Jacob Feldmann
Principal, Western Dubuque High School
Sham Bevel
Principal, Bayside Sixth Grade Campus
Derek Bellow
Principal, Liberty High School

Every March, students and educators alike look forward to the start of spring and the warmer weather, more daylight, and outdoor activities it brings. For principals, the season also signals that hiring is in full swing. To learn how school leaders are handling staffing for next year, Principal Leadership contacted Derek Bellow, the principal of Liberty High School in Las Vegas, NV, and the 2023 Nevada Principal of the Year; Sham Bevel, the principal of Bayside Sixth Grade Campus in Virginia Beach, VA, and the 2023 Virginia Principal of the Year; and Jacob Feldmann, the principal of Western Dubuque High School in Epworth, IA, and the 2023 Iowa Principal of the Year.

Principal Leadership: Tell us about staffing at your school. How has hiring been this school year?

Feldmann: At our rural school, we have about 108 staff members and a little over 900 students. I ended up being short one industrial tech teacher, a position that is still open. I hired a Spanish teacher and an art teacher this year, but we’re just not getting the number of applicants we used to. Ten years ago, we would have 30 to 50 applicants for each position, and today it’s two or three. The same holds true for support staff. I’m short one custodian right now. Salaries in our district are comparable to those in neighboring districts. But people are going into manufacturing and vocational jobs because let’s be honest, there are no degrees required, and no loans or debt that comes with it. My daughter wonders whether to pursue a career as a school counselor. Her starting salary would be $42,000 and her education for it would leave her $60,000 to $70,000 in debt. Or she could pursue something different and earn $60,000 to $70,000 a year and not have any debt.

Bellow: In Las Vegas, it’s not a whole lot different. It’s extremely difficult to find any applicants in special education, especially in a self-contained classroom. You oftentimes are left to make a really tough decision: Hire a candidate you’re really not in love with? Or potentially go with a long-term sub? I know neighboring principals who have literally gone months without an applicant for paraprofessional, instructional assistant, teacher aid, and night custodian positions. When the manager of a coffee shop chain down the street is making $80 to $90,000 a year, it’s hard to compete with that. What administrators are seeing across the country, especially out here in Nevada, is fewer and fewer kids enrolling in the college of education. And then once they get out, they have more options than the three of us had. They can teach online or in a private, charter, parochial, or public school. An alarming trend we’ve noticed with our millennials is they teach just enough years to get vested in their retirement—it’s five years in Nevada—and then they bolt and do something else. It really does come down to compensation. Children are our most important resource, yet we pay educators so poorly.

“As a school leader, you need to be aware of the mood of your building and continually find things to do to reward your staff.”

—Derek Bellow

Bevel: Overall, I didn’t have many vacancies to fill this year. But recently, I almost have to compromise what I normally would accept for open positions. Where normally I would have applicants with teaching experience and a degree related to education, now I’m reviewing applications of people with just a touch of experience in education. For example, a science teacher I was considering worked in a lab but had no education experience. Just because you worked in a lab doesn’t mean you would be a good teacher. But I found myself looking at that type of candidate because they had some experience in the science field rather than in education.

Principal Sham Bevel spends time with students in art class at Bayside Sixth Grade Campus. PHOTO COURTESY OF SHAM BEVEL

Principal Leadership: How are you trying to solve this problem?

Bevel: I’m focusing more on making my people happy so they don’t leave. I’m spending a lot of time listening and a lot of my energy just making sure we reward and acknowledge staff and talk about mental wellness. I also give them comp time whenever I can. Today there are so many career options with strong pay for this new generation. What it’s taken us a career to earn, they can earn in a few years. There must be incentives, like loan forgiveness, so people can feel like they will be okay, they’ll be supported, and they’ll be secure financially.

Feldmann: A key to retention is school culture. Once we get people here, they don’t leave. To attract new teachers, we share our success stories by using social media and showing videos. We’ve been a little more proactive in doing that these last couple of years. We make sure we show all the great things going on here. We also have a staff member whose only job is to work with brand new teachers in their first two years in the job. That person’s goal is to make new teachers feel supported, so they stay.

Bellow: We’ve had to become more aware of the incentives we offer. For example, every month we have some sort of faculty and staff recognition event. Recently, I brought a taco truck to campus. It was a half day for semester exams, so faculty and staff had time to enjoy this free lunch. A month before that, I had a coffee truck on campus one day for staff to enjoy a free beverage. Anything we can do to encourage teachers and support professionals to stay with us, we should do. As a school leader, you need to be aware of the mood of your building and continually find things to do to reward your staff. Otherwise, you’re going to lose them to another profession or to a school or district that does those extra special things that teachers and support professionals enjoy.

