Love thy teachers —On the challenges of recruiting and retaining great teachers

I wasn’t always a teacher. I only became one after spending six years working in industry, where I was doing well but always wished I’d taken that extra year to complete my PGCE – unfortunately I was not able to afford another year in higher education. However, when the opportunity arose to do a PGCE, I grabbed it with both hands and, as the cliché goes, I have never looked back.

After my PGCE I was fortunate to be appointed teacher of Spanish at an excellent school that looked after its teachers as much as it looked after its students. Professional development opportunities came in many guises, but mainly via the dedicated mentorship I received as an NQT and never really stopped throughout my time there. I was loved in the best way a school can love its teachers: by supporting, stretching and challenging me to become the best teacher I could be. And I am still at it.

I have spent the last ten years in middle and senior leadership trying my best to replicate this approach to professional development, having understood that the best way to attract new, quality staff is to look after the staff that you already have. But every so often, usually for very happy reasons, folks do move on and vacancies arise. And no, it turns out that not everyone is as keen as I was to become a teacher. So, what challenges have I faced recruiting teachers?

Number of applicants

“I am indebted to my father for living, but to my teacher for living well”

— Alexander the Great

The first time that, as a head of department, I sought to recruit a new teacher of languages, I really thought there would be deluge of applications. Why wouldn’t there be? The school was great. The kids were brilliant. It was a vibrant city. What was not to like? Well, we received five applications in total. Including one from a Colombian waiter with no teaching qualifications and two from overseas, with degrees but no teacher training. A total of two people from the UK with relevant qualifications applied for the position. Both were invited for interview and one was eventually appointed. It turned out to be a great appointment, but that was due to sheer luck rather than the breath and quality of the shortlist.

Shortage subjects have always had it tough. I know of schools who have appointed two good mathematicians when they only needed one just to keep one in the bank, as it were. Similar story for languages, a subject that has always been reliant on oversees recruits (such as me) and is now bracing itself to have this pool shrunk even further, as options for EU nationals become more attractive elsewhere post Brexit.

Why don’t more people apply to become teachers? Well, the simplest answer is that teachers don’t get paid as much as other graduate professions. 20% less in fact. Remuneration does even out later, but this means that many potentially great teachers are not as drawn to the teaching profession as they are to the bright lights of industry with its fatter pay cheques and higher status. There are other issues, of course, but getting this right would be a good start.

Quality of applicants

“It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever,” he said. “Have you thought of going into teaching?”

― Terry Pratchett

There haven’t been many occasions when I have been in an appointing panel where everyone from the shortlist could have easily been offered the job. In reality candidates who look really good on paper can disappoint in person for a variety of reasons. Apart from begging the question “how many candidates who disappoint on paper but would have otherwise made great teachers were never called for interview?” there are other considerations we need to take into account.

Let’s begin with the old adage “hire for attitude and train for skill”, which is one many senior leaders stick to faithfully. Personally, I think that in a profession such as ours your skills as a teacher need to well honed. Teaching, after all, is not rocket science, it’s much harder than that. In many cases – such as shortage subjects – I would argue that skills are more important than attitude, although it would be clearly ideal if a candidate were able to demonstrate both.

In some countries candidates need to be qualified to masters degree level before they can apply to become teachers. I’m not suggesting this is the solution to our recruitment problem, but I do believe that greater emphasis on pedagogical content knowledge during teacher training, which perhaps could benefit from being extended to two years in partnership with schools, would work wonders for the profession. Teachers need subject knowledge, but they also need to know what great teaching looks like and how students learn best.


“The one exclusive sign of thorough knowledge is the power of teaching”

— Aristotle

Another well-known precept is Richard Branson’s “train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to”. Highly performing education systems around the world all have two things in common. Firstly, teaching is a well remunerated, high status profession, and secondly, teachers are allowed the time and the resources to develop professionally. Yet our schools often face the double whammy of not having much money in the budget for salaries and  not being able to invest in quality, ongoing professional development. This is pretty much the opposite of what highly performing organisations do, and it needs to change. Many of the challenges we face in recruiting teachers would dissipate if we treat the teachers we already have as high status professionals, with the all rights but also the responsibilities that this would entail.

Am I wide off the mark? What do you think?

This post was originally published in The Educator Blog, under the title “Top challenges I face recruiting teachers“.

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  1. Hi Jose, I’m liking this: ‘Apart from begging the question “how many candidates who disappoint on paper but would have otherwise made great teachers were never called for interview?”’ …allot in my view; I worked in recruitment for several years and think I did so well because I learned to see the real people past their terrible applications and simply presented them directly to clients in my own words. This meant the words they’d written to present themselves wasn’t really considered and we cut straight to discussing them as a professional in the post.

    On your last point: in the Politics in Education Summit we were basically told that, unlike private companies (who have learnt their customers don’t get looked after if staff aren’t looked after) the government has a responsibility to all of society so numbers of people in relative groups seems to win out in terms of priorities over who would be most sensible to focus on. There are more parents than students, and teachers, and education workers so parents interests are looked after first before students and well before teachers who are a minority group at a national scale. This isn’t particularly sensible, but it’s how our current position is being justified by education policy advisers.

    1. Hi Leah,

      Interesting observations about agency recruitment and education policy. Thank you. I have noticed a certain embellishment of applications in the past when dealing with agencies. Many senior leaders raise an eyebrow, I think because it seems reasonable to expect a good teacher to be able to excel at applying for jobs, but is it? I’m not so sure. I don’t know. I have noticed too that an increasing number of senior positions particularly is being dealt through agencies exclusively.

      1. People of more sensitive dispositions (who work amazingly well with others because of this) can really tie themselves in knots with applications; we’re taught from a young age to ‘not show off’ and some take this seriously to the point of self sabotage when presenting themselves. In addition I’ve seen plenty of background situations seriously throw a person when writing about themselves that would not affect them if they were doing the work they love. On recruiters; if you find they’ve embellished to the point of falsehood they’re not worth working with as they’re clearly not on your side. My role was to present hidden gems to my clients, not to buff up anything in the hope I get a placement. Good luck!

Your feedback and comments are very welcome