From left: Adam Lane, principal of Haines City High School, meets with teachers Jennifer Ayala and Candy Morris.

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 that hasn’t changed, including this school year when I was again able to hire enough teachers.

One of the big reasons is that we have a number of alumni—almost 60, 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.

The impact on staffing was striking: 27 of the alumni now on staff were students when I was principal. The main reason students tell us they come back is that they had such a good experience that they wanted to build a career here. The cool thing is that about half of those staff members 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.

In fact, one of our new English teachers this year had been a substitute here for four years while she worked on earning her bachelor’s degree. We were able to hire her once she earned that degree.

Building a Pipeline

This new teacher pipeline just started in the last three 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 them 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 alongside some of their favorite teachers.

For those who really show interest in an education career, we have what we call student aid positions. If they are a junior or senior on track to graduate, and they have an extra period, we let them shadow a teacher or other staff member so they can get some experience and see what the job is really like. We found that can really motivate them to want to come back because they already have seen what the job is like.

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 who 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 don’t have issues with retention, either. I think the key to that is relationships. If they were students who loved coming to school, loved the climate, and loved their teachers, that encourages them to have their own students one day and give them that same positive experience. But let’s face it: You can’t build a pipeline unless you have a product that people like. Don’t waste your time building a pipeline if you don’t have a school where people want to teach.

We also have a very strong support system for new teachers through our teacher ambassador program (see the sidebar below). The ambassadors (experienced teachers) and the new teachers get to know each other before school starts—they meet as a group once a week during the year, but also informally with their mentor more often. 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%. Attendance is up, and our graduation rate, even in the wake of the pandemic, is up about 20% 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.

Adam Lane is the principal of Haines City High School in Haines City, FL, and the 2022 Florida Principal of the Year.

Sidebar: A Helping Hand Boosts Teacher Retention

Jennifer Ayala taught for eight years, most recently at a middle school, before being hired to teach English at Haines City High School for the 2022–23 school year. All new teachers, whether in their first year or just new to the school, participate in the new teacher ambassador program that principal Adam Lane credits for the school’s high teacher retention rate.

“When I first got into education, there wasn’t a program like this,” says Ayala, a Class of 2000 graduate of Haines City. “I struggled a bit when I first started, and I think this would have helped me with that. Whether you’re new to the school or new to teaching, you have so many questions, so it’s nice to know you have people you can go to who are willing to take the time to show you the ropes.”

At Haines City, those two experienced ambassadors are Candy Morris, who has been involved in the program since it began three years ago, and James Schick, who is new to it this year.

“We’re really there for emotional support,” says Morris, who teaches science. “We’ve made it known we’re a shoulder to cry on. It’s safe to come to us and no one is going to judge them. We have no role in evaluations.”

Morris and Schick have formal meetings twice a month with the new teachers, with one of them just for those new to the profession. Then there are plenty of informal check-ins, one-on-one meetings, and impromptu advice chats.

“My passion is to build relationships with people, so this really fits right in with what I love to do anyway,” says Schick, who teaches English. “It is extra work on top of what I do, but I really enjoy it. We just want them to know that somebody is checking on them and that somebody cares. I think that makes a huge difference.”

Todd Stevenson is not a typical new teacher, but he appreciates the program as well as the generally welcoming atmosphere at the school. “Everybody who works there is great at helping other people out,” says Stevenson, who teaches environmental science. He’s a disabled veteran who got into teaching in his 50s after completing a government-funded retraining program. “The program has been fantastic. They support us greatly with whatever we need.”

While the new teachers benefit from the support and advice they receive from their experienced colleagues, Morris says the program also helps her learn new things and feel refreshed. “I’ve been teaching for nine years, and it’s nice looking through those new-teacher eyes again and seeing the excitement that comes with it. I love the satisfaction of making someone’s day and making them feel relieved. We let them know they’re not alone and everything they are feeling is normal.”

Dan Gursky is a freelance education writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.