How One School Leader is Keeping Her Teachers
Last month, an overwhelming 55% of teachers reported thinking about leaving the profession earlier than they anticipated, according to a survey from the National Education Association. Those percentages rise even higher for teachers of color, who are already underrepresented in the classroom.
At DC Bilingual Public Charter School, the opposite is true. An overwhelming number of teachers are staying. In fact, they have almost 100% teacher retention.
“We’re all experiencing trauma and hardship right now,” explains Daniela Anello, Head of School and New Leaders alum. “My job is to notice, to listen, to understand, to provide space for processing. And then to do everything in my power to help bring people together so we have a community that feels united, connected, supported, and focused on the good ahead.”
Rated as a top charter school in Washington, DC, DC Bilingual serves 490 students in grades PreK through fifth, with plans to expand to 712 students and a new facility beginning next year. Started in 2004, the school offers a dual immersion Spanish and English program, regardless of home language. Anello joined the staff as a literacy coach in 2009. After completing the New Leaders Aspiring Principals Program, she became principal, and later in 2015, Head of School.
“We want everyone in our community—staff, students, parents, community members—to have a connection to someone who understands them, empathizes with them, and is looking out for them.” Her top five leadership actions (below) are unifying her school and motivating her teachers to stay during this challenging time. They can unify your school too.
Make wellness your theme. Anello takes every opportunity she has to speak about caregiver wellness, including staff, families, and community members. “We need to pay attention to our own well-being and do everything in our power to ensure we are healthy—mentally, physically, social-emotionally—so that we can give our best to the community and to each other.” She also grounds her decisions, be it around the budget or how someone can contribute to the school, in wellness. “There is no secret about that as our theme. I speak to it very, very clearly and plainly.”
Fundraise for wellness. On Giving Tuesday, DC Bilingual launched a wellness campaign, raising close to $50,000. They formed multiple committees that put out requests for proposals on how to allocate the funds to support student, staff, and community wellness. Staff initiatives have included fitness classes, a sunshine committee to send meals, care packages, or flowers when someone is experiencing a hardship, and even a weekend respite for the school’s COVID coordinator. Funds also support affinity groups in hosting an in-person event after connecting virtually for so long. “It sounds like they’re small things, but when I listen to staff, they tell me that they feel heard and valued because the funds go where they want the funds to go to.”
Listen. Adapt. Differentiate. People value different things, Anello observes, especially when it comes to wellness: “What I’ve learned is that I can’t assume that just because I find meditation valuable, everyone else will too. So we’ve created opportunities in which everyone has a chance to share what they value, what they need, what helps them.” For some, it’s the gift of time like half-day Fridays. For others, it’s an exercise class. “There is no one magical wellness initiative that works for everyone. So we listen, adapt, and differentiate—that’s how we demonstrate that we are being thoughtful around their needs.”
Budget your priorities. In addition to wellness initiatives, Anello and her team are taking bold actions to value teachers and keep teachers amid the relentless challenges over the past two years, including retention bonuses, salary increases, and cost of living adjustments. “How could I not do that? We need our budget to reflect our priorities. We’re saying staff matters. Morale matters. Teacher retention matters. Then we have to make that tangible to our staff.”
Be transparent with all stakeholders. Anello prioritizes transparency and communication. DC Bilingual has any number of committees that share in decision-making. During staff meetings, staff members have opportunities to process and ask questions. Community members have avenues to offer feedback. “We work really hard to be transparent and to put into practice the things we say we care about. Having transparency with all our stakeholder groups sends a good message to everyone about our priorities.”
Jackie Gran, who serves as New Leaders Chief Officer, Policy and Strategic Initiatives, cannot agree more. Her daughter attends DC Bilingual. “It’s such a good feeling as a parent to know that all of our children are being cared for in every dimension of their lives, from accelerated learning to the community garden, to learning a new language, to the strong relationships they are building among the students and teachers.”
Last month, she adds, her daughter’s teacher hosted a family Zoom. “All of a sudden, my daughter was grabbing the olive oil and a lemon, trying to make us a healthy salmon dinner and expanding her sense of herself. We know it’s a really hard time for teachers right now, and yet, the love and guidance of her incredible teachers are really shaping her identity.”
Anello, herself, credits her teachers, students, and community with the growth and continued success of the school. “In this moment, when things are really hard, we’re trying to come together, to create a situation in which we unify, rather than isolate.” With close to 100 percent teacher retention, her leadership shines a light on what is possible.
Anello’s advice to leaders right now: Find a trustworthy network, a community of school leaders who you can feel really safe with, where you can be yourself and let your guard down. A space to be heard and not judged. It helps you remember that you are not alone. That’s the biggest thing, not being alone.
And, then take risks, be vulnerable. It’s often easier for people to bond over the bad or what is not working. We have to help people reconnect over things that are really positive and special. Being authentic is another great way to really connect with your community.
Todo lo mejor. All the best.