Why would a teacher who left Vermont to teach in other states decide to return – and come back to this school in particular?  Why would an experienced teacher, who was ready for a career change, decide to recommit to the profession – after just a few months of work at this school? Why would a retiree want to substitute teach there?  Why would a young educator, fresh out of college, want to work at the school she’d attended as a child – and still be there today leading literacy reforms?  Why would her friends in education follow her there?  Why would an experienced teacher – who commutes an hour, and could work for more pay elsewhere – remain at this school year after year?


Each of these questions connects to a story we heard during a recent visit to a rural Vermont school just south of the Canadian border, Richford Elementary School (RES).  RES is in the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union, a district that UVEI has been in partnership with for several years. Our visit to Richford was part of a special project, an inquiry into today’s educator workforce challenges and what schools can do to recruit, retain and sustain educators across the career spectrum.  


We came to RES in part because we know some of the school leaders well: principal Kelli Dean is a graduate of our principal preparation program, and literacy specialist Katie Charron is working towards her MEd in Teacher Leadership through UVEI.  We also came because we knew the school had been experiencing workforce challenges similar to other schools, such as competing for applicants from well-resourced suburban districts. While Kelli notes that the last contract negotiation “made strides and our superintendent believes strongly in trying to get a fair wage, the challenges are real: key teaching positions have remained vacant well into the spring, and each year the applicant pool gets smaller and smaller. Many families in the school district also struggle with adequate resources.  According to Kelli, 97% of the school’s student population qualifies for Free/Reduced lunch, compared to a 35% statewide average.  


In light of these challenges, we were heartened to hear so many stories about the educators commitments to their students – and to each other.  These are stories that speak to how RES is working to counter contemporary workforce woes.  And what we saw at RES aligns with what the research says schools should be doing to support educator recruitment, development, and retention.  


Support for a Positive School Climate


The evolution of these systems happens with the intentional allocation of resources, including funding for positions and regular meeting time for the team.

Many educators report that students’ needs for social-emotional support has increased significantly in recent years.  This can lead to disruptions in the learning environment, which can make teachers feel less effective in their work and contribute to their decision to leave the school or the profession.  As part of our inquiry into such challenges, UVEI faculty have been reading “Where Teachers Thrive: Organizing Schools For Success” (2019), by Susan Moore Johnson.  Johnson’s research affirms the importance of schools having “an explicit and deliberate approach for addressing student conduct and needs” (121).  We found evidence of such an approach at RES.  


Principal Kelli Dean took the reins at RES just as the COVID pandemic was taking hold in our communities.  The return to school after COVID closures was a period marked by difficult student behaviors and strained relationships among adults.  Among Kelli’s first priorities was forming a strong student support team that would work to systematize routines and expectations across the school – and provide responsive support for classroom teachers whenever concerns arose.  Kelli emphasized that these systems, which took years to evolve, are less about punishment and more about relationship repair, positive feedback to students, and meeting people’s unmet social-emotional and academic needs.  The evolution of these systems happens with the intentional allocation of resources, including funding for positions and regular meeting time for the team, which includes the school counselor, social worker, school psychologist, and behavior interventionists, as well as several other full time faculty.


Several years into Kelli’s tenure, it is clear that teachers feel supported as they work together to maintain a healthy climate and collaboratively approach student behavior and social emotional needs.  One of the newer and younger teachers we interviewed told us about her trust in Kelli and the wider student support team. She knows that whether the person in need of support is a student, a para-educator – or the teacher herself – their needs will be responded to effectively.  In addition to the responsiveness of faculty on the formal support team, other things that sustain this teacher, and others, are their daily collaborations and relationships as colleagues.  As if to highlight the climate of mutual support among the adults at the school, when we were wrapping up our interview with this teacher, a colleague walked in with a cup of coffee for her.  She hadn’t asked her colleague for it that day, but she said that “whenever someone gets coffee in town they bring a few extra cups back in case someone else needs a pick-me-up!” 


Support for Teacher Collaboration


Colleagues are constantly seeking solutions together. “It’s just how we do things here,” said one teacher.

Collaboration at RES takes many forms, formal and informal, from warm daily gestures to sometimes difficult deliberations in well-run meetings.  Research tells us that important structural supports for effective teacher collaboration include “sufficient, predictable time,” “ongoing, engaged support from administrators,” and “facilitation by trained teacher leaders” (Johnson, 2019).  


When asked about collaboration, one teacher told us with a half-sigh, “Yeah, we have a lot of meetings at this school,” and then she added with a confident smile, “but each one has its purpose.”  Those meetings include grade-team meetings where teachers and support staff meet to discuss common challenges and priorities.  Each of these grade teams has a leader who facilitates the meetings, and who also attends meetings with other grade team leaders and administration to help support coherence and communication across grade levels.   


Less formal meetings happen as well, and frequently. We sat in on one lunch meeting of teachers who eat together and talk every day.  We asked another group of teachers to describe “a recent time when you were formally or informally engaged in problem-solving with colleagues, and you felt like your voice mattered and was included.”  There was a bit of silence as people thought about examples, and then each person described something that had just happened earlier that day. 


