Other schools might be having trouble filling staff vacancies, but that’s not an issue at Haines City High School in Polk County, FL. We’ve been fully staffed since before the pandemic, and I don’t expect that to change.

One of the big reasons is that we have a number of alumni—54, at latest count—who have returned to work at our school not only as teachers, but as paraprofessionals, administrative assistants, and long- and short-term substitutes. One of our assistant principals is even a graduate of Haines City.

It wasn’t like that when I became principal in 2015. At the time, we had a lot of discipline referrals, a high dropout rate, and below average attendance. Like many other schools, our biggest challenge was having enough certified staff every period and every day, so teachers weren’t working overtime simply covering the vacancies.

We turned things around by implementing a new positive behavior system that stresses clear expectations for staff as well as students. We knew the expectations we wanted to set. Then we spent time teaching and modeling them and then rewarding students for meeting them. We really focused on relationship building. That helped promote a positive culture, which made the school a good place for teaching and learning.

And the impact on staffing was striking: 27 of the 54 alumni now on staff were students when I was principal. The main reason students tell us they come back is that they had a such a good experience that they wanted to build a career here. The cool thing is that about half of those staff are substitute teachers who are working toward earning their bachelor’s degrees so they can return to teach full time. We really work with them so they can make some money, get some experience, and complete their college work.

This new teacher pipeline just started in the last two years. But I expect many more teachers to come through it. During the school year, I hold four meetings with seniors to discuss all kinds of topics. One thing I tell them is that it might sound crazy now, but all of you are going off to work, to college, or to the military. And I say: “I would love for you to return to Haines City High School, be on my staff, work with me, and help me improve the school.” Some of them are already planning on it, and they’re excited about coming back here to teach next to some of their favorite teachers.

The best part about hiring former students is that they are already familiar with everything. They know the vision of the school, our mission, and our expectations. They understand the campus and our students. You can teach new staff a lot, but the kids that were here for four years already know so much, and that’s what makes them such powerful teachers. They understand what students need. And now instead of being my students, they are my co-workers. We both love that.

We also have a very strong support system for new teachers through our teacher ambassador program. The ambassadors (experienced teachers) and the new teachers get to know each other before school starts, and then they usually meet once a week during the year. New teachers participate in the program for two years. Even after they finish that first year, they still need help that second year. We’ve found that this type of support increases the chances that they’ll stay at our school.

I think our approach has worked. In the seven years I’ve been here, our discipline referrals have dropped 40 percent. Attendance is up, and our graduation rate, even in the wake of the pandemic, is up about 20 percent since 2015. When behavior referrals go down, teacher retention goes up. And when teacher retention goes up, the graduation rate goes up. It’s all connected.

At Haines City, we’ve created a culture where kids want to come to school, and teachers want to come to work. That doesn’t happen automatically.

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