A Clear-Cut Priority: Secure Top Talent And Diversity

Recruiting and retaining top-notch faculty and staff—they’re among the most important tasks with which a school leader is charged. Today, the role comes with another key responsibility: ensuring outreach to and hiring of a diverse workforce.

We explored this issue with a roundtable of current and former principals, including Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker campus in West Philadelphia, PA; Trevor Greene, 2013 NASSP National Principal of the Year and executive director of human resources of Highline Public Schools in the state of Washington; and Brad Seamer, assistant principal at Harrisburg High School in South Dakota.

Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion in August.

Levin-Epstein: How would you assess the current situation in terms of recruitment and retention of teachers? 

Greene: Without a doubt, there is a shortage of teachers, and the situation has worsened over the last decade. Of the 295 school districts statewide, 1 of 5 principals in Washington state is in crisis mode, as far as trying to find enough highly qualified educators to teach and reach students who need the “best and brightest.” Districts must allocate sufficient resources to strategically locate and recruit the best educators. They must also develop and implement retention plans to keep them, as it does no good to fill positions only to lose just as many—or more—at the end of each year.

In Highline Public Schools, the school board set policy around diversity, and that commitment finds expression in the belief that “a staffing composition … that is representative of the diversity in the district is paramount … to achieve equity and diversity.” The result has been an increase in diverse hires, from 13.43 percent to over 40 percent, this year. I attribute our increases to district prioritization and support of recruitment, selection, development, and retention of diverse, highly trained educators.

El-Mekki: I would agree. I think things are getting worse. I know in the context of Pennsylvania, the number has dropped significantly, as far as people in teacher education programs. Not only are there less people taking on or pursuing certification in education, [but] when you’re talking about diversity, it’s some of the worst in the country. In 2014, only 28 black males, for example, graduated from Pennsylvania’s teacher colleges. National trends at teacher preparation programs highlight a dramatic decrease in the number of students majoring in education, as well as those who graduate with degrees in education. Pennsylvania’s data is, unfortunately, very consistent with this national trend. Since the fall of 1996, the number of students enrolled in Pennsylvania’s bachelor’s degree programs in education has decreased by 55 percent.

Seamer: In the past two years in South Dakota it’s been better, essentially since we passed the sales tax and most of the high schools were able to pay their teachers more. We were able to bump our incoming pay for our new teachers. Prior to that it was really difficult to find any teachers, especially in your core classes-English, science, or math classes. Prior to working at Harrisburg, I was working at a smaller school district in Salem, SD, and if I had three or four people apply for a position I was feeling pretty good about it. Harrisburg, where I am currently working, is a larger district, it’s in a better location, so people want to apply here, and we have better numbers applying. We receive 30 to 40 applications for hard-to-fill spots, and we get quite a few for the easier-to-fill spots. It’s been better the last couple of years, but it’s still a struggle to get the high-quality applicants that you would like to have.

Diversity Issues

Levin-Epstein: What has been your experience in terms of reaching out to diverse communities?

Greene: Highline Public Schools serve five communities where more than 100 languages are spoken, and teachers that come from within district boundaries strengthen our entire system. We reflected and recognized that most instructional aides, or paraprofessionals, live in the district. This prompted intentional partnerships with Western Washington University and Teamsters Local 763—a union representing paraprofessionals—to design career ladders to encourage and support members to teach in the classroom while fulfilling their current job responsibilities.

Teamster 763/HPS professional growth funds are used to reimburse union members for college courses that we now offer within the district. As a result, support staff members become teachers. This “grow-your-own” pipeline reaches and supports our area community members, who represent the diversity and experiences of our students. In terms of general outreach to diverse communities, we’ve increased district visibility and made district branding a priority, as we promise to know each student by “name, strength, and need.” We participate in area networks [such as the Puget Sound Diversity Employment Networking meetings] and form connections that, for some, have led to “alternative routes” of certification to become a teacher. We also attend Annual Diversity Employment Day Career Fairs, advertise in Vietnamese press and other language publications, coordinate with the Martinez Fellowship Program, and are present at every back-to-school fair in our service areas to encourage families and other community members to apply for positions within Highline.

El-Mekki: Education majors as a whole have dropped by 55 percent since 1996. As far as African-American enrollment, for example, that has decreased by 60 percent. And that’s continuing. I agree with the “grow-your-own” strategy; our network of schools has partnered with alternative certification programs like Relay Graduate School of Education to try to get more of our graduates to look at education as a viable and valuable career. That’s had some success, and then we’ve also had a lot of support in starting an organization called The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice to also try to recruit and retain and support current and aspiring black male educators in our region and across the country.