Principal Leadership: Can you share a recent success story in terms of recruitment and retention?

Bevel: I’d say just the fact that I am always able to staff our school is a success for me because I know there are a lot of buildings not fully staffed. Anytime you can fill a position is a good thing. I’ve still been able to fill positions with really good teachers. But a lot of that comes from selling the culture of your building while you are interviewing. Candidates have to be able to see themselves in your school because they will receive other offers.

The staff recognition committee at Liberty High School created a “Bellow bingo card,” with words and phrases that Principal Derek Bellow often uses in staff meetings. PHOTO COURTESY OF DEREK BELLOW

Feldmann: We are fortunate that the majority of our positions are filled. Success for me also includes having candidates experience our culture. When candidates come in, they feel it and they see how our kids act, and we give them the tours and we get into classrooms. Somebody might pay more, but candidates often find they want to work here because people stay here. People want to be a part of something that’s special.

“I’m spending a lot of time listening and a lot of my energy just making sure we reward and acknowledge staff and talk about mental wellness.”

—Sham Bevel

Bellow: We have to be not just instructional leaders but entertainment directors. Something our staff recognition committee created is a “Bellow bingo card,” with words and phrases I often use in staff meetings. For example, words such as, “late work policies, tardies, the name of another school, budget, and football,” are on the card. Staff members can play bingo during our meetings, and if they win, they receive gift cards. A principal has to be a psychologist, a counselor, and an entertainment director on a cruise ship at times. It’s more than just consistently taking the temperature of your building. It’s constantly coming up with new and innovative ways to engage and entertain your staff just for retention purposes. It’s no longer just being reasonable so far as letting someone cut out 20 minutes early for a doctor’s appointment or arriving to school a little late because they have to drop a child off at daycare. You’ve got to create and maintain a fun working climate or else risk losing people to another school or district that does have one.

Principal Leadership: Do you anticipate staffing challenges next school year?

Bevel: Every February, I receive my budget for staffing allocations letting me know how many teachers I’ll keep and how many I might lose. I also send out a Google form to staff to complete so I can see if staff members plan to stay. No one that I know of is leaving for next school year, but things happen. This is a military area. People’s husbands and wives move and shift so things could happen. It could change. But from what I know I’m not expecting to lose any of my core staff.

Feldmann: I have potentially some retirements and positions that I’m asking for. If we’re not out posting jobs by the end of January, we’re behind. There’s just such an increase in competition. Our superintendent has done a great job in helping us to get the ball rolling on hiring much earlier than when I first started 12 years ago. Back then, we were posting jobs in May. If you’re not staffed with teachers by the end of February, you’re behind.

Principal Jacob Feldmann is featured on the Facebook page for Western Dubuque Schools. Feldmann says his school has been more proactive in using social media to attract new teachers. PHOTO COURTESY OF JACOB FELDMANN

Bellow: I don’t anticipate that we’re going to lose too many people but obviously things happen over the summer. Somebody that didn’t anticipate moving has to move. Somebody may be thinking about going off into another profession and really hasn’t revealed that to us yet. But at this point, I don’t anticipate any retirements. But like I said, it’s always very fluid in our profession. Given my school’s size—we have 148 teachers and about 90 support professionals—I always anticipate that about 10 people between now and July will be elsewhere next school year. I just don’t know which 10 that’s going to be.

Principal Leadership: Why have you as a school leader chosen to remain in the principalship and in the profession?

Bevel: For me, it’s because of the kids. I get this jolt of energy from kids that I can’t get from anywhere else. They make me really understand why I do what I do. Every day there’s at least one situation that just stops me in my tracks and reminds me about the work. I was in the central office at one point and was not happy. I always say, “If not me, then who?” Until I feel like I can’t relate to them, and I don’t understand what’s going on, this is where I’ll be.

Feldmann: I feel very valued in this position. I truly enjoy sharing our success stories. I also think it’s important for me to build leadership within my leadership team, within our staff, within our students, and within our community as a whole. We’re a large school where there’s always lots of things going on, and I like that. As principal, I can help support the future.

“A key to retention is school culture. Once we get people here, they don’t leave.”

—Jacob Feldmann

Bellow: It’s the only thing outside of my family that I’ve ever loved to do. I don’t know anything else. I’ve had jobs in high school and jobs in college that I’ve worked. I can say that 28 years later, I’ve never once left my house and felt like I was going to work. When you get to be my age and say you still get to come to school, that’s a blessing. I’m in awe of the ability of this faculty and staff to reach kids. I’m constantly energized by that.