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Praise vs. Raise: The Power of Positive Feedback

Teacher turnover is a hot topic in many school districts.

Nationwide the average teacher turnover rate is 16%. In low-income school districts, those numbers are closer to 25%. Not only is replacing staff time consuming and costly, teacher turnover negatively effects student achievement.

Districts often brainstorm ideas for limiting employee turnover. During these discussions, conversation tends to gravitate toward money. "Let's pay our staff a higher salary!" is one common belief. "Let's provide better health benefits!" is another.

Certainly, higher salaries and better health benefits never hurt. However, in K-12 education where teacher compensation packages are fairly consistent across districts, those theories don't hold much weight.

Rather than squeeze a few more dollars out of their alright-stretched budgets, districts would be wise to focus efforts on a simple approach that doesn't cost a penny: provide positive feedback.


The value in providing positive feedback to staff is well-documented. Positive feedback promotes workplace engagement, reinforces desirable behaviors, and boosts employee performance. Supervisors who provide specific, authentic feedback build trusting relationships with staff. Well-timed words of encouragement give employees a shot of confidence that can last for weeks - if not longer.

Positive feedback also plays a major role in employee retention. In Big Potential, Shawn Achor contends, "If employees receive four or more "touchpoints" of positive feedback in a quarter, retention rates increase to 96 percent over the next year."

Despite all of this evidence, data indicates leaders struggle to give positive feedback. Nearly 80 percent of supervisors claim they "frequently express appreciation" to employees. However, less than 20 percent of employees report that supervisors express appreciation "more than occasionally."

If your school or district were surveyed, would this same disconnect occur?


The following paragraphs contain ideas for giving positive feedback. However, please understand that praise is most effective when delivered in the context of a positive, healthy relationship. While these suggestions can do wonders for workplace culture, they cannot be done in isolation.

Without a healthy relationship, positive praise can seem fake and insincere. Perhaps you have seen a notoriously grouchy principal who was told “you need to be nicer” by a supervisor. Fearful he may lose his job, the principal starts forcing awkward compliments that don't make sense to recipients - only making matters worse.

Don’t be that boss.

Assuming you have already built the foundation for a strong relationship with your staff by consistently showing interest, engaging in meaningful conversation, and treating personnel with kindness ... let's continue.

Here are three ideas to provide meaningful, positive feedback to staff:

Classroom Visits: Leaders who visit classrooms regularly witness teachers doing some pretty amazing things. Thoughtful leaders seize the moment by ensuring teachers realize their work is truly special. Whether it be an email, handwritten note, or verbal feedback, leaders should be intentional about outlining those talents for the educator.

In strong relationships, positive comments outweigh negative comments at a rate of five to one. Consider the feedback you give to teachers when visiting classrooms. Are you looking for every opportunity to reinforce positive behavior? Or are you a pro at nitpicking the smallest teacher mistakes?

Handwritten Notes: In education, few things are better than handwritten notes of admiration. Leaders who really want to brighten someone's day take the time to write down the reasons why a staff member is special. You don't need to look further than teacher's bulletin boards and office spaces - where positive notes remain for years - to understand these messages are powerful.

There are very few rules when it comes to handwritten notes. What matters most is effort. While leaders agree handwritten notes are effective, they often lack the initiative to start the process. Starting small - such as writing three notes a week - helps form the habit. When they see the impact they are having on staff, leaders are often motivated to increase their output.

Birthday Emails: How many of you work for a boss who hands out birthday cards and all that is written is his or her name at the bottom? I was "that boss" until I heard that leaders should consider sending birthday emails to employees. I know ... emails can feel impersonal. But when working with 100-plus employees (as many school leaders do), efficiency is key.

Birthday emails takes some setup beforehand - so consider asking a a secretary to import all staff birthdays into your electronic calendar. Use the email not only to wish the employee a happy birthday, but go a step further by giving specific, positive praise to the individual. Who doesn't like reading heartfelt compliments on their special day?


When employees are happy at work, it takes a 20% pay increase for employees to leave.

When employees aren't happy at work, they will leave for no pay increase.

Given the standardized world of school salaries, don't assume money is the answer to teacher turnover issues.

Instead, focus on something that doesn't cost any money.

Focus on positive feedback.



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