What Can Building Administrators Do To Retain Teachers? (Part 4/7)

wendyz@michiganprincipals.org's picture

Three weeks ago, I wrote an article "Teacher Shortage, Teachers Leaving the Profession What Can Building Administrators Do About It?" In the article, six factors were cited for teachers leaving the profession that building administrators can influence and impact. This week's article is part four of a seven-part series that will focus on the importance of a positive building culture.

School is a relationship business and no where is this more evident than when we look at a building's culture. Culture is the building's vibe; it's the way people interact and are treated. You can learn a lot about the culture of a building when it is empty. Walk around after hours and assess your school's culture. Do you see and feel a joy for learning, a sense of belonging, pride and just the general presence of the students that attend the school? It is also important to consider the messages your signage conveys. Undercurrent can be sensed. For example, rather than "DO NOT GO DOWN HALLWAY A" instead, use "Please use hallway B." Rewording any "NO" signs that you currently have posted will be noticed. Walk around again once staff and students are present. Consider again, what is the general vibe in the building? Are students and staff greeting each other, exchanging casual conversation and enjoying each other's company? Is this a place where people want to learn and to work? If it isn't, what can an administrator do to improve the culture of the school?

When it comes to building culture, here are some key tenets to keep in mind:

  • Treat ALL People with Respect: Mutual respect must start with and be modeled by administration. Showing respect to students, custodians, paras, teachers, parents, community members…literally everyone who is part of the school community. The best way for administrators to demonstrate this is by practicing servant leadership. You can do this by asking the following questions: What can I do to make it a great day for everyone? What can I do to improve conditions for teaching and learning? Am I fully present when someone needs to talk to me? How can I make every person I come in contact with feel validated and appreciated?

    It's the little things that make the difference. Do you celebrate the band or robotics team as much as you do the football team? Do you treat the 1st chair clarinet player like she/he is as important as the starting Varsity point guard? Embracing servant leadership takes considerable practice and skill, but when it is in place it has a significant impact on the overall culture of the building.

  • Promote Positive Relationships: This includes administration-to-staff and staff-to-staff, administration-to-students and staff-to-students, administration-to-parents and staff-to-parents. If you are going to have a culture of respect, then bullying of any kind cannot be tolerated. While students bullying one another is likely what comes to mind, remember that adult bullying is real and it can have an incredibly negative impact on the work environment. Adult bullying behavior can come in the form of treating new or untenured staff differently than tenured teachers. For example, giving the new teacher(s) all of the old classroom furniture, the textbooks in the worst condition or the classroom no one else wants. All of these actions send a message that people aren't valued.

    It does not require a study to determine that people like coming to work better if they like the people they work with; the same is true for students. Teaching can be very isolating and we need to look for ways to provide time to connect. This can be as simple as: hanging pictures of all new staff members in the mailroom so people can learn the new people's names, incorporating icebreakers into the start of every staff meeting, mixing up staff groups during meetings, starting the year with an all staff lunch and encouraging staff gatherings like potlucks or chili cook-offs. When the students see that all the adults in the building get along and enjoy each other, it has a positive impact on the school's culture.

    I recently conducted an activity with a group of administrators and asked them each to write down one activity or thing they do at their building to promote positive culture. I was a bit surprised to see the number of people that listed staff going out and having drinks as an activity. In my career this has certainly been common practice, but it is important to realize that gatherings that include alcohol can also alienate some staff members and on occasion can also bring problems into the building on Monday morning.

  • Maintaining a Positive Tone: Being in education can be overwhelming for every person that works at or attends the school. There will be days when it is a challenge to find the good in a situation or to keep the focus on the twenty positives over the three negatives, but this is what makes for positive culture – and it starts with administration.

    I once worked in a building where every teacher I approached to chat with between classes unloaded their problems on me. After the bell rang I felt like I had been hit by a bus. In reflecting on how and why this was happening, I adjusted my strategy. Instead of walking up and casually asking, "How is your day going?" I instead asked, "Hey, tell me about something cool you are doing in your classes." or "Tell me about a student that is really making great progress." It was amazing how quickly the tone changed when I asked a positive question. Both the teacher and I left the conversation feeling like the glass was half full rather than half empty. As an administrator, I realized pretty quickly that I had the ability to shape the majority of conversations and it became my goal to always keep a growth mindset.

    That exact same strategy can also work with a parent. Instead of "Mrs. Jones we need you to come to the school. Bobby is suspended." Lead with, "Hi, Mrs. Jones. This is Ms. Zdeb from the High School. I just wanted to reach out and talk to you about how Bobby has been doing at home." This builds an administrator/parent partnership, rather than an adversarial approach. What might that look like with a student? "Hi John, come on in. Can I get you a bottle of water? Looks like you are having a tough day. How have things been going for you?" Rather than kicking off with "John, you're going to be heading home for three days. Go get your things out of your locker." The tone we take, the words we choose, the relationships we build make all the difference in how people respond and how they feel about the school community.

  • Promoting Balance & Supporting Mental Health: Every educator I know struggles with work/life balance. It is a job that can easily be 24/7 if we let it and we have to set parameters and limits to have any shot at balancing our lives. I've heard many an administrator tell their staff "family first," but I've seen few practice what they preach. The bottom line is that you will have more to give others if your own tank is full. Discover what it is you personally need for balance – making time to work out, getting home in time for family dinner, setting up date nights with your significant other, making a "no talking shop rule" after 6 p.m. – the balance is different for everyone. The increase in student and staff mental health issues is very real. As students come to us in crisis following trauma, we as adults soak it up as well. Knowing this and providing professional development and supports is important for maintaining positive culture.

All of this being said, it is essential to note that although administration has a significant role to play in a building's culture, so do the staff, students, parents and community. All stakeholders need to be engaged and brought into the discussion about how "we want our school to be." Providing opportunities for everyone to have a voice and to be connected to the school goes hand-in-hand with the tenets listed above.

Overall Culture Building
Building a Positive Staff Culture Takes Work, Edutopia

A Principal's Perspective: The Importance of School Culture, Edutopia

The Tough Work of Improving School Culture, Edutopia

The Steps to Creating a Positive School Culture, ASCD

Wow-Factor Schools: 8 Ways to Build an Awesome School Culture

Positive Teacher Relationships…Teacher-Teacher Relationships Matter

Three Tips to Help You Collaborate With Colleagues, Teaching Channel

The Power of Teacher Collaboration, Teaching Channel

If You Don't Feed the Teachers They Eat the Students: Guide to Success for Teachers and Administrators by Neila A. Connors and Jennifer Streams

Being Positive
8 Ways to Improve Your Attitude at School and Work

Energy Bus by Jon Gordon (specifically Chapter 18: No Energy Vampires on the Bus)

What Great Teachers Do Differently by Todd & Beth Whitaker

Check out the other articles in this seven-part series.