Teachers stay longer at schools with positive climates. By taking steps now to strengthen school climate, K–12 leaders can better attract — and retain — high quality, diverse teachers.
Even before the pandemic, K–12 school districts faced a dire staffing crisis. COVID-19, however, has compounded the issue and teachers are now even more inclined to leave teaching behind.
Working with K–12 clients across the country, in addition to my own prior experience, I’ve witnessed how a positive climate can improve a district or school’s likelihood of hiring and retaining high quality, diverse teachers. Simply put, school climate is the way people feel about a school (their attitudes, perceptions, and the overall mood). District and school leaders don’t have complete control over climate, but they certainly set the tone. And setting the right tone at this critical moment is a strategic move that can help alleviate staffing challenges.
K–12 Teachers Leave Schools When the Climate is Poor
While more teachers are quitting, it’s usually not for a lack of dedication to the profession. Many teachers — and especially those from underrepresented groups — say they would like to keep teaching, but a challenging environment motivates them to leave. Many who resign from their positions don’t actually leave the profession, but switch to a different school or district, one they believe will better support their needs.
In other words, they often leave for better climates, whether in K–12 education or in another field. Among all variables, school climate remains one of the largest predictors of whether a teacher will stay. This means one of the most important actions district and school leaders can take in this current staffing crisis is to set the tone for a positive, supportive climate. Not only is it good for students, families, and all staff, it’s also an effective way to recruit teachers who want to stay.
While building a positive school climate takes time, there are key actions leaders can adopt now to reduce the likelihood of teacher attrition and attract a greater pool of applicants. That includes fostering transparency and belonging in schools, celebrating wins, and prioritizing professional learning.
Need immediate help hiring and retaining diverse teachers? Download our Inclusive Teacher Recruitment and Retention Practices guide.
Fostering Transparency and Belonging in K–12 Schools
When you walk into a school or district building, you can often feel the climate that exists within it as soon as you begin walking through the halls. Districts and schools that prioritize transparency and belonging share some common characteristics that influence a positive climate. Employee behaviors reflect that the school is a place they want to be. There is frequent two-way communication across all levels of staff. Students and parents feel welcome and know how to access the school resources they need. A strong sense of community morale permeates the space.
To encourage more transparency and belonging in schools, leaders can act by:
- Modeling respect and practicing regular, open communication with students, staff, and families
- Trusting teachers to do their jobs by providing them with an appropriate amount of autonomy and work ownership
- Explaining to parents how they fit into the school by welcoming them, orienting them, and creating ongoing opportunities for dialogue and support
- Proactively including students, staff, and families in building a strategic vision for the school, looking for commonalities and shared values that unite people
- Being deliberate in tying everything they do back to that shared mission and vision
- Allowing everyone to have a voice and providing them with opportunities to feel heard
Find more climate-enhancing tips and traits on our infographic, The Why and How of a Positive School Climate.
Celebrate Wins with Teachers, Students, and Families
Regularly encouraging and positively affirming teachers, students, and parents does not require a lot of time or resources — and it can quickly enrich a school’s climate. Simple tactics to recognize small wins and celebrate larger achievements can go a long way toward fueling an inclusive and optimistic environment. Look for authentic ways to celebrate your school or district, whether that’s through a shared goal, a recent accomplishment, or an aspect of the diversity inherent in the community. Call a parent when their student does something positive. Publicly recognize teachers when they’ve done something well (don’t assume they know how you feel). Find varied ways to award accolades individually, in small groups, and across the entire school.
Prioritize Professional Learning for Teachers
Providing teachers with training time and professional development opportunities (including online options) is another way to build a positive school climate. For professional learning to be well-received, it must feel timely and relevant. Leaders can survey employees to get input on what would be most helpful to them. For example, a timely topic right now might be helping teachers attend to students’ social-emotional learning needs. Leaders should not neglect their own professional development either. They, too, must continually look for ways to develop their own skills and tools to support teachers more effectively.
Plan engaging professional learning with a 7-step process outlined in our District Leader’s Guide for Developing a Professional Learning Plan.
The good news is federal and state relief dollars, such as ESSER funds, are perfectly suited to be used for professional development and other staffing-related activities. Many district and school leaders are using these short-term funds to invest in long-term strategies for hiring, retaining, and supporting teachers. It’s a smart investment to build up teachers who will stay for years to come.
While there are no shortcuts, implementing measures designed to foster transparency, belonging, celebration, and professional learning can significantly boost school climate. In turn, that climate can help attract teachers from all backgrounds and experiences — and ensure they stay long-term.
— Amanda R.C. Wagner, PhD, Director, K-12 Research and Professional Services, Hanover Research