Too often districts will say, “the door is open,” but they are not assertive about recruiting and retaining. When you want to recruit black educators, for example, you should ensure that the recruitment team you have is diverse, for starters. You should also ensure that white privilege is checked. The amount of times that qualified black people can’t get through the door simply because they don’t sound or look like the recruiter is undermining to the idea of diversifying. When schools and districts are serious about creating environments that will increase retention, they will make cultural context, proficiency, and awareness a yearly priority—not a once-in-a-blue-moon, hour-long professional development [session].

Seamer: As far as trying to get diversity, that’s a really huge challenge in South Dakota. I have zero applicants who come from a diverse background or minority groups. We’re 99 percent white here. We’d love to have more diversity … but just from our selection pool, we just don’t have the applicants. We are trying to work with our colleges here in state and our neighboring states on the borders to try to recruit those, but right now that’s a big struggle for us.

Success Strategies

Levin-Epstein: What techniques do you use to recruit teachers? 

Greene: Regarding recruitment, each day we screen all certificated pools in our applicant tracking system, check for inquiries of interest from our website, and search through a robust referral system. We post positions on the state principal association website, as well as other regional, national, and university sites. Information is pushed out on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and our own revamped webpage (jobs.highlineschools.org).

The biggest change, however, has been district support in recognizing that human resources has a great impact on student achievement by securing top-tier, prepared talent. A redesign of the employee services division within HR allowed us to build out a workforce planning and development division to recruit exceptional talent. By engaging with Edie Harding, senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we secured fiscal support to engage in the central office reform work of Dr. Meredith Honig of the University of Washington and achieved a budget-neutral restructure. What started two years ago as two people dedicated to workforce selection, onboarding, development, and retention expanded to seven people, including three human resource partners who engage with principals as thought partners and human resource advisers.

By setting strategic goals, tracking progress toward outcomes, and dedicating staff to individualized outreach partner support with principals, we’ve implemented school-specific strategies for teacher recruitment, selection, development, and retention. The human resource partner role has been a difference-maker, as in-depth knowledge of each building, principal, and site annual action plan has served to recruit for school, department, and team needs beyond the subject matter.

The best place to address equity and social justice is in the classroom, so we need teachers who understand, firsthand, the plight of our students in today’s increasingly contentious and unforgiving national climate while maintaining high expectations. HR must support principals, therefore, by continuing to secure well-prepared, socially conscious, diverse applicants. The Highline focus to diversify the workforce, and have students see themselves in the faces of their teachers, continues to raise the bar in the greater Seattle area, as the achievement of our latest educators exceeds those of past, less-diverse cohorts.

El-Mekki: Those are great comments. I totally agree with that. We’ve also given very specific and deliberate feedback to our HR departments and, really, we feel that sometimes people are screened out because recruiters may not have the cultural context and awareness necessary to recruit a diverse talent pool. Recruitment teams actually need deep professional development around cultural context. Too often people think it is just teachers who need this professional development.

We’ve also started high school chapters of The Fellowship to really have conversations with diverse youth a lot earlier, and [we’re] not waiting until they actually graduate from college to say, “Hey, have you thought about XYZ?” What we do is we create pathways for graduates and folks attending college to have opportunities to engage with schools, whether it’s teaching in summer school or mentoring or tutoring, as well as high school chapters of The Fellowship.

We do a lot of advocacy and just engaging with partners. There’s a group in Philadelphia called Graduate! Philadelphia—this nonprofit supports students who are interested in re-entry into college. They may have some credits but never finished. [We’re] speaking to them and engaging with them about not only going back, but considering education as a field that they return to. I already spoke about alternative certification programs, but we also use the internet. We have a website, 1000×2025.org, that we use. We’re very active on social media—Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—as well to get people to think about issues. And then we also have a “Why I Teach” tour, where teachers go around visiting high schools to share with them ideas about why they chose teaching as a profession and how to do it.

Then we do things like a series of blogging and op-ed articles as well to really try to influence the pipeline as much as possible. I began blogging to raise awareness about issues from a black man’s perspective about educational issues. Lastly, I would say we have “convening” so people can see that there is support; we have these quarterly convenings that bring a diverse group of educators to network and receive professional development and support that we’ve also found to help with recruitment and retention.

Seamer: In the rural areas, especially out here in South Dakota, we really lean heavily on our relationships with higher education and the university partnerships that we are trying to develop. In my current district here in Harrisburg, we try to get as many student teachers in as we can to build those partnerships and build those relationships with those new teachers coming through the system. [We] try to get them in our building, try to find the ones that would be the best fit for our districts. Then we try to just be involved as much as we can in recruiting new teachers within our area—the ones that we can groom, that we can work with, that we can get in the pipeline—and hopefully get back to our district. Mainly, I just focus on that relationship piece. The few teachers that we get in through our pipeline, we try to grow as much as we can and help build that relationship.

