Extinguishing Teacher Burnout and Turnover
School leaders are grappling with staff shortages across the nation, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down: The latest headlines show a dire need for teachers to fill summer school positions. As a 21-year veteran educator and school leader, I’ve faced this challenge before. Here’s what I learned.
In the 2015–2016 school year, I was principal of Arlington Woods Elementary School in Indianapolis (now called the Sankofa School of Success). We supported a student population with high levels of behavioral issues, so my focus was on creating a school culture based on trauma-informed teaching and supportive social-emotional learning.
But it soon became clear that the teachers were hurting. Not only were they overworked, but they had secondary trauma themselves. We were asking teachers to double down on content and data, but they just didn’t have the capacity. We eventually experienced a mass exodus of veteran teachers.
I realized that I needed to provide the same kind of social-emotional learning support and caring for the school’s adults as for its students. What could we do to ensure that our staff were equipped with the tools they needed to feel supported? I reasoned that I should:
- Focus my leadership team on observing and listening to staff needs;
- Provide opportunities for any teacher to step back when overwhelmed;
- Reallocate time to ensure that teachers could attend to personal and professional needs; and
- Provide empathetic solutions to make the job of teacher less stressful.
I thought these actions would improve teacher well-being and efficacy, reduce further turnover, and ensure that the adults in the school community could sustainably support students’ academic and social-emotional needs.
In the years that followed, we implemented and refined a series of strategies to support staff wellness. These built upon what I learned through the National Principal Academy Fellowship (NPAF) at the Relay Graduate School of Education (relay.edu), as well as the scheduling flexibility and staffing models added when we became an Opportunity School—part of Indianapolis Public Schools’ initiative to give some schools greater autonomy.
During the 2021–2022 school year, we saw these efforts bear fruit, with surveys showing that more than 80 percent of staff believed they belong, have good relationships with administrators, and are more effectively meeting the needs of all students.
Observing and Addressing Teacher Needs
I’ve always been a highly visible school leader. My staff and students sometimes refer to me as “Coach Henderson,” which I love. I conduct exit interviews with teachers who choose to leave, and I try to carefully observe staff behaviors, including body language and facial expressions, to understand whether teachers are struggling with skills or have underlying social and emotional challenges.