Recruit and Retain: The Future of Education

Teachers in Low Income Schools: Supports and Incentives

Children from disadvantaged households stand to gain the most from savvy and experienced teachers. Yet the more challenged school systems face greater difficulties attracting and retaining talent. It’s not because the teachers they hire don’t like the kids in their classrooms. It’s because they don’t feel adequately supported.

Managing Classroom Dynamics

Setting aside the systemic factors – the challenges of frequent turnover and dictates from on high – management can be more of a challenge.

Classrooms are complex social units. Misbehavior spreads far more easily than model behavior, and it’s not a simple matter of role modeling, though children do tend to soak up social norms. Some children have melt downs when they're fearful. Some take charge of other's behaviors. Even in middle class schools, one will sometimes find a primary grade child who hits another child on a day there is a substitute because the other child was doing some small thing that the “real teacher” had said not to do – and didn’t stop when they told them nicely to stop. There can be more “take charge” types in tough neighborhoods. The physical children, the vocal children, the “do things my way” children aren’t necessarily ones who have had too little discipline. Sometimes they’ve had a lot. The middle class child is more likely to have a parent who has been negotiating behavior and consequences since nursery school. Parents from low income and marginalized populations are actually more likely to have a "because I said so" style of discipline; it’s been theorized that it’s because it's necessary when the world around really is unsafe.

All schools have children with challenging behaviors. Some are better equipped to handle them than others. In some places, young children enter school believing adults are in charge and are there to keep them safe. In those classes, a teacher can respond calmly to an escalating child, and have the class continue relatively calmly. The children expect grownups to soothe tantrums. They “buy into” those grownup management strategies. In other places, it takes more work to create buy-in. Trust is a bigger issue than one might suppose from the outside. But there’s more at play than just belief systems. Neurobiological research tells us that the experiences children have affect their developing brains. Children don’t all enter school processing in the same way or self-regulating in the same way.

Experienced educators tend to have management tricks. They know how to read situations. They know when a child is testing limits and needs a consequence and when they're better served by empathy. They know when the class as a whole needs a movement break. They have the confidence necessary to discourage testing and to pull off certain types of discipline strategy, like those employed in Love and Logic. It’s easier to get children to buy into “I’m in charge” because they project it. The experienced teacher knows the curriculum and teaching tricks better, too, and knows the resources. A teacher with a few years of experience isn't quite as exhausted as a brand new one.

Systemic Challenge

There are things, though, that can remain exhausting, even as the number of situations that a teacher doesn’t know how to handle goes down. Turnover has a way of creating more turnover; the instability can extend even to staffing assignments. Many who leave say it's not the kids, it's the system: They’re tired of other teachers leaving, tired of feeling like a proving ground for inexperienced principles, tired of pressures from outside that they don’t feel address the real problems. They’re tired of giving what feels like a developmentally inappropriate education because of pressures to close the gaps in ways that can be measured on tests. On top of it all, they’ve essentially told they are failing educators in failing schools. They’re not frustrated by their kids’ learning gaps so much as they are how systems perceive and respond to them.

It has been noted that teachers opt to go to schools they know are challenged because of “humanistic commitment” ( The decision to stay or go is greatly influenced by perception of whether they’re successful in their mission and whether the organization is supporting them in their mission. Administrative leadership is a huge factor. Disciplinary issues can be viewed as an organizational issue as opposed to a population one.

Creating Supports and Incentives

Educational systems are looking at multiple solutions, from pay differentials to more supportive conditions.

Research about pay incentives is mixed. Small differentials may have little effect. There have, however, been some promising models (

Teacher loan repayment programs are among the tricks to bring educator stability to the challenged districts. These programs can bring teachers into high need, short staffed areas. On the one hand, they're drawing new teachers – inexperienced ones. On the other hand, those new teachers have to stick with it beyond the first couple of years to get their loans forgiven. Some programs take five years. By five years, a teacher is no rookie.

Some programs seek to combine monetary support with support in developing teaching skills. Professionals can enter through alternative routes but still have an extended pre-professional teaching experience, one that is focused specifically on the needs of the hiring district. Teacher residencies have been described as high retention pathways; some have far better track records than others.

In a time of shortage, systems are forced to look harder at working conditions. There are other promising developments in the greater educational environment. Wrap-around services and class-size reductions have shown some potential in closing gaps, and policy makers are taking note. And in a post-No Child Left Behind era, there’s less consequence to being in a so-called failing school.

Additional Articles of Interest

Teachers at Low-Income Schools Deserve Respect

Teacher Loan Forgiveness Programs

How Do We Increase Teacher Quality in Low-Income Schools?

Keeping the Teachers: The Problem of High Turnover in Urban Schools