Levin-Epstein: If you’re not getting the candidates you want, what do you think is the major reason for that? 

Greene: A variety of factors play into securing the best candidates, and we’ve committed to be positively known by education programs throughout the state, which can lead to early hiring from highly qualified, diverse cadres. What has hindered us in getting candidates has been internal budgetary issues, which cause delays in hiring and result in losing staff to neighboring districts. Other contributing factors are competitive offers through signing bonuses in other districts, a shortage of applicants in “hard-to-fill” positions (like special education and dual-language), and late vacancies caused by medical issues, relocation, or promotion-​related contract releases.

When we do have authority to hire early, then we’re able to fill our positions, but it’s not the same for every district in our area. Because they have such a big job, it can be challenging for principals to concentrate as much as they would like to on effective recruitment and outreach to future educators. We need to do more as a system across the country in our HR departments to help find and secure the best candidate pools for our principals. Superintendents must prioritize fiscal support for building out recruitment teams, as strategic recruitment, effective hiring, and intentional retention work are levers that positively improve a school culture and impact student achievement.

El-Mekki: I think there’s a lot more competition for folks with degrees. I know in the black community it was kind of teacher-preacher, and there were a lot more doors closed. I think as a lot more doors open, people started looking at other potential professions. For a lot of black and brown students, they have poor experiences, negative experiences in schools, so it’s less likely they are going to choose a profession that had such a negative impact on them in their youth. Often, teaching is looked at as a largely white female profession, so it may not even get the initial attention or initial look from a lot of our students. I think the expense of certification and advanced degrees for a lot of first-time college attendees can be a barrier, so not having enough forethought in financial aid and incentives from that range can have a really tremendous negative impact on people looking, investigating, and choosing education as a profession.

Seamer: I’m echoing a lot of the same sentiments as my colleagues here. We have very low employment right now in South Dakota, in that we have a huge shortage of workers across the board, not just in education. We have a lot of competition from Sioux Falls, of which we are a neighboring community, and they’re begging for workers and they’re paying quite well, so we’re having a hard time getting those high-quality teachers in when they’re being recruited heavily by the Sioux Falls School District. And industry [also pulls potential teacher candidates]—you know, if they’re a science teacher, they have that background, they are being recruited by private industry. We just can’t afford to pay them the salaries that they are being offered in these other locations. It certainly comes down to dollars and being able to pay for the quality of staff we want with that diversity background.

Relationships Matter

Levin-Epstein: If you were advising other principals on three important things to keep in mind in terms of retention of teachers, what would they be?

Seamer: Basically, I stress relationships when I talk to a new principal and to the education field. Start those working relationships with those teachers; see what they need, see what supports they need. If they’re struggling in the area, find that resource for them, give them the mentor that they need and the lead-in to it having a district mentoring program for a new teacher. Get them connected with a veteran teacher that can help them answer questions that you as an administrator probably can’t do, so they have that trusted person that they can go to. But really, you’ve got to key in to relationships, and I try, even in a big school, to find time to talk to teachers as much as I can, ask them how they are doing, see what kind of support they need so they feel valued and that we appreciate the job they are doing in our school.

El-Mekki: I totally agree with what Brad just said around support and professional development—ongoing professional development that ties directly back into their practice. Too often, it’s like these one-offs that don’t have a sustained impact on their success in the classroom. When people leave a job (and this includes schools), a significant number of them, when you look at exit surveys, talk about their relationships with their principals/direct supervisor. Making that a priority to make that [relationship] a very positive experience is vital for not only retention, but also recruitment for other folks, because word gets around if people have negative relationships.

With a high expectation of support, people are going to feel like they’re involved in a dynamic profession, and so the expectations need to be high as well as the support that’s provided. I think [it’s] the idea of distributed leadership—that colleagues can look and say, “You know what, that colleague is high-performing, and I feel great about them,” and they’re making sure the ecosystem of your school has top talent, so people don’t get frustrated that they feel like “I’m working really hard, and the person next to me is not.” But when there’s this collegiality of everyone performing, sharing ideas and resources, co-planning, and that there’s leadership throughout the building, then people feel even more empowered. The last thing is as people develop skills that they receive more autonomy. That’s another way to help people feel like they are in a high-performing profession.

Greene: The best leaders make where they are the place to be, which can only be done by developing other leaders. I believe that people will embrace the opportunity to be a part of something great, which is why it’s essential to establish clear vision and direction. We have to know people to grow people, and we can’t expect teachers to know students if we don’t know them. This means understanding why they became teachers, why they’ve remained in teaching, and knowing their career goals, including areas that they want to strengthen.

Other recommendations to retain teachers include providing strong instructional leadership through coaching and practicing reciprocal accountability through support and progress to goals.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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