Leadership magazine logo.
Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Our most important job
Hiring, training and retaining the highest quality staff
By Terry Metzger | September | October 2022
During a meeting with my newest principal two weeks after school was out for summer, she offered an apology that her end-of-year task list was not yet complete. She explained, “Interviewing and reference checking are just so time-consuming, I haven’t been able to get to all the stuff I am supposed to be doing.” I may have gasped. All I know is that I had a nearly instantaneous feeling of failing as her mentor and guide. I stopped her before she could go any further. “You are doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing. Hiring, training and retaining high-quality staff is your most important job.”
The conversation started a multi-day contemplation of what school and district administrators should be doing. When I became an assistant principal, what I thought I should be doing was largely dictated by the immediate needs of the school. My daily life revolved around keeping a positive and safe campus by attending to student discipline and working with classified staff. I became a principal and added managing the school budget, schedules and meetings galore to my to-do list. Somewhere in the midst of these tasks, I conducted classroom observations, and at the end of the year, I completed teacher and staff evaluations. I was doing all of the things I thought I should be doing, but I really wasn’t sure what impact I was making on instruction and student achievement.
Fast forward to more than a decade later, as I made the move to district administration. I was now a step removed from day-to-day campus life. My new role included supervising principals and provided a whole new perspective as I visited schools with the eyes of an outsider. It was clear that many principals struggled with what they should be doing. Conflicting messages from the district office, limited resources, pressure from parents, and push back from staff about new initiatives all played tug-of-war with what they wanted to be doing: improving student outcomes. Tapping into my own principal experience, my job was to help them discover a focus that would have the biggest possible impact on teaching and learning.
It did not take long for some themes to emerge through conversations and observations. It was time to put to work the lessons I had learned in my 14 years as a site administrator.
Theme 1: Feedback matters
Most of the things I learned about how principals impact teaching and learning came through my cycle of inquiry. As a principal, I wondered why some teachers never sent students to the office and others sent students daily, or why a teacher who gave all the right answers in the interview was struggling with delivering rigorous and engaging lessons in real life.
In the second year of my principalship, I recognized that it was my job to teach the teachers. The things I had wondered about needed explicit discussion for change, so it seemed a good use of time to turn our staff meetings into mini-professional development sessions and then to follow up with observations, grade-level or department discussions, and PLC work. However, once I understood how powerful meaningful feedback could be, I began to be more purposeful in my conversations.
I was honest, sometimes brutally, when things weren’t going well in a classroom. I was specific and intentional with praise. What went well, and more importantly what was the impact of that action? I asked teachers to present strategies at staff meetings. I found ways for them to observe each other. We dug into student data and kept asking, “Why did we get this outcome?” Together, we found our footing — a collective efficacy — and made significant gains in student achievement in a remarkably short period.
I vividly remember many uncomfortable conversations, but the vast majority of those conversations resulted in positive changes. These changes in how we trained teachers led to high morale, school pride and yes, low employee turnover. We retained high-quality teachers and staff because they wanted to be part of our success story, but more importantly, they didn’t have to guess about how to contribute. The expectations, feedback and support all matched our goals.
Theme 2: Hiring matters more
Retaining high-quality teachers and staff helped us gain momentum as a school, but life happens. People start families, move away and retire. When adding or replacing a member of the team, momentum can get stalled or even stopped. In 2022, we are experiencing what some are calling the Great Resignation, as thousands of educators across the nation leave their schools, districts or the profession. The pressure to hire new staff is intense and difficult in light of staffing shortages.
Paper screening, interviewing and reference checks are critical components of the hiring process, each providing an opportunity for the principal to reflect on the needs of students, the strengths of the current team and how each candidate might fit into the work already in motion. Rushing through any of these steps may result in a misalignment of what the system needs and the candidate brings, which in turn decreases the chances of long-term retention of that employee.
While I didn’t have a good description of it at the time, I have learned that what matters in an interview is a demonstration of “will over skill.” A perfect résumé is not required, nor is exemplary work history or education. Especially in today’s education setting, it is more important for candidates to be willing to respond to student and school needs by adjusting their assumptions and strategies. And it’s our job as interviewers to give all candidates the opportunity to show their true selves as we determine their fit for our open positions.
Another critical but often overlooked component of the hiring process is a thorough and thoughtful system for onboarding new employees. Onboarding sets up new employees for success by showing them how they “fit in” with the culture of teaching and learning we have established. Many of the principals I worked with had good instincts about how well a prospective employee would fit within their school culture, but only a few of them understood their role in developing a long-term highly effective employee.
Theme 3: Leadership matters most
Perhaps the most important theme to emerge in my early work as a principal supervisor was an affirmation that leadership is a significant contributing factor to recruitment and retention. Research supports the idea that teachers are more likely to stay at their schools when satisfied with their principal’s leadership. Principals who understand the connection between their leadership and staff retention have a significantly better chance of improving student outcomes by keeping high-quality staff in place.
Here are some specific considerations for principal leadership in hiring, training and retaining teachers and staff:
  • Clearly articulate to all prospective employees the vision for the school and the current status in reaching that vision.
  • Look for candidates who are complementary to the current faculty and staff. Diversity and new perspectives will propel growth toward the vision.
  • Understand that carefully onboarding new employees with scaffolded support will directly contribute to their success. This includes teaching assignments and adjunct duties in the first few years.
  • Don’t make assumptions about what new employees will know. Provide explicit “catch-up” training for initiatives and programs that are beyond the very beginning stages of implementation.
  • Include returning and veteran employees in the training of new staff, but be clear in your expectations for all employees; don’t leave training that pertains to the vision or values of the organization open to interpretation.
  • Providing meaningful feedback is key. Employees are counting on their principal to have open, honest communication about what is or isn’t working in their classroom or workspace.
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of listening to your employees’ perspectives; fresh eyes are valuable!
  • Principals don’t usually have control over salaries, but they do have a direct influence over something just as important: working conditions. Ensuring that staff feel safe and appreciated goes a long way, but supporting their professional growth is critical.
  • Building collective efficacy requires building employees’ skills, but also their confidence that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves.
  • Provide leadership opportunities for new and veteran staff. Nurture employees’ passions for the good of the vision.
  • Know when an employee is not a good fit for the team or the vision. Be willing to make difficult decisions to ensure that the right people are in the right positions.
I’m a superintendent now, still working directly with principals, and these themes continue to drive what principals should be doing. If the principal’s most important job is hiring, training and retaining the highest-quality staff, my job is to make sure our system provides them with everything they need to do that job well. Together the school and district administrators can improve teaching and learning by retaining carefully selected and well-trained employees who know how to contribute well to student outcomes.
Terry Metzger is the superintendent of the Denair Unified School District.
Contact Us
© 2022 Association of California School Administrators