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Whitney Harris Speaks on Retaining Teachers in Low-Income Schools

Whitney Harris, the Director of Secondary ELA at the University of Arkansas, visited Saint Louis University for the November installment of the School of Education Speaker Series event. 

Harris’ specialties include school leadership, secondary English education, print and media journalism, and layout and design. As an educator, she aims to inspire students to become independent thinkers, engaged learners, and effective communicators though opportunities that promote critical thinking, self-reliance and self-expression.

On November 8, Harris spoke about Disney and its impact on retaining teachers in low income schools. She is involved with The New Teacher Project, which is an initiative that combines rigorous academics, talented people and a supportive environment to support the holistic development of students. The goals of her presentation were to name The New Teachers Project’s theory of teacher retention, identify Disney’s keys for success, and discuss strategies driving sustainable teacher retention in low-income schools. The New Teachers Project defines teacher retention as discussions of teacher turnover usually focus on how many teachers leave schools each year, without regard for their performance in the classroom. This oversimplification masks the real teacher retention crisis: not only a failure to retain enough teachers, but a failure to retain the right teachers.

Harris explains that Disney’s seven-point model is proven to be successful and may help with teacher retention. Disney’s model is as follows: The competition is anyone the customer compares you with, pay fantastic attention to details, everyone walks the talk, everything walks the talk, customers are best heard through many ears, reward, recognize and celebrate, and everyone makes a difference. Harris’s model depends on 5 main points: honoring the person, growing their brains, following the coach, working alongside “decision makers,” and being consistent.

The first strategy, honoring the person is dependent on identifying the person’s ‘why’, promoting authenticity, modeling balance, and inviting what she calls “irreplaceables” to stay. Strategy two, growing their brains, is focused on making it hard to leave, paying attention, and promoting a culture of hard work, growth mindset, structure, joy, and problem solving. Strategy three, following development models, is characterized by coaching, supporting, holding people accountable, being honest, balancing accountability with empathy, and model walking the talk. Working alongside, strategy four calls for eliminating an “us” versus “them” culture, practicing four major strategies for building a team, ensuring that every voice is heard, allowing the healthy conflict, deciding, committing to decisions, listening to others, and recognizing and celebrating achievements. Strategy five, being consistent can be done by doing what you say you are going to do, setting a rally cry, noticing growth, slowing down to build relationships, and calling and visiting rather than sending an email.

As she finished her presentation, Harris reminded the audience that quality comes before quantity and that leadership can be impacted by work conditions and school systems and policies. She also reminded the audience to remember to recognize and reward people who are going above and beyond expectations, and staying consistent throughout their leadership career. Harris closed by emphasizing that everyone makes a difference and encouraging the audience to implement her strategies to create a higher teacher retention rate in low-income schools.