In a different chapter of my career, as a college basketball coach, building successful teams was the ultimate goal.
In the off season, we scoured the local landscape, looking for talented players to contribute. We’d watch them play, introduce ourselves to their loved ones, organize official visits, and push for their commitment to join our program.
During the season, we focused our efforts on developing the team that we had on the roster. For us, this meant developing the individual skills of our players. It meant designing plays where their strengths were utilized. And it meant taking measures to build team unity and stoke positive chemistry.
Building successful teams is central to the job of any school administrator. I would argue that administrators who are serious about building winning teams, need to think and act more like highly competitive coaches.
Here's the game plan:
Retain the talent that you already have on your team. While teacher retention remains a challenge in the urban context, I know it can be done. Teachers and critical support staff will happily stick around if they feel 1) competent in their work 2) convinced they are making a difference, and 3) connected to their colleagues. Administrators can impact teacher competency through effective coaching and differentiated professional development plans. Administrators can bolster a teacher’s sense of purpose by pointing out the positive impact on students and connecting their efforts to the school’s compelling mission. Administrators can increase teacher’s sense of connectedness to their colleagues by devoting a portion of staff meetings to team-building activities and creating spaces where organic and positive connections among staff are likely to occur (think welcoming lunch room, surprise roller skating trip in lieu of staff meeting, or BBQ at the principal’s place).
Proactively recruit top pre-service teachers. Administrator Shawn Balnkenship, via The Connected Principal, puts it like this: “It’s simply impossible to improve a school by hiring average people.” Many would point to the limitations that exist, including union contracts, credentialing requirements, and district-level Human Resource (HR) protocol. But I strongly believe that we are going to have to start pushing against some of these boundaries. If we are expecting leaders in hard-to-staff schools to build winning teams, then we have to provide them greater flexibility in hiring. Some districts and schools are already getting creative. South Carolina just passed a bill that gives 42 high-poverty school districts money for out-of-the-box efforts that improve teacher recruitment and retention. My own ideas to attract top pre-service teachers include building relationships with key university staff who are supervising student teachers. I would leverage these relationships to identify top teaching talent and work to set up observations of prospective teachers during their full-year credentialing process. Just like we did with prospective college ‘hoopers,’ I would invite some of these top teachers to visit my site. I’d pitch our compelling vision and communicate our desire to see them apply. Finally, I’d work with HR to offer contracts on a timeline that rivals with neighboring districts. Currently, many large urban districts offer first year contracts to teachers late, late, late in the summer. By the time contracts are ready to be offered, some of the best up-and-coming teachers have committed to teach elsewhere. For the sake of our students, we can’t afford to lose top teaching talent.
Become the school that passionate, veteran teachers want to come to. Admittedly, this is a long play. But there’s also a reason many successful companies rely on referrals for business. Simply put: it works. When people have great experiences, they talk about it. They refer friends. And momentum builds. Steve Jobs relentlessly pushed Apple to provide “insanely great customer experiences” for this very reason. We are relational beings. Many teachers are uber relational. If we create schools where teachers feel competent in their work, convinced they are making a difference, and connected to their colleagues, then teacher retention will cease to become a pressing challenge. Teachers will refer one another to our schools.