By Kate McGovern
Rachael Brown is the Manager of Teacher Retention and Recognition at District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). Last year, Rachael’s team started sending personal emails to highly effective DCPS teachers in order to acknowledge them and encourage them to stay. That seemed like an ingenious—and shockingly simple—way to keep great teachers, so we wanted to know more.
Give us the bigger picture here. What’s your philosophy of teacher retention?
The way we approach retention at DCPS is less about general retention and more about trying to make sure we're keeping the teachers who have the greatest impact on kids. Everything we do at DCPS—the way we recruit and hire teachers, the way we support them and the way we approach retention—is based on teacher effectiveness.
It’s important to note, though, that we don't necessarily see retention to mean being in front of students all day, every day. That’s not how careers work anymore. Many of our most talented educators aren't interested in teaching in the same classroom for 30 years. I taught in DCPS for two years, and one of the reasons I left was because the career path seemed so linear. Today, we've really tried to layer in opportunities for teachers to grow and evolve their careers in different ways, inside and outside the classroom.
How does this email campaign figure in?
The idea came to us from a wonderful teacher who ended up leaving the district. When I asked her why she was leaving, she said something that really resonated with me: “No one ever asked me to stay.”
So last year, we picked a group of our Irreplaceables—teachers we would really be devastated to lose—and crafted emails along these lines:
I’m writing to tell you just how much we want to keep you in DCPS. Outstanding teachers like you have many options about where to teach, and it’s clear from your past recognition that your great talent is no secret. But as a DCPS parent and a former DCPS teacher, I wanted to share my personal appreciation for the work you do every day to empower the kids in DCPS.
Our district has made great progress over the past few years, but we still have a tremendous amount of work to do—and to get there, we need your talent, your energy, and your belief in what our kids can achieve. I sincerely hope that you are planning to return to DCPS next year.
The response has been amazing. When we sent those first emails, we heard from teachers who have been in the district for decades, saying things like, “No one has ever sent me an email like this.”
That’s amazing—and kind of crazy. Why do you think a simple email has such a positive effect?
Everyone likes to hear that they're appreciated. And we try to keep the emails as personal as possible. So this year, we’re targeting four specific groups of teachers: teachers who have won particular awards, teachers with a track record of success in our in highest-need schools, teachers at the top levels of our DCPS career ladder, and teachers doing particularly well in their early years—which is when we often see attrition.
I think in the past, we assumed teachers were hearing this kind of encouragement at the school level. But after that first round of emails, we realized some of them aren't. So we wanted them to know someone in the central office recognizes their efforts and appreciates them.
How often do you hear back from teachers?
We haven't finished sending all of our emails this year, so we don't have final numbers, but so far we've sent out notes to around 1,300 to 1,400 teachers, and we've gotten about 300 to 400 replies.
What are the replies like? Do you ever hear from teachers who say there is something you can do to help them stay?
Usually replies fall into a few categories: “Thanks and yes, I'm planning to come back in the fall,” or “I'm not sure what my plans are, but I'd like to talk about it.” With a response like the latter, we will follow up with the teacher to hear how they’re feeling, and perhaps connect them with resources or leadership opportunities in the district.
We might also hear from a teacher who is committed to DCPS but who is restless or unhappy at their particular school. In those instances, we'll talk to the teacher about schools within the district that might be a better fit, and then we’ll help them with the transfer process.
Basically, we take it case by case. We consider ourselves a concierge service for our top teachers.
So this is a pretty low-cost retention strategy. How does it stack up against some of your bigger, higher investment efforts?
At DCPS, we've been able to effectively remove compensation as a reason teachers leave us. It's now something like 20th on the list of why our teachers quit.
Instead, a lot of our attrition is the result of school-level concerns. As a central office, we're trying to think about the right touch points for us to help teachers with some of these things. The emails are one way for us to hear about them early on. And even if a teacher doesn't reply, he or she knows they have an immediate line of communication with someone who will listen in the central office. I just heard from a teacher I emailed last year. She’d saved the email in case she ever needed to get in touch with me, and then she did. So beyond just acknowledging our top teachers, the email campaign is really a way for us to start addressing some of the issues that can become problematic for teachers.
What would you say to other districts that want to rethink their approach to teacher retention?
I think when districts do things that make teachers' lives easier, teachers really appreciate it. I know it’s not possible for every district to pay teachers like DCPS can, but little things like the email campaign can have a big impact, and cost nothing except time.
Kate McGovern is Director of Publications at TNTP.