By Gina Musumeci, BES Chief Program Officer
Now more than ever, schools need dedicated teachers and staff to support our students. How can leaders attract, hire, and retain mission-aligned, excellent educators in the current environment, while there are shortages of teachers, and while many educators are struggling with much of the same grief and stress as our students?
There is no simple answer to this question; however, there are steps that many leaders have taken to successfully nurture their staff members and attract new staff to their schools. On April 6, BES convened a panel of school and system leaders to share effective practices and learnings on this topic with our alumni.
Identify and meet teachers’ unique needs
Jonta Morris, Senior Director of the BES Fellowship, shared that the most important step leaders can take is to “honor the humans behind the work. There is no substitute for knowing your staff members as individuals.” Dr. Tianay Perrault and Donna Smith, 2021 LENS leaders from East End Prep, shared various ways leaders can attend to staff needs: “What makes them proud, and what are they worried about? What is their coffee order or their favorite 3pm snack? What is their work love language?” Ideas shared by other leaders included making laundry service available to staff, offering discounts on daycare for pets, bringing in an accountant to help staff file their taxes, and canceling professional development when needed to give staff some downtime.
We know that the causes of stress vary across individuals, schools, and regions. The East End Prep team mentioned that they send an anonymous weekly survey to staff in order to assess their specific needs and to ask for feedback and practical solutions. They’ve noticed that teachers feel that surveys are worth their time if they can see the results of their feedback.
Many panelists mentioned that their teachers have expressed the need for mental health support. Leaders can increase the availability and de-stigmatization of mental health support by assisting with access to and evaluating their mental and physical health-related benefits; for example, by adding sick days or paid time off, negotiating stronger counseling benefits, or sharing access to online counseling or apps that support self-care.
Shifting professional norms and decisions
Leaders can also make small shifts in the professional culture of their schools to increase teacher autonomy and job satisfaction. Leaders might consider inviting teachers to share thoughts on the school calendar, prep time, and scheduling, and offering fully remote professional development days so teachers can learn from home and have time to take care of their personal needs.
Ben Samuels-Kalow, 2017 BES Fellow and Founder of Creo College Prep, shared that his teachers asked for more uninterrupted preparation time. He reset the school schedule so that content-area teachers work with students either in the morning or in the afternoon, with the rest of the time reserved for planning and team collaboration. Deion Owens, 2020 LENS leader and principal of North Lawndale College Prep, said that his school switched to a block schedule midyear in order to meet teachers’ needs for prep time and downtime.
East End Prep asked ten of their most experienced teachers to list everything they do in a day, and then the leadership team used that list to identify items that could be done centrally, shared, or dropped altogether.
Think outside the sector
BES coach Dr. Chaundria Smith told the group to “learn from Google,” reminding alumni about the benefits of looking at best practices for people management outside of the education sector. When she was a principal in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, that meant applying for a PEP grant, available at that time to support greater physical fitness, in order to install a gym that students had access to during school days but that teachers and staff could use outside of those hours. She also made sure snacks, Advil, and other amenities were free and abundant. Deion Owens followed up to note that he asks his staff to request the snacks that they want to be stocked in their workroom; the small touches of care make a big difference to the culture on the team.
It’s well-known that larger companies often spend money on comfortable seating and workspaces. Leaders can prioritize creating and maintaining these spaces in their schools, encouraging teachers to work comfortably at school and to leave at the end of the day with less work to do at home. Sara Taylor, 2014 Fellow and Senior Education Consultant at Gallup, spoke about the need to evaluate the non-student facing requests on teachers’ time, and to consider whether such tasks could be done remotely, or whether they’re really necessary at all. She named that “back to normal” after the pandemic should not necessarily mean, “back to the old ways of doing things.”
Get creative when identifying teachers
Relying solely on traditional teacher pipeline programs to staff schools limits the pool of teachers leaders can pull from and can prevent schools from recruiting teachers who share the backgrounds and identities of their students.
BES coach Sundiata Salaam shared that an upside of transitioning to virtual hiring opportunities is that the school leader “can be everywhere” without limits of geography. As an example, he developed relationships with professors at education schools he wanted to recruit from and secured opportunities to speak to their students. He talked to professionals working in social justice about transitioning to education. On this, Ben Samuels-Kalow added that he looks for future teachers everywhere – from Starbucks, to student recommendations, to airport lounges.
Sara Taylor noted that looking outside of traditional teacher pipelines might mean creating a new teaching fellowship program, like Rocky Mountain Prep in Denver, CO, has done, or understanding the existing regional options for teaching fellowships. It can feel overwhelming for an aspiring educator to consider the requirements for such programs, so having someone on the school’s administrative team who deeply understands the paths that exist and can talk potential teachers through those options can be useful. If there are caregivers, parents, paraprofessionals, or custodial staff who would make great classroom teachers with the proper support, leaders would be prepared to start that conversation.
Review existing hiring systems
This “new normal” calls for interrogating hiring systems, interview processes, and candidate competencies. Leaders should ensure that they are only including components that are most critical to success at their schools; those may be mindsets, values, and commitment, rather than lesson-planning experience. Panelists encouraged alumni to take the opportunity to eliminate tasks that don’t offer new information about candidates and may create barriers to applications, such as cover letters, or that may intimidate or fail to inspire candidates, such as asynchronous interviews.
Leaders should also evaluate interview processes to identify where the process may include bias or white supremacist thinking. As Sundiata Salaam said, “We need to ask ourselves what we mean when we say, ‘best.’” Who do we see as “best,” and why? Does this match the qualities of the teachers who resonate most with kids and exemplify the school’s values?
Fill your own cup
The job of a school or network leader can be lonely. All the aspects of life and school that have been hard for teachers and students have also been hard on leaders. It might seem like the only choice is to push through even when feeling depleted. Our coaches have put together some questions for leaders to consider as they think about the sustainability of their work during this time:
- A well-equipped leadership team will give your growing school the foundation it needs to scale. Are you developing a strong bench of leaders? Consider bench-building programs like LENS, which offers high-potential principals and assistant principals, grade-level leaders, and others year-long, part-time development and 1:1 coaching.
- Do you have a professional community you can rely on? Look for someone (or a few someones) you trust who you can text with questions, problems, and decisions. BES is continuing to build our alumni network for the purpose of helping our leaders build these connections.
- Take a look at your to-do list. Is there something on it that could be automated, simplified, delegated, or dropped? If the answer is “no,” consider asking a trusted colleague to look at your calendar or task list and make suggestions. This is something that many leaders have worked on with their BES coaches. They’ve expressed how helpful it can be to have someone outside of their organization who can help them to take a step back and reprioritize.
- Leaders who model a healthy relationship with work develop the strategies and boundaries that help their teams to do the same. As you work in service of students and families, be sure to fill your own cup. Do you have a plan for summer break that will leave you feeling renewed? If you are a BES alum, consider joining us on Wednesday, May 25 at 4:30pm ET for a free virtual event on active rest, facilitated by Alex Temeña. Click here to register for this event. We hope to see you there!
BES is grateful for those leaders who agreed to co-facilitate our alumni event and whose ideas and practices informed this blog post, including BES coaches Jonta Morris, Sundiata Salaam, and Dr. Chaundria Smith; and BES-trained education leaders Deion Owens, Dr. Tianay Perrault, Ben Samuels-Kalow, Donna Smith, and Sara Taylor.