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
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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.

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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


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