How Do We Keep Great Teachers Teaching?

By Jen Keyte, Teaching and Learning Labs, KIPP Foundation

At KIPP, we believe our teachers are the keepers of our mission –teachers are the ones who will ultimately determine how successful we are in preparing all students for college and life. Teachers are the ones who are closest to our kids, spending at least nine hours with them daily. We also believe teaching to be a complex art and science, and that to become a truly excellent teacher is a lifelong pursuit. The KIPP Framework for Excellent Teaching is evidence of this belief, painting a comprehensive vision of the competencies and behaviors a teacher needs to master over the course of his or her career to become truly excellent.

Given that this endeavor requires a career’s worth of learning and growing, we at KIPP – and schools and districts everywhere – are faced with an urgent question:

How do we make teaching a fulfilling long-term career pursuit?

There are many significant challenges to overcome: teaching is one of the most challenging jobs on the planet. It is challenging on all levels – mentally, physically, and perhaps most significantly emotionally. The ways in which teachers are compensated and their jobs are structured often lead teachers to consider other career paths. In combination with these are many other factors, including the fact that it is often the most effective teachers who become deans, instructional coaches, content specialists, assistant principals, and principals – all of which are awesome jobs and yet all of which conspire to pull teachers out of the classroom.

This last point is a particularly interesting challenge. One of the keys to KIPP’s success since 2000 has been the amazing teachers who have become instructional leaders at all levels throughout KIPP schools and regions. This is why KIPP has spent the last decade developing and refining the KIPP School Leadership Program. And yet, we are equally excited to explore how to transform teaching itself into an evolving career, with opportunities for development and advancement within the classroom that might keep a teacher teaching from year one to twenty-five and beyond.

To begin this conversation, KIPP Co-Founder Dave Levin and I invited a group of 13 experienced KIPP teachers from across the country to join us for a Design Thinking workshop. Who better to consider our design challenge – “How do we keep great teachers teaching?” – than a group of KIPP teachers who have been teaching, on average, for 13 years?

Design Thinking, which I learned about at a workshop hosted specifically for educators by the design firm IDEO, is a design process that organizations, businesses, and innovators have used for decades to imagine new futures and find unique solutions to challenges. As a group, we used the five phases of the process to consider our challenge: discovery, interpretation, ideation, experimentation, and evolution.

Phase 1:  
During this phase, teachers gained inspiration and insight by gathering information from various sources.

For example, teachers interviewed a lead researcher from The New Teacher Project about their recent report, The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America’s Schools. Other interviews included a nationally board-certified veteran public school teacher, our friends at Achievement First, and long-time KIPPster Blanca Ruiz, who has a passion for teaching, but chose to pursue leadership.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the day was when teachers interviewed individuals from other professions that are somewhat analogous to teaching. We talked to an ICU nurse about how she balances her personal life with odd hours, how she and her colleagues handle the emotional ups and downs of working with patients and their families, and the opportunities for development and advancement her hospital provides. Then, we talked to a Baltimore City public attorney about what keeps her going despite the stressful working conditions, long hours, insufficient pay, and the pull of high-paying law firms. Finally, we talked with a Pixar engineer about the creative efforts made at Pixar to retain talent.

We walked away from this phase with deeper insight into our challenge to keep teachers teaching, and bursting with ideas.


Phase 2:  Interpretation
In this phase of the design process, we began to organize all of the information gained during the discovery phase into themes, which we turned into insights and then questions.

For example, one theme that emerged was teacher growth and development. After a few years in the classroom, teachers, like other professionals, feel a need for advancement, new challenges, and continuous growth. The question then becomes, “How might we satisfy the need for the next big thing without teachers having to leave the classroom”?

Other themes that emerged during this phase included: family-friendly work environments, hours and scheduling, selective recruitment and hiring, autonomy, healthy work-life balance, monetary recognition and compensation, non-monetary recognition, and the image of teaching as a profession. We were able to turn all these themes into “How Might We?” questions like the one in the example above. Turning insights into questions sets the stage for the next phase of the process – ideation.


Phase 3:  Ideation
This is a fancy word for brainstorming. During this phase, design teams chose three questions related to the themes above to explore more deeply.

Our teacher design teams chose the following three questions:

1)  How might we satisfy the need for the next best thing without teachers actually having to leave the classroom?

2)  How might we provide meaningful non-monetary recognition that is aligned with what we value?

3)  How might we increase teacher flexibility and sustainability without sacrificing outcomes for kids?

We used IDEO’s rules for brainstorming, and tried to generate as many ideas in eight minutes for each question as possible. Ideas ranged from easy to implement to extremely complicated.

On the easier side, no one could really stop talking about Pixar’s Buzz Light Year statue for ten years of service. Teachers were intrigued by this. I wouldn’t be surprised if Buzz Light Years (or education related statues) start showing up on the desks of our ten-year veterans! Easy enough.

Of course other ideas are more complicated, like the idea of a KIPP Summer Institute for Excellent Teaching or offering schedules to teachers that look like those offered to nurses. What if there were two teachers per classroom and they each worked three shifts per week, overlapping one day per week?  And everyone agreed that a deeper look at teacher compensation must be part of the long-term solution.


Phase 4:  Experimentation
In this phase, designers build prototypes to make ideas more tangible, and then they share their ideas. Each teacher design team chose one brainstorm question to explore more deeply, and then each team had ten minutes to present.

One group developed a prototype to address the challenge of how we might incentivize teaching over the long haul through the use of rewards and recognition, and they laid out a plan for how we might do this at KIPP over the course of a teacher’s career, from year one to year thirty.

Another group explored how we might identify and meet teachers’ personal needs, helping them establish and maintain work-life balance. Their ideas included services that many corporate employees benefit from, such as dry-cleaning services, corporate rates for day-care, car services, access to healthy food, and a campus fitness center.

The final group shared a plan addressing the question mentioned earlier, “How do we satisfy the need for the next best thing without teachers leaving the classroom?” Their plan included five potential stages for a KIPP Teacher Career Path, with each stage including a variety of opportunities for development, recognition, and perks.


Phase 5:  Evolution
The final stage of the Design Thinking for Educators process is the development of the ideas that have been uncovered over time.

Our day together in New York with this special group of KIPP teachers was simply one small step toward breathing life into this work, work that we will continue to engage in for many years to come.

This is my ninth year as a KIPPster, and I am fortunate to have experienced more inspiring days in my professional life than I could count. This day wins the prize, however, for my most inspiring day at KIPP yet. A special thank you to Robin Sosa from KIPP Houston, who in her 13 years of teaching never missed a single day of school until coming to New York to join us as we considered this challenge.

To all the teachers, both those at KIPP and beyond, who are there for our kids every day – thank you.


If you have ideas for how to keep teachers (not just KIPP teachers!) teaching, we want to hear from you! Please email us at