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StateImpact Indiana

How Do We Keep New Teachers In Schools? Good Principals

Teacher retention is an important issue in Indiana right now, and one family of educators wrote a book on how principals can best support new teachers.

Part of The First Year series

Teacher retention is a growing problem in Indiana. Reports show that many teachers who leave the profession do so in the first few years in the classroom. Compounding the problem, fewer people are applying to become teachers in this state, and the state teacher shortage is now a top priority for both the legislature and Department of Education.

Amid all of these conversations about how to keep teachers in the classroom, one family of educators – a father and two daughters – wrote a book for the teachers themselves.

Principals Are Key To A New Teacher’s Success

Madeline Whitaker stands outside her third grade classroom, waiting for her students to arrive for the day. As one student, Ian, approaches the classroom, she stops him, greets him and gives him instructions.

“Ian, this morning I need you to get your math notebook out, finish your morning work in your math notebook and just leave it at your seat because I’m going to come around and check it.”

This is her second year in the classroom, and this hasn’t always been her morning routine.

“There’s one bus group where five boys come in, that’s the reason I do this,” she says. “So that’s why I do this, to make sure no issues come off the bus. Since issues happen on the bus I make sure it doesn’t enter the classroom.”

This is one of many tactics Madeline Whitaker and her sister Katherine Whitaker developed in the last four years. Research shows the first five years in the classroom are critical in teacher retention, because most new teachers quit before the fifth year. Katherine is in the middle of her fourth school year, and says getting support from a principal is key for new teachers.

“I feel like we don’t talk about how you’re not going to be perfect,” Katherine says. “There will be mistakes and you will mess up, and if a principal could be a sounding board and say ‘you’re going to mess up and there’s going to be a day that feels terrible – please feel free to come to me for advice or to talk about things.’”

This is the angle of their new book, which they wrote it with their father, Todd Whitaker, who is also a professor of Educational Leadership at Indiana State University– a principal’s teacher. The book reflects Todd’s philosophy on hiring new teachers.

“Think about the enthusiasm of a new teacher. Typically it’s sky high,” he says. “My belief is, when we hire a new teacher, our number one goal is we want our school to become more like the new teacher and not for the new teacher to become like the school.”

But to keep the enthusiasm of these new teachers high, the Whitakers say principals need to give their new teachers a lot of attention– and it doesn’t have to be time consuming.

“It is as simple as pop into their classroom, see something that’s going well and leave them a sticky note on their desk,” Madeline says. “The first year teacher will literally never forget that.”

Because she says if the new teacher feels the principal is available and wants them to succeed, they’ll be more willing to go to the principal for advice when they have a problem. If they don’t view their principal as an ally, they might just try to figure it out on their own, and that feeling of drowning in uncertainty is what can drive new teachers away.

First Year Teachers As Experts

Madeline and Katherine grew up in Indiana, but their first teaching positions happen to be in Missouri. When asked if it feels strange to write a book about surviving the first five years when neither have passed the five-year mark, they were quick to point out they don’t think they’re experts on teaching.

“But I think any first year teacher is an expert about the first year teaching,” says Madeline. “We’re just the ones who have the chance to work with an educational expert and compile all our real ideas together.

Though they teach far away from their dad, the sisters they say his philosophies influence them. They write a lot in the book about principal support, but Madeline and Katherine also write about what they learned on their own. Katherine says learning to ask for help was one of her biggest lessons.

“I got to the point where things were just breaking and I was dead set on figuring it out on my own, I don’t need to ask for help, I was embarrassed,” she says. “I wanted to be this exceptional magic teacher and I wasn’t. And that’s crushing to somebody’s who so passionate about education.”

Her principal helped her recognize that not everything was broken and helped her develop a plan to get the kids academically and behaviorally back on track.

“It changed everything,” she says. “He made me feel empowered, and him forcing himself into my life when I wasn’t going to let him into my life changed everything.”

Madeline also found moments where she forced herself out of her comfort zone that led to growth as an educator. And she says having the support of her principal allows her to feel comfortable being creative with her classroom routines. For example, when her students move from one subject to another, she plays them a song that they like. They sing along. When we reported this piece she played them  the theme song to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

The Whitaker’s book is called Your First Year: How to Survive and Thrive As A New Teacher. 

Katherine starts her fifth year next year. Madeline starts her third and is also enrolled in a master’s of education administration.