” solution, we need our current budgets to be the fiscal manifestations of our mission statements and invest in retaining our experienced educators.