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How to Onboard Teachers Better

By: Justin de Leon on August 23rd, 2021

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How to Onboard Teachers Better

Teacher Retention  |  District Leadership

Across the country teachers are welcoming students into their classrooms, as schools are welcoming new teachers to their teams. These teachers - new to the profession, early career and veterans - are starting at schools while conditions remain unprecedented and unpredictable. Despite this reality, school and district leaders are tasked with onboarding their staff such that school, and learning can continue for as many students as possible.    


Naturally, as these teachers settle into their new schools, many will continue to assess their decisions and ask themselves ”Is this the right school for me?  Do I belong here?  Will I be successful?” So, the onboarding experience is critical in helping new teachers to feel validated - like they made the right choice.  


Simultaneously, onboarding sets the tone for a teacher’s long term experience and what it might be like. To this end, it has the potential to greatly influence an employee’s long term decision to stay in the district and in the profession. Research cited in a report by the Society for Human Resource Management Foundation found that 69% of new hires are more likely to stay at a company for three years if they have a great onboarding experience (SHRM). 


This research calls into question the way school and district teams design and facilitate onboarding, and take the time to understand the role it plays in longer term teacher retention. As a first step toward improving your school or district’s onboarding approach, take time to reflect on the current state. And more specifically, take time to reflect on its purpose. What is your onboarding experience designed to do? What type of teachers is it intended to develop?  


What type of teacher is your onboarding designed to develop?

With the best of intentions, district leaders, school leaders and teacher teams create welcome kits, prepare materials, provide tours, facilitate introduction meetings and help to give new teachers the lay of the land - leaving teachers with an understanding of their role and school, but maybe not the support and skills they need to be successful in the classroom. 


This can be the result of thinking about onboarding as a single point in time, like orientation, as opposed to an ongoing process lasting 6-12+ months. It can also be the result of not having the time and space to step back and reflect on the overall approach to onboarding and the type of teacher it’s designed to develop. 


The framework below is meant to help you reflect on your current approach to onboarding, its primary activities, and the type of teacher it is intended to develop. It picks up on the writing of Professor Talya Bauer (author of the SHRM report cited above) and applies it to the context of teacher onboarding and retention. Through the framework, Bauer proposes three potential levels, or approaches, to designing onboarding strategy: passive, high potential, and proactive.  Organizations can use the framework to identify the current level of their onboarding strategy and identify ways to improve, in order to operate at the highest level: proactive onboarding.  


Three onboarding strategies

As you see below, passive onboarding is largely composed of compliance driven activities and provides new employees with some role clarity. High potential onboarding adds further clarification around the role and related expectations, while also exposing new employees to the organizational culture and providing some opportunities to build relationships with others. Proactive onboarding prioritizes actively teaching and creating entry points into the organization’s culture (i.e., formal and informal norms and rituals) while also including opportunities for new hires to build relationships with current employees. 


from Maximizing Success, SHRM

Use this framework and the descriptions below to help you categorize your onboarding activities and determine the overall level of your onboarding strategy. Keep in mind that this is an entry point for leaders and teachers as they consider the impact onboarding across an assortment of teachers. Certainly, there are many mentors, coaches and administrators who go above and beyond to help new teachers succeed. And there many new teachers have, and will continue to, overcome and persevere through any shortcomings of the system. But, as a leader, if you can change the outcome of onboarding by designing it differently, why wouldn’t you?


Passive Onboarding | Transactional Teacher

  • Primary activities:  Reviewing the district employee and/or new teacher handbook; signing paperwork; receiving access to technology and resources; getting access to a classroom; meeting a mentor; getting a tour of the school. 
  • Impact on teacher retention:  Since passive onboarding lacks interactions to help new teachers access the school culture and build relationships with others, it compromises their ability to feel a sense of belonging. New teachers who do not experience a sense of belonging are more likely to leave the school or profession. Additionally, passive onboarding does not prioritize understanding the new teacher’s current capabilities (knowledge, mindsets, skills) and therefore does not adapt the development plan to accommodate their needs. 

High Potential Onboarding | Operational Teacher 

  • Primary activities:  Teacher professional development planning; invitations and participation in staff and team meetings; intermittent coaching and feedback conversations; being introduced to a range of staff members; attending school functions and events. 
  • Impact on teacher retention. Teachers who onboard through a high potential approach might be effective over a shorter period of time based on the creation, monitoring and support of their development plan. Since entry points into the school culture and opportunities to build connections with others might be limited or non-existent, it hinders the new teacher’s ability to build a sense of belonging and might compromise their longevity with the school. 

Proactive Onboarding | Influential Teacher 

  • Primary activities:  Co-creating a development plan based on individual needs in hiring;  intensive upfront support based on high priority areas of need; on-going feedback and coaching conversations; regular participation in an affinity group; opportunities to connect and co-plan with peers; participation and playing an active role in staff and school-based events.
  • Impact on teacher retention:  Teachers who experience proactive onboarding are effective faster and more likely to establish relationships with other teachers and staff at the school, resulting in a greater sense of belonging. Additionally, through proactive onboarding, teachers receive formal professional development and ongoing coaching to help them meet milestones, demonstrate growth in competencies and experience success--in the classroom and as a member of the school community. 


Considering the framework above, you might reflect on the following: What type of teachers are your onboarding experiences designed to develop?  What are the primary activities and interactions that teachers have as part of the onboarding experience?  How does it impact retention?  


Remember, reflecting on the current state of your onboarding approach can provide some perspective and insight into what new teachers experience and how it impacts their development. New teachers who have opportunities to plug into the culture of the school and connect with other staff members are more likely to stay.  The time and investment that we put into high quality onboarding now, has the potential to reduce teacher retention challenges in the future. 

More Teacher Retention reading

Blog: Upskilling and Reskilling for the ‘New Normal’ of Education

Blog: 40 Ways to Celebrate Teachers and Impact Teacher Retention

Blog: Prioritizing Teacher Voice to Recruit and Retain High-Quality Teachers

Blog: Three Strategies to Support Our Teacher Workforce in 2022

About Justin de Leon

Justin de Leon is a Partner and joined Education Elements in 2012. He began his career in education teaching English at Brownsville Middle School in Miami-Dade. In his first year, he shifted from a traditional model to a blended model as a way to personalize and saw management issues disappear and achievement increase. During several school years, Justin worked with Teach for America to provide mentoring, coaching and professional development to ELA corps members. After moving to the west coast, he gained experience in the charter world while teaching ELA at KIPP Heartwood Academy in San Jose, CA.

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