How a Rural, High-Poverty School Keeps Staffing Steady

Culture proves to be the key to recruiting and keeping teachers.

Topics: Equity and Diversity, Teacher Effectiveness

Cumberland County Elementary School (CCES) is a pre-K–4 Title 1 elementary school in an economically depressed area of rural Virginia. We have about 525 students, all of whom eat free meals. The experience of our staff varies; some are just starting out in teaching, and some have more than 30 years under their belts. Some travel an hour to get to work.

Like most schools, CCES is battling a teacher shortage in multiple content areas. But attracting new teachers
to the area is challenging. We have little to offer 20-
somethings looking for social opportunities outside of work. Nightlife—aside from school and community events—is nonexistent. The few restaurants offer mostly pizza or family dining, and there is little access to cultural attractions such as museums, theaters, or concerts.

Additionally, Cumberland County has few affordable housing options and inadequate internet service. A Dollar General Market store opened recently, providing some fresh produce and meat, but there is no real grocery store. While we advocate continually for funding to increase salaries and benefits, we struggle to compete with larger or more affluent areas.

Nonetheless, CCES has been fully staffed at the start of every year—even when it reopened after the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t know of many schools that can say that.

Prioritizing Staff

CCES prioritizes its staff, striving to create a culture and climate in which they feel welcome and supported. We recognize that each staff member is unique and value what each person brings to the table.

We believe we have created an environment in which staff can explore, take risks, and innovate, and this aids staff retention. We encourage staff to tap into their passions and find outside-the-box ways to connect with students.

CCES also finds ways to connect with its staff to ensure that they feel valued and appreciated, using The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People by Gary Chapman and Paul White as a mentor text.

We also celebrate staff in a variety of ways: Staff shoutouts in our newsletters, surprise Treat Days, possession of the CCES Game Ball, a Staff Member of the Week, high-fives, handwritten notes home (with confetti), and notes to family members and significant others. These efforts make memorable moments for staff and students alike.

We put our people first, taking the time to really know the staff. We want to know about their families, their goals, their hobbies, and how we can support the whole teacher.

An Aligned Mission

Despite being a high-poverty school in a rural area, with limited wraparound services and without a competitive starting salary or benefits package, we remain fully staffed year after year. We think it’s because our recruiting and retention strategy aligns with the school’s mission.

Every day during the morning announcements, we read: “At Cumberland Elementary, character counts. Our motto is: Dukes are …


Schoolwide expectations drive the “Duke Experience.” We embrace this as we grow together as a school family. By embedding expectations in all aspects of our school life, we create a sense of belonging. This contributes to our success in staff recruitment and retention.

Learning to Lead

As principal, I read, learn, and network constantly. I have borrowed ideas from other principals through books, podcasts, and social media, and I made them work for CCES. We don’t have a parent-teacher organization or group that assists; it’s all us. Our administration takes the lead, and we have had several staff members contribute to the positive culture.

I always said that once I became an administrator, I would never forget what it was like to be a teacher. I have high expectations for our team, but I lead with empathy. I believe this contributes to our success in retaining staff, and that ultimately supports recruitment. If a potential hire tours the school, I step back, and our staff and students seal the deal.

As an administrator, I learned that relationships matter. I’ve learned that being transparent, honest, and authentic earns trust. Occasionally someone won’t like one of my decisions, but they generally trust that I made the decision for the right reasons. This wasn’t always the case; I had to “walk the talk” for quite a while. That led to another lesson: Never give up!

Creating an environment in which students and staff thrive, where caregivers are welcomed, and where every member of the school family belongs was my No. 1 priority from the outset. There had been six changes in school leadership during the nine years leading up to my appointment as principal. With change comes uncertainty, and gaining trust from the staff was challenging—in part because I was learning to lead, and in part because of the many changes of the guard.

I leaned on more experienced leaders and learned from the best. I often wonder if I would still be leading if I hadn’t connected with so many leaders in Virginia and beyond through professional organizations, Twitter/X, and Facebook groups. My professional learning network suggested books and blogs that provided a wealth of information and ideas.

Being able to private message another leader to discuss concerns, share ideas and resources, and get feedback was critical; principals need affirmation, too! No matter how crazy an idea might seem, there’s always someone in my personal learning network who is pushing the limits and moving mountains.

Connecting With the Community

Creating a positive culture requires an investment in strengthening relationships with families and the community, which also influence school culture and climate. I model this by writing more notes home and making more positive phone calls than anyone on the staff.

I make connections in any way I can, including visiting homes, appearing at community events, providing opportunities for community partners and caregivers to participate in events, and more. Our staff shares the same commitment.

When schools closed during COVID-19, for example, our staff jumped in their cars and delivered books and other materials to students. Some taught lessons in their yards, which we nicknamed “lawn learning.”

We learned a lot during the pandemic, but the biggest thing was the importance of the strong relationships we had established with CCES families and the trust that they had in us when we showed up on their doorsteps.

Consistency Counts

Consistency is critical to student success, and because we retain over 90 percent of staff annually, the students and community benefit. Most of our students are proud to be Dukes, and Duke Pride can be seen throughout the area.

It’s a great feeling when a student transfers into CCES and shares how much more they enjoy being a Duke. I think that says more about our school than our rural ZIP code.

Virginia Gills is principal of Cumberland Elementary School in Cumberland, Virginia.