Culture Is for Keeps

Topics: Assistant Principals, Teacher Effectiveness

Teachers are an administrator’s strongest asset, and job satisfaction and school culture are critical factors when it comes to staff retention. APs play a definitive role in creating and maintaining a positive school climate, according to a research review published in April 2021 by Vanderbilt University/Mathematica and commissioned by The Wallace Foundation.

From professional development to support and reinforcement, APs have multiple strategies at their disposal to keep teacher morale high:

1. Offer practical PD. Professional development should mirror teachers’ daily tasks, says Heather Williams, now principal of Perrit Primary School in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, and it should be made available in innovative, accessible ways. As an assistant principal at Warren Dupree Elementary, Williams offered teachers the opportunity to learn from their colleagues. “We were intentional with how we partnered teachers, aligning area(s) of strength and growth,” she says. “At times, teachers would co-teach or model lessons. This not only allowed teachers [to learn] from those within our building, but it built a culture of collaboration, collective efficacy, and true ‘ownership’ of all of our students.”

2. Model the mission. Communicating the school’s shared mission and vision is essential to building a culture of retention, says Michael L. Saylor, Ph.D., education associate of school leadership at the Delaware Department of Education. But clarity and purpose doesn’t mean much if school leaders can’t show others the way. “Creating a school culture and climate starts with building relationships with all stakeholders,” he says. “To build relationships, it’s important to be present—modeling your school’s core values while promoting innovative instruction, care of students, and equitable access for all students.”

Communicating the school’s shared mission and vision is essential in building a culture of retention.

3. Give teachers a break. Jayda Pugliese, principal of St. Mary Interparochial School in Philadelphia, teaches one period each week in every grade level as a way to demonstrate her support for teachers. “I’m a new principal—a young principal,” she told Education Week. “[I wanted them to know] I’m going to put in the work to support them in any capacity.” When Pugliese takes over, teachers can use the time to catch up on work or stay to observe the lesson.

4. Recognize and reward. Hoover City Schools in Alabama shares news of significant happenings and outstanding work with the central office so administrators have the opportunity to visit classrooms and recognize great teaching. Additional practices include the use of social media to share teacher talent with the community, submitting talented teachers for outside awards and recognitions, and recognizing a teacher of the year from every school.

5. Share the love. It all comes down to culture, Williams says—create an environment in which teachers feel valued, and more of them will stay with a school longer. “[It’s] my job to ensure that we find ways to develop a school culture in which all who walk through our doors feel loved,” she says. “Our parents should feel confident that their child is loved and safe while in our care. My students should know that their school is a place they feel loved, safe, and are held to high expectations of learning. [And] My teachers should feel supported, loved, and valued as they enter our building.”

Belinda Lichty Clarke is director of alumni engagement at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and a freelance writer based in Evanston, Illinois.