Bumping into someone at the neighborhood supermarket or high school football game may have more implications than expected, especially with school principals.
West Virginia University researchers found that seasoned principals entrenched within their school’s community have an advantage over new-to-place and novice principals in recruiting and retaining teachers.
“Seasoned principals can make a real difference in the recruitment of teachers, particularly in hard-to-staff places,” said Erin McHenry-Sorber, lead author of the study and associate professor in the College of Education and Human Services. “But this also suggests, from a policy perspective, that we need to be thinking more about how to retain principals. There’s a suggestion that keeping a localized pipeline from teacher through administrator is really important.”
McHenry-Sorber and co-author Matthew Campbell, also an associate professor at CEHS, interviewed eight principals across six county school districts in West Virginia over a four-month timeframe in 2020.
They categorized each principal as either seasoned (leading the same school for at least three years), new-to-place (working in new schools or communities) and returner (leaders who came back to the community they grew up in).
The study, “’If I Ever Leave, I Have a List of People That Are Going With Me:’ Principals’ Understandings of and Responses to Place Influences on Teacher Staffing in West Virginia,” was published in Education Administration Quarterly.
McHenry-Sorber and Campbell have studied teacher staffing shortages since the 2010s and decided to approach this research from the lens of the principals. Focusing solely on West Virginia is critical, as the duo noted that national trends do not reflect what’s happening in the state.
Their research paints a more nuanced picture of “place,” Campbell said.
“It’s not broad strokes of rural versus urban,” he said. “Even some of the most rural places in the state can be very different from one another due to a variety of factors.”
McHenry-Sorber and Campbell looked at schools ranging from ones on large tracts of nationally-owned land to those among the coalfields. They also analyzed schools’ proximity to teacher education programs, outdoor recreation destinations and historically, economically-distressed places.
“Once you’re able to think about differences across rural places, then you can think about policies and teacher shortages in a more nuanced way,” McHenry-Sorber said.
They found that principals often relied on personal relationships and people they knew to fill vacancies at their schools. In some instances, principals leaned on “returners,” such as recent college graduates who settled back into the community.
“Vacancies weren’t necessarily filled by certified teachers,” McHenry-Sorber said. “But they had a bachelor’s degree that enabled principals to at least fill positions on an emergency basis. Even then, that didn’t mean these new hires stayed in those positions.”
While alternative pathways to certification are a debated issue, Campbell explained, the need to fill vacancies means principals will use any tools available to them to find teachers, even if those are not long-term solutions.
“The pathways to get certified have become more plentiful and accessible,” Campbell said. “The problem is we haven’t supported these people to stay in this career for a long time. And so they leave and we’re back to where we started.
“We need to not just think about what’s going to get those people certified as a formality, but what’s going to get them to where they are really prepared to teach and stay in the classroom.”
Principals would also persuade retired teachers to return to the classroom, even when that was not an ideal or long-term solution.
“One principal had a retired teacher who said, ‘I’d be happy to come back but I can only stay until 1 o’ clock,’” McHenry-Sorber said. “The principal would still prefer that person come back because they knew there’d be an experienced person in that position for at least part of the day. But then the principal would use whatever strategy necessary for the remainder of the day to have someone in that space.”
This local, personalized approach to filling teacher positions works, but getting those teachers to stick around is more challenging.
“Some of the best opportunities for staffing schools are to think about who’s in the local community,” Campbell said. “Those are the people who are invested in the schools and communities. The key is to figure out how to find and support teachers to stay.”
Existing principal-teacher dynamics can also influence staffing at a school, if one person leaves for another school, as implied in the title of the study. This highlights the need to also support and retain principals in rural schools.
McHenry-Sorber and Campbell interviewed “Principal Jackson (pseudonyms were given to protect identities),” a seasoned administrator who heads a rural middle school, who stated, “If I ever leave, I have a list of people that are going with me.”
“That quote highlights the multiple challenges we see in West Virginia around teacher staffing,” McHenry-Sorber said. “It’s just part of a principal’s responsibility to create the best learning environment they can for the children that their school serves. They have a commitment to do that regardless of what school they’re leading. For principals like Principal Jackson, if they go to another school and they bring along their best teachers from their previous one, that’s what they’ll do to create the best opportunities they can for the children and the families.”