If You Can't Say Something Nice...

Updated: Sep 29

Each spring, teachers have an opportunity to decide whether or not to return the following year.


Most staff stay. Some staff leave.

There are many theories on how to limit employee turnover. One common hypothesis is to increase teacher salaries. "If we pay our staff more money they will stay!"

Another theory is to offer better health insurance. “I heard her new district has great health benefits - no wonder she left!”

Certainly, higher salaries and better benefits don't hurt. However, in K-12 education where teacher compensation is fairly consistent across districts, those theories don’t hold much weight.

Rather than dig deep into their pockets, districts are wise to focus efforts on an approach that doesn't cost a penny:

Providing positive feedback.

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In Big Potential, Shawn Achor argues providing positive feedback is one of the best ways to retain employees: "If employees receive four or more "touchpoints" of praise or positive feedback in a quarter, their retention rates increase to 96 percent over the next year (compared to 80 percent without)."

Many school leaders contend they give plenty of positive feedback. Take one quick scroll through social media and you would think every school leader is a master of staff appreciation.

As much as administrators believe they praise staff for a job well done, teachers often feel neglected when it comes to hearing words of encouragement.

One study found more than 80% of supervisors claim they "frequently express appreciation" to employees. Contrast those numbers to the opinions of employees, of which only 20% report feeling valued at work.

Does this disconnect exist in your district?

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When I was an Assistant Principal we lost one of our best teachers to another school. As I explored his reasons for leaving, it turns out this teacher never felt appreciated. He indicated he rarely received positive feedback from school leadership, which led him to question his teaching abilities.

Alternately, this teacher indicated his new school made him feel special. Not only did he feel good being courted by another district who "wanted him," he admitted feeling a level of professional confidence he had not felt before.

I was devastated. Why did I never take two minutes to let this teacher know he was doing a fantastic job? I will never forget losing this outstanding employee to another building due to a lack of positive feedback.

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There are countless ways school leaders can provide positive feedback to staff.


One opportunity for providing positive feedback is classroom visits. Rather than build teachers' confidence during walkthroughs, too many administrators nitpick and focus on what isn't going well. They love to point out areas for improvement (often disguised as "reflective questions").


Did you realize to build a strong relationship the number of positive comments must outweigh negative remarks by five to one? In other words, it takes five compliments to undo the harm caused by a single criticism. Leaders who render criticism to great teachers must be selective in their feedback or risk harming the relationship.


Another approach for promoting positive feedback is getting postcards in the hands of employees and encouraging them to write handwritten notes to other employees. Once a system is established, positive notes can be a game-changer. Few things are better than opening up the mailbox and getting something positive in the mail.


Finally, here is a great habit to consider: Birthday Gratitudes.


Yes, most leaders recognize employees on their birthday. Unfortunately most bosses simply write their name and call it good. Nothing more. How impersonal!


Instead, consider sending individualized birthday emails or handwritten notes to every employee. Letters provide the perfect opportunity to wish an employee happy birthday while also providing specific, positive feedback on what the employee means to the district.


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Recent studies have measured the pay increases companies must offer to lure workers away from competitor. When employees feel valued, it can take up to a 20% pay increase before they think about leaving. Alternately, employees who do not feel valued may leave for a very minimal pay increase.


The next time your district discusses improving teacher retention, don't assume money is the answer.


Instead, recognize staff members for a job well done.

Copyright © 2019 by Dr. Jared Smith LLC.  Specializing in Leadership, Education, and Personal Growth.