Strong Retention & Engagement Begin With Successful Onboarding
Schools across the country are opening their doors, or they will very soon. And that means there’s plenty of “new.” New students, new classes, new schedules, and new teachers and staff—both those that are brand new to their profession and haven’t worked in education before and those who have and are new to your school.
At first glance, onboarding your new hires might sound like a simple, one-time event. Typically, the primary goal of staff and teacher onboarding is to provide your new team members with the knowledge and tools they need to be successful early on in their roles.
And yet, onboarding is so much more. When planned intentionally, executed holistically, and continued throughout the year, quality onboarding is the foundation of teacher retention. When teachers feel supported, it’s less likely they’ll want to leave your school—or leave the profession altogether. And teacher retention also leads to student success.
When planned intentionally, executed holistically, and continued throughout the year, quality onboarding is the foundation of teacher retention.
But what constitutes quality onboarding? We’ve highlighted five key ways school leaders can continue to expand their onboarding practices, and ensure they’re setting teachers and staff members up for success throughout their first year.
Develop messaging around your school’s “hierarchy of needs”
You might be familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory that suggests people desire to be all they can be—and to achieve this ultimate goal, a number of basic needs must be met. This includes needs like food, shelter, safety, love, and self-esteem.
Now, consider this hierarchy through the lens of your school’s new hires. To be the best they can be, your team needs a foundational level of information and resources. Determining those information categories—and their hierarchy—can be the difference between smooth sailing and a bumpy beginning.
To be the best they can be, your team needs a foundational level of information and resources. Determining those information categories—and their hierarchy—can be the difference between smooth sailing and a bumpy beginning.
Here’s a sample of what those categories might look like:
- Basic Needs: These are the things your new hires need in order to navigate their day-to-day. Where do they get an ID badge? Where’s the cafeteria, and the bathrooms? What’s the payroll schedule, and how do they sign up for health insurance? What’s their class schedule? What’s the dress code?
- Culture & Community: What do you want them to know about the culture of the school? Think about it this way: you’re welcoming a new family member into the fold. What’s important for them to know about your school’s mission and vision? What do team building activities look like?
- Expectations: As school leader, what are your expectations of them? What norms of collaboration are expected when it comes to teamwork? What are the expectations for them in terms of classroom management?
- Academic Goals & Instruction: What are the expectations for the curriculum, and collaborative planning around that curriculum? What are the school’s best practices in ELA and math? What are the student achievement goals for the school? When do assessments occur? What is the school’s approach to grade-level or instructional teams?
- Professional Development: How does your school support and encourage both short-term and long-term professional development aspirations? What kinds of professional learning are offered?
Once you’ve determined the categories that are most important, align your messaging to those. Create your own hierarchy, covering the bottom rung of your pyramid first—but be sure to cover all of your categories so your new hires know they’re a meaningful portion of their onboarding experience.
Build in time for making meaningful connections
Meeting new people, learning new ways of doing things, and adjusting to new expectations can be stressful and intimidating even for the most confident teachers and staff members. This is where building in time for connection is essential. This intentional time gives new hires an opportunity to ask questions, share their feelings, and feel more assured in their roles.
Here are a few ideas to consider when fostering those relationships:
- Create an organizational chart: Having an organizational chart—with names, titles, and photos—is a great way for your new team members to put a face to a name, literally. Be sure to include everyone on this list—you never know when they’ll need to talk to an instructional coach, get tech support, or contact human resources.
- Host teacher & staff “speed meetings:” Create regular ways for new hires to get to know both new and veteran teachers and staff by building in quick, 10-15 minute “get to know you” meetings where people can rotate in and out of conversations. You may not want to do this every month—staff meetings are often long enough, after all!—but it might make sense to do once or twice a semester.
- Develop a mentor/check-in program: Distribute leadership opportunities to your teachers and staff by creating mentorship and “check-in” programs, where experienced and trusted teachers and staff members help those new to your school navigate their first few months (or entire year!). Not only will your new team members feel welcome and wanted, but it’ll also help your aspiring teacher leaders acquire the leadership experiences they’re seeking as well.
Meeting new people, learning new ways of doing things, and adjusting to new expectations can be stressful and intimidating even for the most confident teachers and staff members. This is where building in time for connection is essential.
Plan for “whole-year” onboarding
It might have made sense in the past for onboarding to be held only at the beginning of the year. In recent years, however—as teachers and staff exit throughout the school year and beginning teachers enter the field from non-traditional paths—it’s become imperative to have a consistent onboarding process where the pieces you put together can be performed multiple times a year if needed.
New Leaders alum and Executive Director of Talent Management for Memphis-Shelby County Schools Brian Ingram saw this first-hand. “As quickly as we bring new hires in, they’re going back out,” he says.
To help curb this issue, Ingram and his team launched a three-day New Teacher Academy in January 2022 to better prepare new hires for their roles and ensure teacher quality. The three-day event is directly followed by two days of school onboarding—and the Academy runs every week to provide consistent and equitable access to professional learning. Previously, onboarding only happened once—during the summer—in the district.
Better yet: plan an onboarding curriculum for your new team members that stretches throughout their first year at your school. According to Fortune 500 business consultant Ron Carucci, the most effective corporate organizations are the ones that onboard new hires for a full year—something we know can apply to schools and districts, too.
According to Fortune 500 business consultant Ron Carucci, the most effective corporate organizations are the ones that onboard new hires for a full year—something we know can apply to schools and districts, too.
Weave in onboarding with professional development discussions
Effective onboarding and job-embedded, personalized professional development go hand-in-hand as far as a solid retention strategy—so why not combine them for maximum impact?
A good way to do this is to begin PD conversations with your new teachers and staff right away at the start of the year. Set a baseline for their learning and growth with them—asking them about their personal PD goals and how you can best support them. Make it clear that these conversations are formative (and not evaluative)—they’re all in service of helping them grow and take an active role in their development.
A good way to do this is to begin PD conversations with your new teachers and staff right away at the start of the year. Set a baseline for their learning and growth with them—asking them about their personal PD goals and how you can best support them.
Setting this baseline creates the strong implementation and accountability that’s needed for these learning efforts to be truly successful, and can set the stage for deeper conversations throughout the year.
These discussions are also a great way to get a pulse on the leadership aspirations of your new hires. Are they aspiring teacher leaders—or aspiring school leaders? In some cases, it might be too early to have these conversations, but for others, it’s also an effective way to see who might be interested in taking a step up—after they get into the groove of their new role, of course!
Ask for feedback often and use it to improve future onboarding
One of the most impactful ways that you, as a school leader, can show new teachers and staff you’re committed to hearing them and seeing them—and developing an even stronger onboarding strategy—is to ask for feedback.
Even a simple weekly survey with a few questions—What’s going well? What could be better? How can I help?—will give you the timely, direct feedback that’s needed to make adjustments for future onboarding sessions.
Onboarding = the most impactful teacher retention strategy
Teacher and staff retention begins the moment a new team member walks through your doors. Having a strong onboarding strategy not only sets your new hires up for success, but it also reinforces the positive experiences they had during the onboarding process.
This takes time and effort, no doubt—but the investment pays off in the strong connection your new teachers and staff have to your school, their role, and each other.