Opinion
Recruitment & Retention Opinion

How to Build a Healthier School Culture

The easy, low-cost places to start in making employees feel valued
By Laurie J. Carr — May 20, 2022 3 min read
Conceptual illustration of a group of people bringing together geometric shapes
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I recently celebrated my birthday. In addition to the texts, calls, and Facebook messages from family and friends, I received 27 emails and texts that were less personal. They came from universities I’ve attended, stores I frequent, alumni organizations, my favorite perfumery, multiple restaurants, my car insurance company, and the airline I frequently fly. I received small gifts from them as well: vouchers for free ice cream cones, a dozen donuts, pizzas, sandwiches, dessert, discount offers, a piece of pie—all from organizations I interact with an average of once every few months.

These messages tell me my business matters to them. They value me. They want to stay connected with me. They see me and want to honor me as a client in some small way.

As I read through the messages at day’s end, the organization with which I spend the most time and to which I devote repeated extra hours and energy was noticeably absent. I tried to recall the last time I received a card or email from my supervisor on my birthday, but I couldn’t. It’s never happened, and this void speaks volumes.

See Also

Vibrant hand drawn illustration depicting mindfulness concept
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Teaching Profession Opinion Wellness Can't Be Just Another Task for Teachers to Do
Beth Pandolpho, October 15, 2021
4 min read

I have, however, received Mother’s Day greetings, despite not being a mother. My Jewish and Muslim colleagues have received Christmas and Easter well-wishes while their own celebrations have gone unacknowledged. These generalized messages communicate something about the organizational culture and values of a district.

When I was a principal, I worked hard to create safe, nurturing, trusting climates within the school community. This was a focus with the region of schools I supervised as well.

Everyone I supervise receives birthday cards and special recognition during the workday from me; I try to do the same for colleagues. It’s an easy, and important, place to start. It tells people that they matter enough for me to remember their special day. I ask about their children, I know their personal interests, and I check in when they are sick. As a result, they know I value and care about them.

District and school culture doesn’t just happen. Culture forms out of intentional decisionmaking about who and what to recognize (or not recognize). How and when administration communicates with employees matters and clearly demonstrates the values of the leaders of the organization.

I once worked in a school district in which the only birthday celebrated by the district was the superintendent’s. Money was collected for gifts, a big to-do was made during the cabinet meeting, and a fancy bakery cake was served to her table at a district principals’ meeting, while principals and others ate supermarket sheet cake. This, too, sent a message.

The past few years have emphasized the importance of social-emotional wellness for our students and staff. Even during the upheaval of the pandemic, there are many small, low-cost ways that school and district leaders can further this work.

For example, set up an automatic email for each employee’s birthday when first hired. If funding or donations are permitted, a token of appreciation like a gift card for a cup of coffee can be included. A supervisor’s or superintendent’s personal touch can also improve employee morale, so consider a hand-signed card.

Another meaningful gesture is assigning each new employee a buddy who can welcome and orient them to the district. Regular communication via check-in calls, texts, or meet ups will also help transition and aid in an employee’s ability to feel a part of the larger organization.

A sense of belonging is a key factor in employee happiness. Everyone needs someone at work who checks on them, listens to them vent and helps them problem-solve, understands their challenges, and celebrates their achievements.

Be inclusive. Recognize all cultural-heritage months and holidays. Remember that recognizing only a dominant group has a greater detrimental exclusionary effect than many realize.

Affinity groups are a good way to begin cultivating a healthy community of support for individuals who are underrepresented in a school or district. Technology can make scheduling simple through virtual meet ups. It’s one thing to recruit a diverse workforce, but if you’re not willing to examine your practices and create structures that support their retention, you’ve created a revolving door.

It’s not too late to make a shift toward developing a healthier and happier educator workforce. School systems are filled with talented and caring people who look out for each other informally every day. Little additional effort is needed to formalize these efforts, though their potential impact on employees’ individual and collective well-being is truly unlimited.

Simple steps to support employee wellness

Affinity groups

  • Men of color breakfasts
  • Native American luncheons
  • Women in science dinners
  • LGBTQ meet ups

Activity clubs

  • Book clubs
  • Walking clubs
  • Museum club (with discount passes)

Virtual classes taught by employee experts (synchronous or asynchronous)

  • Fitness classes such as yoga, bootcamp, or hip-hop dance
  • Hobbies such as cake decorating, gardening, car repair

Virtual talks by community partners (synchronous or asynchronous)

  • Visit our parks
  • Learn to paint
  • Healthy eating
  • Learning mindfulness

Support groups led by district counselors or community partners

  • Divorce group
  • Diabetes and cancer groups

Themed weeks or months

  • District gratitude week
  • Random acts of kindness month

Employee recognitions

  • Donated book/gift cards for employee returns from maternity leave

Free onsite health/wellness screenings

A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 2022 edition of Education Week as How to Build a Healthier School Culture

Events

Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Science Webinar
Close the Gender Gap: Getting Girls Excited about STEM
Join female STEM leaders as they discuss the importance of early cheerleaders, real life role models, and female networks of support.
Content provided by Logitech
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Recruitment & Retention Leader To Learn From Want to Recruit Male Teachers of Color? Look to This New York City Leader
Chimere Stephens, who leads recruitment of men of color for the New York City schools, believes in starting with high school students.
9 min read
Chimere Stephens, the Director of NYC Men Teach at the NYC Department of Education, reads a book to a class of first grade students at PS 55 elementary school in the Bronx, New York., January 19, 2023.
Chimere Stephens, the director of NYC Men Teach at the NYC Department of Education, reads a book to a class of 1st grade students in January at PS 55 elementary school.
Mostafa Bassim for Education Week
Recruitment & Retention What Educators Look For in a Job (Besides Pay and Workloads)
A survey gives insight on factors that cause teachers to consider leaving or accept a job offer.
3 min read
Photo illustration of blocks representing individuals clustering around a highlighted block.
iStock/Getty images
Recruitment & Retention 4 Actions Districts and States Can Take to Increase Staff Diversity
A report offers concrete steps for districts, charter organizations, and states to boost the racial diversity of their K-12 workforce.
5 min read
Image of diverse hands in a team huddle.
melitas/iStock/Getty
Recruitment & Retention What Districts Can Do to Prevent Teachers From Quitting Mid-Year
Routine, actionable feedback and small gestures of appreciation go a long way, superintendents say
5 min read
Illustration of woman exiting room.
iStock / Getty Images Plus