When asked to share the biggest challenge facing today’s schools, one answer has risen to the top: the teacher shortage.
As is the case with any dilemma, school leaders have two options: complain about the problem or look for solutions.
Those who complain about the problem say:
“Politicians need to give schools more money!”
“Colleges need to attract more students to the field!”
“Society needs to stop being so hard on educators!”
Those who look for solutions say:
“How can we attract more teachers?”
“How can we improve our hiring processes?”
“How can we keep teachers from leaving?”
Consider the phrases used in your setting:
Are you blaming others?
Or, are you taking ownership?
Unfortunately, many leaders do the former.
Making matters worse, many school leaders place teacher recruitment low on their priority list. Rather than strategize how to attract highly talented employees, leaders prioritize test scores, student behaviors, mental health, and other initiatives.
While all are important for school success, the previous statement poses a subtle irony: when schools hire effective teachers, initiatives have a way of taking care of themselves.
When schools hire effective teachers, initiatives have a way of taking care of themselves.
A few years back, I was in one of our buildings and saw a familiar face chatting with the building principal.
“Do you remember me?” this individual asked.
“Yes, of course I do!” I responded. “You used to sub for us. How are things going?”
“Well, that’s why I’m here. I took a job at (a nearby district). Honestly, I don’t like it there. I don’t feel valued, and my opinion doesn’t matter.”
“You guys were different,” they continued. “You spent time getting to know me. And I was just a sub! It felt special working here. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming."
“I want to come back.”
The principal and I exchanged big grins. Not only did it feel good to hear how much of an impact our culture made on this person, it’s not every day you have a teacher begging to work for you.
If you take nothing else from this chapter, let it be the following: to be highly effective, today's administrators have must possess a recruitment mentality.
Having a recruitment mentality means two things: First, administrators must keep a constant pulse on their faculty so they can anticipate potential openings. Second, administrators must have a short list of individuals they can hire when openings arise.
How much time do you invest in subs, student teachers, and practicum students? Whereas some leaders say, "I don't have the time", forward-thinking administrators view these individuals as prime candidates to fill vacant positions.
The same could be said for interactions outside of work. School leaders who wish to keep their buildings fully staffed must approach every interaction through a recruitment lens.
One of my favorite stories to share is how I found a rockstar custodian at a Casey’s convenience store. One winter morning, I was waiting in line to pay for my Monster Energy drink when a voice behind me said, “Are you Dr. Smith?”
I turned around and saw a middle-aged man who I had never seen before. He said he knew me from social media and had heard good things about my leadership. During our discussion, he shared that he was unhappy in his current job, and was looking at other options. Immediately, I went into recruitment mode and asked to exchange numbers so we could stay in touch.
A few weeks later, I texted him about a custodian opening in one of our buildings. Beyond simply alerting him of the position, I sent him the link to the online posting, passed along his name to our building principal, and told our HR department to be on the lookout for his application. Essentially, my goal was to remove all barriers that would prevent this individual from being hired.
One month later, he was introduced as our new custodian.
Whether it’s the hard-working gentleman who stocks shelves at the grocery store, or the pleasant secretary who works at city hall, school leaders must always be on the lookout for talented individuals who could fill any workplace vacancy.
You never know where you’ll find your next employee.
Some schools – especially those in large metropolitan areas – have their pick of the litter when it comes to hiring. As young singles prioritize living in areas where they have options for dining, nightlife, and social activities, these districts have the luxury of turning away droves of outstanding candidates.
If only all school districts had this problem.
Nearly one third of school districts in the United States are located in "rural" areas with less than 2,500 residents. Lacking the built-in amenities of their large-district counterparts, small districts face an uphill battle when it comes to alluring and securing strong applicants.
While rural schools have problems attracting teachers to their district, urban schools – especially those in low-income areas – experience high degrees of teacher turnover. This constant exodus of staff opting to work in more-affluent schools across town results in similar teacher shortages for inner city schools.
Clearly, rural and urban schools have their work cut out for them in terms of attracting candidates to their districts. So, what steps can leaders take to address these issues? Here are nine ideas for all school leaders to consider:
Post Jobs Early: Starting the hiring process early is vital as school districts battle over a dwindling number of qualified applicants. To get an accurate picture of the openings they will have the following year, schools should issue contracts as early as possible (in Iowa this day is March 15th). While they may not be legally binding, contracts are a major piece of the hiring puzzle that should be finalized ASAP.
