Onboarding can be a powerful teacher retention strategy.

Making your teacher onboarding a productive and memorable experience may keep educators in your classrooms.

By Marie Kressin Last Updated: April 28, 2023

Even before the beginning of the Great Resignation, studies of private sector companies showed that 30% of employees in the U.S. were quitting within their first 90 days of employment. Half said they planned to leave within their first 2 years. Perhaps at one time, you might have said: Education is different; once a teacher, always a teacher. But that may not be the case anymore. According to a study published in 2022, 44% of teachers quit in their first five years.

A study done by the Society for Human Resource Management shows that when a company loses an employee, finding a replacement will cost the organization an amount equivalent to six to nine months of the original employee’s salary. For school districts, though, that loss is doubly costly. Losing a teacher costs more than the resources it takes to find their replacement; it also costs your students valuable months of learning. And it just might cost them the teacher who remembers to ask about their pet, who never forgets their birthday, who has become that one adult they’ve learned they can trust.

Retention is just as important in the education sector as it is in the private sector, if not more so. Within the last decade, private sector research has shown that effective onboarding can improve retention by 82%, and yet only 12% of employees strongly agree that their organizations do a great job of onboarding new hires. With so many teachers quitting in their first five years, many of whom are leaving the field altogether, your district’s teacher retention strategy needs to begin on Day One—with onboarding.

What's effective teacher onboarding look like?

If only 12% of employees strongly believe their organizations do a great job of onboarding new hires, then 88% of organizations have room for improvement—and it’s safe to assume the main issue isn’t the way HR explains copays. When it comes to developing a successful onboarding process, we suggest taking a look at the experience you’re providing your new hires.

In their book The Power of Moments, bestselling authors Chip and Dan Heath write about how to make impactful moments a reality. “Defining moments shape our lives, and we don’t have to wait for them to happen,” they write. “We can be the authors of extraordinary moments.” When we recall a past experience, we tend to remember the most intense—or the peak—moments, but everything in between is a little fuzzy. We recall the moments that matter.

So where can you craft the positive, memorable moments that will determine how your new hires view their onboarding experience?

Different moments will impact each new hire differently. What you can focus on is making your district’s onboarding process as personal and positive as possible. And while it’s important to do what you can to construct powerful, memorable moments for your newest staff members, it’s equally important to sprinkle smaller moments of connection throughout their onboarding experience.

So, with that said, let’s get something straight: Onboarding cannot be a one-day thing. It is a series of positive moments—both big and small—over time. Effective teacher onboarding is a multi-faceted marathon, not a sprint—and much more than a two- to three-hour meeting tacked onto the beginning of your summer PD schedule. In an opinion piece for Harvard Business Review, Ron Carucci, a consultant for Fortune 500 companies, writes, “I’ve found that the most effective organizations onboard new hires for the duration of their first year—their most vulnerable period.”

Dr. George F. Fiore is the Executive Director of Pennsylvania’s Chester County Intermediate Unit (CCIU), which provides services to the 12 school districts in Chester County. At CCIU, onboarding doesn’t just extend beyond the first day—it begins before the first day. “We look at the hiring process as the beginning of onboarding,” Fiore explains.

Fiore and his staff pay careful attention to their job postings, their interview process, and their system for informing candidates whether they’ve been hired. Once candidates are in the building, CCIU has a well-developed onboarding strategy. Fiore explains that CCIU is intentional about both what he calls the “technical side” of onboarding as well as the more social side. “We want them to feel welcome,” Fiore says. “It’s important they know that we want them here.”

The Technical Side

All onboarding experiences—no matter how exciting or engaging they might be—have one thing in common: paperwork. Health insurance selections and seemingly hundreds of signatures are unavoidable for any new hire. But even something as tedious as paperwork can be made into a positive experience with some innovative thinking and an emphasis on personal connection.

Fiore’s staff, for example, encourages new hires to fill out their paperwork in person. Not only does this give CCIU an early opportunity for a personal touch point, but it also allows them to walk new hires through any questions or confusion they may have. Plus, inviting folks to fill out their paperwork in person accommodates those who don’t have access to technology at home—a potential problem as more and more HR documentation moves to digital platforms. New hires who do have access at home but can’t make it to an in-person meeting fill out their paperwork while meeting virtually with someone from HR. The idea is to show each staff member early on that they will be recognized and supported every step of the way during their career with CCIU.

