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Retain Your Best: Engage, Support, Celebrate

The great resignation plaguing businesses and healthcare is devastating our schools, too. The pandemic exodus of teachers, staff, principals and district-level leaders over the past two years isn’t slowing down. The long-predicted educator shortages are here. So, what can you do to differentiate your district and retain the talent you have?

Every resignation and departure is unique. But superintendents and principals who play a purposeful role in helping dedicated teachers and staff see a future in their schools will come out ahead. Using engagement, support and celebration, school leaders can influence even the most overwhelmed or discouraged teacher or staff person to stay. So make the time to show that you care.

Engage People With Their Purpose for Teacher Retention

Engagement is at the very heart of a school system’s operation and success. Relationships between students and teachers, teachers and colleagues, leaders and staff — it’s impossible to measure all the benefits of a person who is engaged in their workplace each day. 

The Kansas Teacher Retention Initiative released statewide survey results in March 2022. While workplace engagement was found to be “a significant driver of educator retention,” 46% of respondents reported being Actively Disengaged/Disengaged. Only 29% reported they were Engaged/Strongly Engaged.

“Especially after times of isolation, or even just behind face masks, it’s reasonable to consider that teachers and staff are feeling more disconnected from the people they care about at school,” said CEL vice president Janet Swiecichowski, APR. “A little extra effort to spend time in the school hallway or pop into a classroom to enjoy the learning — the things that great leaders have always done — goes even farther right now.”  

The why of a career is an anchor for educators at every level. School leaders are especially suited to helping team members recall what they love about their profession. Casually invite teachers or staff to share a memory of the brightest moments that come with students who are learning and growing before their eyes. 

Consider making any of these part of your weekly routine to help your team feel seen, heard and valued. Even protecting an hour a week can pay off.

    • Schedule a stop into a school each morning — before you go to the office. It probably means starting your day a half-hour sooner, but the chance to mingle with staff and others in the building is well worth the investment.
    • Schedule a more coordinated visit to a school, with an open invitation to casually join you for coffee in the library and catch up before or after school.
    • Start each week with a two-minute gratitude email to members of your admin team. Then ask supervisors for the name of someone who might appreciate a boost, and send a short personalized email of encouragement.
    • Send a note to teacher leaders you haven’t connected with in awhile. Write a simple note of gratitude for the talent they share with students each day.
    • Consider writing a note to each person in your school system over the course of a year. Organize the task by birthday, alphabet or something else, and know that a short handwritten note from the superintendent makes a difference. 
    • Explore the value of a closed employee Facebook group that could be used for Q&A sessions, live virtual events and invitations to share why statements and positive memories, as well as staff shout-out routines. 
    • If you don’t already use a climate survey, it’s time to consider options. Used annually, these surveys give staff a simple opportunity to give input. They can also measure topics, such as trust, employee engagement and job satisfaction, that employees may hold back in a face-to-face conversation.

Wellbeing Support Helps Teacher Retention

There is no doubt about the overwhelm, unpredictability and demands that the pandemic has laid on teachers and staff. This only increases when their students are disengaged or exhibiting difficult behavior. 

“There is an escalating mental health crisis for educators in this country — most of whom are exhausted and stressed from the last two years,” said Katie Dorn, MA, LSC, MFT. Dorn is co-founder of EmpowerU, a CEL client. She is also an experienced licensed school counselor and therapist. “District leaders are working hard to address the mental and emotional health of their teachers and staff. More importantly, they are thinking of creative ways to build in the paid time for teachers and staff to address their wellbeing – which is key to long-term teacher retention.”

A report published by the National Institutes of Health outlined research about occupational stress, as well as the role that leaders play in supporting staff in a stressful environment. In “Occupational Stress: Preventing Suffering, Enhancing Wellbeing,” authors Campbell, Quick and Henderson emphasize the benefits to organizations that actively support employee wellbeing. “An organization that is committed to protecting people in reasonable and appropriate ways is investing in the future,” they wrote.  

