School leaders across the country struggled to staff classrooms this winter during the omicron wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Not Adam Lane, the principal of Haines City Senior High School in Polk County, Fla., who always had a teacher in the classroom or a substitute ready to fill in.
It took years to get to that point. But assembling a staffing pipeline didn’t cost Lane any additional money and the foundation was rooted in something schools should already be doing: building meaningful and positive relationships.
Here are four key tenets on which Lane relies.
Cultivate your own students as a source of talent
For Lane, it starts with when students are in the classrooms. If students have a good experience and remember school and their teachers warmly, they’re likely to want to return as workers.
That was the case for Cynthia Rios, who now works as a front-office secretary, and Johnny Disla, a long-term substitute teaching digital technology, at the school.
How did Lane foster that environment?
One way is through the school’s positive referral system, where students and staff are recognized for the good things they do, not the negative ones. Another is a focus on respectful engagement between students and staff and among staff.
Lane also ensures that students know they’re welcomed back to work as teachers or in other roles in the school once they graduate.
Empower staff and students in decisionmaking
Students, staff, and parents play a big role in making consequential decisions at Lane’s school, such as designing school schedules and dress codes. Haines City Senior High School hosts open sessions on these issues and parents, teachers, and staff discuss them and then vote on what should happen.
“I am responsible for everything on this campus,” Lane said. “But I am only one person out of 3,000. I like to allow discussions and forums and open voting to decide where our school moves.”
During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, for example, the school switched from a “straight-seven” schedule, with seven periods of 48 minutes each, to a block schedule, to reduce the number of times students moved between classes and cut down on hallway traffic.
But after discussions, open sessions, and voting, Haines City Senior High School will return to a “straight-seven schedule” next school year.
“Because that’s what the majority of the faculty voted for, that’s what the majority of the students voted for,” he said.
That kind of environment leaves people feeling that “they have valuable influence,” he said, a quality that can be a magnet for future staff and increase retention for those already working there.
Develop a recruitment strategy
While recruitment is usually run from the district office, principals can also distinguish themselves in this area. Know the district’s recruiting officers, who often travel out of state for career and recruiting fairs.
For Lane, the first step is ensuring that his current students know they can return to work with him, and providing them with opportunities while they’re college to fill in as substitutes to see if teaching—or another school-based role—is right for them.
Another step is knowing the key players at the local education schools who are responsible for student-teaching. That helps to ensure that the high school gets an annual crop of student-interns.
Principals have to “sign off on all the paperwork that the intern completed their expectations [that’s submitted] to the professor or the recruiting specialist at the college or university,” he said. “So, in the end, you’re going to end up building a relationship with them anyway. You might as well start it at the beginning. “
Lane has hired about 28 teacher-interns over the course of his career, he said.
Faculty also helps. Staffers who have a good experience are more likely to recruit their spouses, relatives, and even colleagues from other schools.
Transfers have been a good recruitment tool for Lane.
“They’re either people who know people who work here, or they’ve just heard through the grapevine that we’ve built a school on meaningful positive relationships, and we really focus on allowing empowerment with our staff and students in decision-making, and they want to be part of it,” Lane said.
Create clear ladders of support for staff
Sometimes it’s not just getting people in the door, it’s also giving them the tools and support they need to get them to stay.
At Haines City Senior High School, each of the six assistant principals is responsible for about 40 teachers.
Those assistant principals are in charge of providing everything that teacher needs.
“You will go to [the assistant principal] like [you would] a 7-Eleven,” Lane said. “I don’t care if you need a hot dog, a pencil sharpener, windshield wiper fluid, ‘how do I deal with field trip,’ a Slurpee, new textbooks, whatever you need,” Lane said.
“That’s really important because teachers can get lost, just like students can get lost, ” he added.
Those assistant principals are held accountable for the performance of their teachers. At the same time, Lane ensures that the APs have what they need to help their teachers.
And Lane also makes sure those who are supporting the teachers have his backing. He does that through separate monthly meetings with the department heads to discuss issues on campus, monthly faculty meetings to give faculty the chance to share their input and to vote on topics and issues that require action, and then monthly meetings for specific programs.
Support doesn’t have to come from the top down, i.e., from the administrator to teacher; it can also be through setting up structures for teachers to support each other, with instruction and other things. Haines City Senior High School also has a new-to-campus group, which meets twice month, to help new teachers get used to the new environment.