The best principals strive to create an environment in which teachers feel appreciated and, in turn, value their work and the school in which they work. However, teacher motivation and retention remain a constant challenge.

Teacher preparation programs have seen declining enrollment of up to 35 percent in recent years, and almost 10 percent of U.S. teachers leave the profession annually. A Gallup study of 7,272 U.S. adults showed that 50 percent had left their job to get away from their manager to improve their overall life at some point in their career. Exit surveys have long revealed that teachers want more administrative support to consider staying in the profession. What we know is that principal leadership matters to teachers, and focusing on leading better has the potential to motivate and retain teachers.

The Stark Reality

Hiring and retaining employees has to be framed appropriately. School leaders attempt to understand staff turnover by reflecting on the situation after the person has left. However, leaders need to view the situation according to what occurred before and during the hiring process. We offer a model that targets the specifics of motivating and retaining staff at each of these junctures.

The Hiring Process: Before, During, and After

Good readers inherently understand a well-known reading strategy called “before, during, and after” (BDA), which refers to what good readers do before reading, during reading, and after reading a selected text. This process involves readers who prepare themselves for the text of their choice by thinking about and connecting to prior knowledge beforehand; who think during reading by summarizing and pausing to improve comprehension; and who reflect on the content of what they read afterward. Those who use it have stronger reading success.

Comprehension isn’t just what follows the experience of reading. It’s the two-thirds of the process that good readers do to engage with a text before and during the experience that comprises the essence of the strategy. The same is true about employee motivation and retention. It’s not just about what we do for our current employees. We contend that two-thirds of employee motivation and retention happens before and during the hiring process. Consider implementing this three-step BDA hiring model (see graphic below).

Before You Hire

Recruit teachers who will add positivity to the culture of your school, and challenge them to be great for kids. The best thing we can do for teachers as principals is to help them improve their practice. If we don’t challenge them, we won’t change them.

1. Know the type of teacher you are looking for.

The first aspect of hiring teachers and motivating and retaining them is identifying a set of key attributes that you want in every teacher in your school. These characteristics are not skills or technical expertise, but rather the personal attributes necessary to complement the culture of the school.

  • A positive attitude: Look for teachers who see possibilities, not barriers, for students.
  • A desire to grow: Look for teachers who crave feedback, both formally and informally, so that they can grow.
  • A strong work ethic: Look for teachers with the willingness to dedicate the time it takes to engage young people.

2. Know what you need for the specific vacancy.

Determine the skills, expertise, and certifications that you require of a new teacher. These are not experiences, but rather talents, a track record, and a pattern of excellence (such as applying their talents in previous locations or in preservice placements).

3. Outline a clear vision and core values.

Teachers are motivated by the “why” of their school more than they are by money or fame. Your organization’s vision should be clearly communicated. Your values should be something that attracts applicants.

4. Communicate the role of the job when posting.

Ensure that the job posting clearly communicates the first three aspects above; it should not be generic. It should communicate the desired personality traits, the skills necessary for success, and the school’s vision and core values.

During the Hiring Process

Think of teacher recruitment as an investment. It will take some time, but student success is the ultimate goal.

1. Go slowly.

Most districts consider a vacancy to be urgent and hire fast to fill the void. Take time to be sure that you’re getting the right person on the team. Imagine all the work you’ll do if the person isn’t a good fit and needs “endless rounds of feedback and a painful performance improvement plan,” says Greg McKeown in his Harvard Business Review piece on “being absurdly selective” when hiring.

2. Be creative in your interview process.

The typical question-and-answer format of interviewing really isn’t effective enough to scout out talent. Consider holding group interviews; panel interviews; speed-dating-style interviews; and first, second, and third rounds of questioning to narrow your selection to the very best person.

3. Include a performance task.

Never hire anyone before seeing the product of their labor. It’s best when you can see them in action; when that’s not possible, provide mock scenarios or request sample lesson plans.

4. Communicate the role of the job through interview questions.

Before hiring, the communication comes in the job posting. During the hiring process, it occurs through interview questions. Create unique questions that reflect the vacancy. The questions themselves should be tailored to the role that you’re trying to fill in terms of the personal attributes, talents, and core values that you want the person to have.

After You Hire

We became school leaders to make a difference. Choose impact over compliance when it comes to supporting teachers.

1. Provide pressure and support for growth.

People desire growth and progress. A culture of growth has a balance of pressure and support. High expectations grounded in support and encouragement yield results. School leaders who think they are supportive but haven’t set high expectations are simply supporting the status quo. The leader who applies pressure but doesn’t provide the needed supports and resources creates burnout. The result of a high-pressure, highly supportive work environment is extreme growth.

2. Increase productivity by being present and using praise.

Relationships are everything. Leaders have to build connections with people, which means spending more time with teachers in their classrooms (not in offices or conference rooms). When you’re present as a leader, it’s easy to find quick moments to praise the work that people are doing. Being present and giving praise in the moment leads to productivity at a new level; and productive, happy teachers are more apt to stay at their schools.

3. Balance risk and autonomy to unlock innovation.

“Any sector of business depends and thrives on fresh, original thinking; taking chances; and exploring new ideas,” notes Val DiFebo on in an article titled “The One Thing Every Company Gets Wrong About Innovation.” Teaching is no different. Leaders who support new ideas, encourage risk-taking, and praise out-of-the-box thinking drive innovation. Teaching is an art and that needs to be supported, encouraged, and honored. This environment creates highly motivated and loyal people who are apt to try new strategies, create new lessons, and find unique ways to reach every student.

4. Communicate the role of the job-performance appraisals.

The final aspect of teacher motivation and retention comes through the use of performance appraisal systems. Teachers crave feedback. This feedback should be aligned to the goals of the school and district. It should be frequent and easy to implement. We call for frequent walk-throughs, quality feedback, and more face-to-face meetings about performance. The appraisal system must continue to communicate to the teachers about their role long after they are hired, and it should support their sense of belonging through a refocus on their purpose each time you meet one-on-one.

Getting to Simple

Teacher motivation and retention doesn’t have to be complicated. It takes planning and preparation to inspire and hold on to top talent. Don’t just reflect on teacher retention after an employee has left; instead, be proactive and consider driving change by developing a plan for before and during the hiring process.

We must plan to recruit and retain great teachers. A vision without a plan is a hallucination.

T.J. Vari, EdD, is assistant superintendent of secondary schools and district operations in the Appoquinimink School District in Middletown, DE. Joe Jones, EdD, is director of assessment and accountability at the New Castle County Vocational Technical School District in Wilmington, DE. Salome Thomas-EL is principal of Thomas Edison Charter School in Wilmington, DE.