Market Job Openings: Many school districts use outdated approaches to promote teacher openings. Rather than passively post openings on job search websites, school leaders must proactively market vacancies using social media and other forms of digital communication. In a time when teachers are in high demand, districts must ensure openings are seen by large audiences.
Be Aggressive: If you have ever been heavily recruited for a job, you realize how good it feels to be wanted. Turn on the charm and persuade candidates as to why they are needed in your building. Furthermore, consider sending “cold” emails, texts, and Facebook messages to potential candidates. I have sent hundreds of “Hail Mary” messages over the years, and – while only a handful have panned out – those were positions that would have gone unfilled had I not been persistent in finding candidates.
Provide Updates: No longer can employers sit back and refrain from reaching out to candidates for weeks at a time during the selection process. During hiring season, every day matters. Not only is poor communication rude to the applicant, there is a good chance another district will swoop in and secure the candidate when contact is not sustained. Something as simple as sending a short text message letting the candidate know where you are at in the process makes a world of difference.
Employee Referral Bonus: Do not underestimate word-of-mouth marketing when it comes to teacher recruitment. Research shows that 92 percent of people trust recommendations from friends and family more than traditional advertising. In my previous district we offered a "$250 cash bonus" to current staff who convinced new teachers to the district. By offering this incentive, employees were eager to alert friends of job openings.
Our employees loved receiving these oversized "referral bonus" checks!
Empower Administrators: One of the biggest misconceptions in school leadership is that Human Resources is the only department that can discuss salaries with potential employees. Not only is this untrue, this practice creates massive organizational bottlenecks … slowing down the hiring process when time is of the essence. As long as they avoid promising candidates a precise income, leaders should not only be trusted to discuss salaries, they should be empowered to negotiate salaries using a set of clear guidelines.
Employee Check-In: Once a hire is made, the recruitment mentality should not stop. Administrators who are committed to keeping their buildings fully staffed must engage employees in retention-focused conversations. “Are you happy in your current role?”, “Do you plan to return next year?”, and “Are you looking at other jobs?” are reasonable questions to ask. Leaders who take time to understand where each employee stands are rarely caught off guard by a surprise resignation.
Stay Interviews: We’ve all heard of exit interviews. But what about stay interviews? Rather than reactively ask employees why they are leaving, leaders should proactively ask employees what makes them stick around. “What motivates you to work in our school?”, “What could be better about your work experience?”, and “What opportunities within our district do you want to pursue?” are questions that can take retention-focused conversations to the next level.
Career Goals Surveys: To gain a deeper insight into their professional aspirations, leaders should ask their staff to complete an annual career goals survey. By understanding the relocation possibilities, retirement plans, and leadership ambitions of their employees, administrators can tailor recruitment strategies to meet their building's staffing needs.
Here is the career goals survey we use with district leaders.
One topic that deserves its own section is employee compensation.
When school leaders propose teacher retainment solutions, the most common answer is to increase employee compensation. “We just need to pay our teachers more money!” administrators say, assuming compensation is the magic bullet.
Obviously, teacher compensation is a major concern and school leaders must continue pushing educator salaries higher to ensure they are competitive with other professions.
However - when you examine the root cause of job dissatisfaction - compensation is rarely the primary factor. In a recent study examining the most common reasons employees leave a position, only 12% of employees cited, “wanting more money” as the primary cause for leaving a job.
Rather than compensation, employees cited lack of flexibility, unempathetic bosses, team tension, lack of engagement, lack of appreciation, and lack of opportunities as bigger factors when leaving a position.
“Yeah, but schools are different,” some readers may be thinking. “When the district next door pays more money, employees will leave!”
Research indicates across all professions it takes a 20% pay increase for employees to leave jobs they love. Alternately, it takes a 0% pay increase for employees to leave jobs they hate. This means that a teacher making $50,000 would need to make $60,000 in another district to consider quitting.
Think about how your district salary structure compares to those around you. Certainly, if you are paying teachers 20% less than the neighboring district, it’s hard to blame teachers for leaving. However, my experience is that teacher compensation is fairly consistent across districts … meaning that money is rarely the deciding factor when employees choose to leave.
The lesson here is when employees feel valued, rarely will they leave a position just to make a few more dollars at the neighboring district.
When employees feel valued, rarely will they leave a position just to make a few more dollars at the neighboring district.
The challenges posed by the teacher shortage are undeniable.
However, by embracing a proactive recruitment mentality and establishing a culture of belonging, schools can transform themselves into magnets for talent.
Remember: the success any school district is less about the selection of quality initiatives and more about the selection of quality individuals.