How to tackle staff retention during school closures

How can you ensure the disruption from coronavirus isn’t going to negatively impact on your staff retention? We speak to school leaders about their approach

Grainne Hallahan

A magnet retaining staff

Your staffroom is either empty or close to it. Your school gates are locked or you have a skeleton staff going in on a rota basis, functioning but within unusual and unprecedented parameters.

The situation can’t be helped, but one issue this is causing is how to maintain good staff communication.

And what do we know happens when staff communication is poor? Well, two things. First, that staff will become unhappy, and then second, as a consequence of that unhappiness, your staff will be more likely to leave.

Ofsted’s teachers’ wellbeing report of 2019 claims that “poor communication with staff, an autocratic management style, workload pressure, and insufficient support and collaboration with staff...contribute to low well-being”. 

This is a challenge, even when there isn’t a pandemic to worry about, so with that added into the mix, schools will be up against it. So, how can you work on your retention rates when you won’t be seeing the majority of your staff from day to day?

Executive headteacher Carl McCarthy is already concerned about the problems that can arise when teams are split up and geographically distant.

“In schools, we usually trade in certainties,” says McCarthy. “We have the confidence to respond to almost any situation that might arise in school. Whether we’re talking about assessment, marking and feedback, curriculum planning, lesson observations or recruitment – we’re used to having answers.”

McCarthy is finding the current climate has taken many of those certainties away. 

“I’d say that the job of school leaders in these uncertain times is to help people feel more connected and less overwhelmed,” he advises. “It’s our job to remember that others feel adrift too and that will mean different things to different people.” 

To find some solutions to the problem of disparate teams, we spoke to a group of leaders to get their tips on maintaining good staff communications during these challenging times.

1. Find out how staff are feeling

Keeping track of the general mood of your staff can be done in many different ways when you’re in school. 

From absence rates, to feedback in line management meetings to the general mood in your staffroom: all school leaders have their own staff wellbeing barometers that they use to decide when their intervention is needed.

When you are all on lockdown, though, how can you tell who is struggling, who is planning on leaving or what the general mood is among your workforce?

This is where digital tools can help for staff feedback. There are some excellent tools available for school leaders,” says McCarthy.

“We use things like staff surveys that can provide real insight into the general mood and culture of organisations.”

2. Continue with your meetings

Stephen Colarelli, professor of psychology at Central Michigan University, and has co-authored a chapter called “Selection for Virtual Teams”.

Colarelli warns school leaders to be mindful of how the change in circumstances will inevitably cause disruptions in the homes of teachers.

People are anxious, their circumstances have changed, many are educating their children at home, and the future seems uncertain,” he says. “And people are distracted. They are figuring out how to cope with their new circumstances, and most will find it difficult to concentrate on work – at least until they get adjusted.”

His solution? It’s all about keeping in touch.

“The first thing employers should do is communicate, communicate, communicate,” he says.

What might that look like in a school? McCarthy is trying to use every option open to him.

“What is important is setting up a virtual meeting and making a phone call – and, most importantly, generating the conditions that create genuine trust and open dialogue,” he says.

By continuing his communication, it allows McCarthy to decide where his focus needs to be. “Staff retention is an authentic process and I think that applies now as much as it does at other times, too,” he says.

3. Staff development

If school leaders are serious about retaining their teaching staff, they have to address the needs of their teachers. They have to provide their staff with the things that make them want to keep teaching, and steer them away from browsing job advertisements.

In a paper published in the British Educational Research Journal, researchers from the University of Cambridge, LKMco, and Education Datalab sought to understand why long-serving teachers enter and stay in the profession.

What they discovered was that teachers were most motivated by factors that were “intrinsic” (finding the process of teaching and their subject enjoyable), “altruistic” (finding teaching socially meaningful) and related to “professional mastery” (teachers’ belief in their own ability to teach).

But when you have teachers without classrooms, how can you ensure that you’re still appealing to your teachers’ intrinsic and altruistic motivations?

One way might be providing them with continuing professional development. Peter Richardson, deputy head of a primary school in Preston, is planning to continue a project that was set up before schools closed.

“Luckily we have a ‘teacher learning community’ based on Dylan Wiliam’s model, but have pushed it further than formative assessment to all cognitive science,” he says.

“Before we closed, they met once a month as a staff meeting, and had peer observations between. Unfortunately, we can’t continue everything but, potentially, people can still read and get more familiar with the stuff we have been doing.”

Make it real

However you tackle your staff retention, one thing that matters more than anything else has to be how you as leaders are making your staff feel.

“Our job is to reassure the school community wherever those opportunities exist,” McCarthy says. “And if they don’t, it’s about creating them. Above all, it’s about trust.  Massive heart-shaped baskets full of trust.”

Staff Pulse

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Grainne Hallahan

Grainne Hallahan

Grainne Hallahan is Tes recruitment editor and senior content writer at Tes

Find me on Twitter @heymrshallahan

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