Colleagues are constantly seeking solutions together. Collaborative problem solving is routine;  practice is becoming more and more de-privatized.  “It’s just how we do things here,” said one teacher.  Furthermore, the collaborative approach has led to the development and spread of effective practices in the school. For example, in working to address the literacy needs of its early learners, the K-1 instructional teams collaborated to create and pilot an innovative co-teaching model to provide targeted reading instruction. This approach is now being shared with other grade level teams, who are eager to learn how co-teaching can help all Richford students.


Principal Kelli Dean uses a variety of strategies to maintain this culture of collaboration: co-teaching roles, and other staffing structures that enable adults to work together in the same classroom; regular meeting times for people who have students and curriculum in common; thoughtful meeting agendas with routines for building connections as well as processes for solving problems together.  And these team meetings are run by people with specific roles as facilitators, like Katie, who leads the Kindergarten team for literacy.  These team leaders are themselves part of a leadership team with the principal and other support staff.  In other words, the people who lead meetings are supported in their roles, with opportunities to learn from each other and to see meeting facilitation modeled by the principal.


The Principal Matters


Pleased with the degree of teacher leadership in the school, Kelli began by naming many of the places she’s “not much involved.”

Kelli’s approach to leadership is to distribute it among her educators so that opportunities for leadership are not confined to those holding positions of formal authority. Instead, teachers are encouraged and supported to be actively involved in important decisions and roles. This, according to Johnson (2019), is important to teachers feeling invested in their school and each other. In line with this, pleased with the degree of teacher leadership in the school, Kelli began by naming many of the places she’s “not much involved.” This included the school-wide community meeting of students that was taking place that day, led by two teachers who had developed a vision of what these routine meetings could achieve for the community.  Kelli also mentioned the team meetings facilitated by teacher leaders, which she can’t always attend, as well as community-building efforts, like the Sunshine Committee’s pot-luck lunches and breakfasts for teachers.   


But it was clear from our visit that when Kelli thought her vision and leadership were important, she was present, from every leadership team meeting and student support team meeting, to the kinds of meetings happening just the day before we arrived: a meeting with coaches focused on literacy instruction in the early grades and how their remarkable success in kindergarten and first grade might be spread into second and third grade next year. 


In addition to her efforts to develop and sustain the human capital – teachers and others – at her school, Kelli also plays a lead role in the recruitment and hiring process.  This leadership takes the form of facilitating hiring committee deliberations and hosting day-long visits of prospective hires, with whom she wants to spend extensive time to ensure that she learns about them and that they thoroughly get to know the school and her vision.  Her leadership has also included the difficult assertion that some positions needed to remain open, even though there was an applicant for the job. 


“Creating a culture of trust, little drama, professionalism, and colleagueship is essential,” says Kelli.  “When hiring, one of the things that the hiring committee has heard consistently from me is that the person has to fit the culture we are creating at our school. We have purposefully not offered positions to people because we didn’t feel they would fit our school, even though we are left with unfilled positions. …People are okay with this, as scary as it is, because they have seen the fallout of poor hires and the benefit of having the right people in the school.”


It isn’t hard to understand why Kelli wouldn’t want to bring someone into the school who wouldn’t fit the collaborative culture they are cultivating.  It is this culture and the collective ownership of the work that is allowing the school to battle today’s workforce challenges and retain veteran and new teachers alike.  


The practices and systems we found at Richmond Elementary are the reasons why educators early, middle and late in their careers are drawn to the school and sticking with their careers, even in a time when many are questioning whether they can persist in the work.  The leadership of the school is clear in its vision of collaborative ongoing improvement, and the teachers are responding–with creativity, initiative, and innovation. 


Kelli acknowledges that recruitment for this rural school will remain a challenge.  But efforts that the district is making are poised to help. When it comes to attracting and retaining teachers, pay matters (Johnson, 2019), and the school board and union have recently made important strides in this regard.   As Johnson writes in the conclusion to “Where Teachers Thrive,” it’s only “when our society acknowledges and funds the costs of a first-class education system [that] our schools and teachers [will] succeed in providing it” (252).  


What do you notice and wonder?  


Every day, from Northern Vermont all the way to southern New Hampshire, UVEI faculty collaborate with educators who are teaching and leading in ways that are meeting the challenges their communities face.  Richford is but one example of a school where our ongoing collaboration with the superintendent, principal, teachers and coaches is helping us see how people in the field are doing exactly what the research says needs to be done to keep our schools thriving.  What about you?  Do you have examples of promising or proven practices that are sustaining the educator workforce in your setting?  Do you see a need and want to collaborate to find a solution?  We’d love to hear from you – please be in touch!


Elijah Hawkes is the Director for School Leadership at UVEI. Chris Ward is the Academic Dean and Coordinator of Graduate Studies.

(photo credit: https://www.richfordvt.org/)