Principal Leadership, School Climate Critical to Retaining Beginning Teachers, Duke Study Finds

"It highlights the important role that a leadership team has on beginning teacher satisfaction," said Susan Wynn, the lead author

Beginning teachers are more likely to remain in the profession if they are satisfied with the principal's leadership and school climate, according to a new Duke University study.

Many school districts focus on mentoring programs and salary hikes to keep teachers. While those should be part of a comprehensive effort to retain well-qualified teachers, this new study shows that principal leadership and school climate deserve more attention in local school district efforts.

"It highlights the important role that a leadership team has on beginning teacher satisfaction," said Susan Wynn, director of the secondary teacher preparation program at Duke University's Program in Education and lead author of the study. "The principal sets the tone for the school."

Wynn presented the paper Tuesday, April 11, at the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting in San Francisco. Her co-authors are Lisa Wilson Carboni, director of teacher education in Duke's Program in Education, and graduate student Erika Patall.

The research team surveyed 217 first- and second-year teachers in a small, urban school district to assess their perceptions of mentoring, school climate and principal leadership. Of this group, 14.8 percent did not plan to return to his or her school, 11 percent did not plan to remain in the district, and 30 percent planned to remain in teaching five years or less.

Around the country, school districts are struggling to recruit and retain enough teachers to make up for the veteran teachers who are expected to retire in the next decade. Districts find it particularly difficult to retain beginning teachers, with researchers saying that 30 to 50 percent of this group leaves the profession within five years.

Wynn, a former English teacher and elementary school principal, said this study's results are significant for policymakers, who often focus on mentoring programs or alternative certification programs when trying to stem the teacher attrition problem.

The study indicated that there was no relationship between mentoring support and a teacher's decision to remain at the school or in the school district, even though the teachers reported being generally satisfied with the mentoring program.

The study did find, however, that teachers were more likely to stay when they were satisfied with their principal's leadership and with the school climate. Wynn and the other researchers attributed this to the fact that the principal is the key player in school-level decision-making.

"Adequate funding to ensure that teachers have facilities and resources needed to effectively do their job is essential," the researchers wrote.

Wynn noted that the state of North Carolina will soon require principals, in meeting their continuing education requirements, to be trained in such topics as teacher retention, effectiveness and empowerment.

Wynn said she plans to repeat the survey with a larger group of teachers to determine whether principal leadership and school climate remain critical among a larger sample. She said further research is also needed to determine specific principal leadership styles that contribute to a positive climate for teachers.

"The importance of using a multi-faceted perspective to design schools that teachers want to teach in -- learning communities where teachers are valued participants -- is evident," researchers wrote. "Treating only a single aspect of the structure is unlikely to have a long-term positive effect on teacher retention."