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Making teachers feel like they belong

District employs a new strategy to retain teachers amid teacher shortage

Rockford — Could a game of office bingo be one answer to stemming the impending teacher shortage in Michigan schools? 

Judging from the victorious smile on the face of Rachel Shirmann, a third-grade teacher at Lakes Elementary, it just might be. The game was developed by a school office staffer who wanted to create a sense of belonging in her school that has eight new teachers this year. To play, teachers had to take actions like spending time getting to know a new staff member, writing an encouraging note, or surprising a colleague with a treat to fill up their bingo board. 

For Shirmann, in her second year teaching at Lakes, participating in the bingo game was a no-brainer. She said it builds just the kind of connection among staff that makes teachers like her want to stay at a school. 

“When you feel connected to people you want to stay working with them,” Shirmann said. “Being in a school that values connectedness, kindness, and community makes you feel like part of a team, not another cog in the machine.” 

‘I chose Rockford when I could have chosen other places, and I’m happy here. So when I tell that story, people want to come and work here too.’

– Nicole Peterson, Crestwood Elementary principal and new staff cohort leader

Lakes Elementary Principal Mindy McGinn was thrilled to see the bingo idea bubble up from her administrative assistant, Kathy Low. Anything they can do to make teaching at Lakes more fun is good for staff retention, she said. 

Her building’s teaching staff retention rate was 76% in 2021-22, a percentage comparable to other area schools but far below the rate her school saw during pre-pandemic times. 

“With all of the staff transitions we’ve seen in the past three years, we want staff to feel connected and taken care of,” McGinn said. 

The largest-ever incoming teacher cohort in Rockford takes a group shot during a new staff development event (courtesy)

Keeping New People in a Shrinking Pool   

As national headlines herald the onset of an unprecedented teacher shortage in public schools in America, her school’s bingo game is just one example of a larger effort by Rockford administrators to address the higher levels of teacher attrition seen across districts in recent years.  

Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Korie Wilson-Crawford said the program aims to combat worrisome trends of fewer graduates from teacher education programs and more staff leaving the profession due to stress and low wages.

“The pool that we have in the state of Michigan is too small for the need,” Wilson-Crawford said. “That’s a problem we can’t really get away from. But once we secure an employee, we can work to keep them.” 

Like many districts in Kent County, Rockford saw a larger than average departure of certified staff in 2021-22. That means that their incoming staff cohort is 67 people strong, a number that is more than twice the number of incoming certified staff just five years ago, said Wilson-Crawford. 

When she and Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Mike Ramm sat down last spring to plan training sessions for incoming staff, they knew they had an opportunity to launch a new strategy for retaining the teachers and other certified professionals they would welcome in the fall.

“We came up with a two-tiered approach,” Wilson-Crawford said. “What if we take care of their professional efficacy while fostering their sense of belonging in the district at the same time?” 

Elyse Anderson (left) is a mentor to Chrissie Macintosh, a new developmental kindergarten teacher at Crestwood Elementary

Mentoring, Treats and Other Fun Stuff

That sense of belonging they hope incoming staff feel addresses the unique needs of an emerging generation of teachers, said Nicole Peterson, Crestwood Elementary School principal and one of two Rockford administrators spearheading the new staff training program. 

“Gen Z teachers really want to feel connected, they want to feel a sense of belonging, they want to feel that they matter,” Peterson said. 

How is Rockford’s staff development program addressing these needs? Peterson said that it’s through a combination of high-quality mentoring and fostering social connections. 

To make new staff feel valued, Peterson and her colleague Kyle Avink, assistant principal at East Rockford Middle, are sending cards to their mailboxes and including a Payday or 100 Grand candy bar. And this month, new high school staff will be treated to lunch by their mentors. Upcoming new staff events include bowling at Rockford Lanes, a pickleball tournament and a food truck for staff and their families. 

‘The pool that we have in the state of Michigan is too small for the need. That’s a problem we can’t really get away from. But once we secure an employee, we can work to keep them.’

— Korie Wilson-Crawford, assistant superintendent  

To Peterson, all of these things help new staff feel connected. “It is the cutesy little things, but it’s also, ‘Oh someone is thinking of me,’” she said.

In addition to all the fun stuff, a revamp to Rockford’s onboarding process and new staff mentoring program is helping new teachers become successful in their positions. This includes creating a new mentor handbook and providing mentor training for the first time in years. 

Crestwood Elementary teacher and staff mentor Elyse Anderson says that for her, mentoring is about instilling confidence in a new teacher. 

“I think that whenever you walk into a job and you question what you’re supposed to do that day, it can be a difficult situation,” Anderson said. “If we can give them background of what we’ve tried in the past and give them a few ideas, that’s helpful.”

Chrissie Macintosh, Anderson’s mentee and a new kindergarten teacher at Crestwood Elementary, says the quality of mentoring she is receiving has given her the confidence she needs to do her job well. 

“The staff mentoring and the training has been helpful to quickly make Crestwood feel like home,” Macintosh says. “Being able to have the mentor to ‘show me the ropes’ and help me get to know the other staff has taken away the uncertainties that starting somewhere new can bring.” 

Peterson says that when you help a new teacher feel connected, empowered and valued, they become part of a larger narrative about the value of teaching in Rockford Public Schools. 

“When people want to go to work, they stay,” Peterson said. “I love coming to work. I chose Rockford when I could have chosen other places, and I’m happy here. So when I tell that story, people want to come and work here too.”

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Allison Poosawtsee
Allison Poosawtsee
Alli Poosawtsee is a writer who made her home in West Michigan after spending her childhood living in the former Soviet Union and Germany. She served as the editor-in-chief for Calvin University's student newspaper and then spent nine years as a writer and content strategist at her alma mater. Both of her children attend Grand Rapids Public Schools and she is an ardent supporter of public education.

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