The Kansas report found a correlation between respondents’ ranking of “District’s attention and approach to supporting your mental and emotional health” and three other areas of response:

  • low professional satisfaction
  • significant driver of engagement
  • likely to leave the teaching profession

More than likely, K-12 leaders themselves have experienced career-high periods of stress over the last 24 months. The conversation about stress management and support for employees should begin in a candid meeting between the superintendent and their top administrative team. EmpowerU specializes in student social-emotional learning solutions; the company also offers an online professional development course to help educators build resilience, manage stress and support their students’ SEL needs.

Lighten the Load

What structures or norms are needed to alleviate or reduce the unsustainable workload of the pandemic — and give employees a break? As a leader, you can make these changes. Invite your administrative team to explore these expectations and anything else that comes up in conversation. 

    • Establish a healthy timeline (24-48 hours) to reply to emails and phone calls 
    • Communicate the expectation to limit after-hours and weekend work. Set boundaries for the use of work-focused text messaging and phone calls after hours
    • Model the use of out-of-office messages during PTO, weekends or breaks
    • Identify cross-training and role coverage needs to allow rest/recharging at appropriate times
    • Add an Employee Assistance Program, or EAP — or increase frequent reminders of the support services afforded to staff members

“As leaders, we have to give our teams permission and encouragement to balance and recharge. That means modeling and setting healthy boundaries, practicing gratitude, and encouraging time with family or getting outdoors,” said Dr. Nate Rudolph, a Minnesota school superintendent. “Locally, our county officials have been important partners in leading Shawn Achor’s Orange Frog Happiness Advantage Initiative to promote positive mental health practices and social connection. It’s about supporting resilience and focusing on employee well-being. Our people need to know we care.” 

And don’t forget about one of the oldest wellbeing tricks in the book — a good belly laugh! Dress-up days, a staff trivia contest, silly brain breaks. Creating real moments of laughter in hallways and classrooms helps release stress among adults. It also sends a positive message to students and creates naturally positive engagement.

Celebrate the Stories of Staff

Celebration has a firm place creating schools where teachers and staff love to work. But even the most spectacular celebration is unlikely to solve the stress of overwhelming and demanding work. 

Shining a light on the people who make up your school system will lift everyone’s spirits. And purposeful recognition can play a role in teacher retention, especially when built on a foundation of engagement and support.

“Social science experts are clear about the importance of empathy, especially in such a difficult time,” Swiecichowski said. “Everyone in the workforce wants to feel appreciated, seen and valued. There’s never been a better time to tell the stories that spotlight your teachers and staff as the community heroes they are.”

Swiecichowski also suggested looking for stories that align to norms of workplace wellbeing. 

“Schools are filled with teachers and staff who should be celebrated simply because of the professionals they are,” she said. “Avoid the temptation to celebrate moments of over-extension or over-work. Not only will your staff appreciate a spotlight on the wide variety of team members — but they will notice the value system embedded in the stories you tell.”

In addition to digital storytelling, consider the benefits that a formal employee recognition program can offer. Partnering with a local business or chamber of commerce can help you create small bursts of celebration all year long — and spread the spotlight around to as diverse a group as you desire. 

“Every opportunity for recognition is a good opportunity,” Swiecichowski added. “Sometimes educators hesitate to recognize a few for fear of missing others. Don’t let that fear stop you. Use each recognition moment to represent the strength of the team. Add the phrase, this employee is one representative of the many outstanding staff we have in our school district in your comments. And think long term, with a clear intention to spread the recognition moment to more and more staff in the years to come.” 

Without a doubt, the pandemic introduced stress and doubt in the minds of teachers at every stage of service. By investing in engagement, support and celebration you help them remember their purpose and know how much they are valued.

Seize opportunities to talk about the future with your team — next year, three or even 10 years from now — and imagine together the good things those years might hold. Leaders need to bring hope. Be the present reminder to everyone you encounter that no matter how the world changes, school will be open. Students will show up, and teachers will work their everyday magic. 

And offer the possibility that when that day comes, you may look back together and be able to say, “We’re glad we stayed. We made a difference in our community.”


Published on: February 28, 2022