But when it comes to the technical side of teacher onboarding, paperwork isn’t the only thing to think about. A new hire needs to learn so many details in order to thrive in your schools: Where can they park? Where can they get coffee? How do they access their email? The list goes on. And considering that more than a third of K-12 teachers had previous careers before entering the classroom, your new hires may also have more general questions about working in education. For example, let’s say your schools divide teachers into 180- and 230-day employees. Someone coming from the private sector may not immediately understand the difference and could be confused about which category they belong to.

To be clear, we aren’t saying you should sit your new hires down and answer all these tedious questions at once. You don’t want to overwhelm your newest staff members by making them think they’re expected to remember all this information immediately. That said, you also shouldn’t expect them to learn it all on their own. Knowing where to park and get a cup of coffee will make folks feel that much more comfortable during their first few days in your district and remove any barriers that could prevent them from engaging on a deeper level.

The Social Side

Once your new staff members have the basic information they need in order to function in your district, it’s time to integrate them into your network of support—to connect them with the people who already know how to thrive in your schools. CCIU, for example, requires all new hires to have an onboarding session with their direct supervisors. “Let’s say you’re going to be a high school teacher in one of our schools,” Fiore explains. “The school principal will sit down with you for a conversation about what it means to work here, our philosophy, what we care about the most.”

There is no perfect delineation between the technical and social sides of onboarding, so there will still be some technical information shared during the course of this conversation—like a new hire’s specific schedule, lesson plan expectations, and evaluation processes. But the main idea behind the social side of teacher onboarding is to connect your new hires with other folks in your district so that they feel comfortable and supported.

You might also introduce new hires to leaders in departments other than their own to show them how their individual work connects to the district’s overall mission. According to marketing consultant Lori Manns, “Allowing new hires to experience a few hours in each department will provide a better understanding of how integral each department is to the success of the company overall. If new hires are introduced to the functionality of each department, it will foster better team building and internal relationships.”

What can you do to facilitate relationships early on in a new hire’s career in your district? Maybe you could set aside half a day in your summer PD schedule for each building to do interdepartmental “speed dating.” After all, it’s not only new hires who might benefit from learning about what’s going on in departments outside their own.

As you’re thinking about these relationships, consider how you might pair students during a lesson. If you had a new student, who would you pair them with? You’d probably choose a student who has a strong understanding of your classroom expectations—maybe even someone who shares interests with their new classmate. You can do this easily with new staff members, too.

Social media management company Buffer considers the matter of pairing new hires with current employees an important part of the onboarding process. During a new hire’s first month at Buffer, they have a weekly chat with their “role buddy,” someone who has tenure in the new hire’s specific role and was recommended by their manager. New hires are also paired with a “culture buddy” who helps ease them into the company culture.

Buffer has even gone so far as to write guides detailing their expectations for role buddies and culture buddies. Their guides include everything from recommendations for how often buddies should meet with their new hires to thoughts on providing effective feedback. In this way, Buffer has made peer mentorship not only a part of their new hires’ onboarding experiences, but also a professional development opportunity for their more seasoned employees.

Even if you don’t have the resources to outline a full buddy program like Buffer’s before your next new hire orientation, you can still identify a good peer mentor for each of your new hires—even if that peer mentor isn’t someone in their department. Not only is this a vote of confidence in the folks you select to be mentors, but it also provides your new hires with an easy access point into your district’s social network. It gives them an example of what it looks like to thrive in your district; it gives them someone to reach out to.

At CCIU, Fiore and his staff have formalized this process. In fact, there are five full-time staff members who do nothing but mentor. Each new hire is connected with one of CCIU’s on-staff mentors, and the mentorship process lasts for two years, culminating in a final presentation at a dinner that all CCIU’s administrators are invited to attend. “We talk about what they learned and what they’re still learning,” Fiore explains. “So, really, our onboarding process starts from the minute the job is posted all the way to the end of the second year.”

This investment is part of how CCIU creates a safe environment for their newest staff members. According to Fiore, “That’s how we say: We’re here to support you. Your success is our success.”

Integrating School Culture

During their first few days with the organization, every new member of Fiore’s staff is given CCIU-branded swag—but Fiore is quick to recognize that T-shirts and water bottles aren’t enough to integrate new hires into the organization’s culture. Bringing new people into the fold is not a one-and-done task. According to a Forbes article written by Tara Milburn, founder of the sustainable merch company Ethical Swag, “The best onboarding practices do not treat culture and skills training as two separate considerations, but as integral parts of a single process rooted in the company’s mission.” In other words, as you develop or update your teacher onboarding process—the technical side, the social side, and whatever else you include—school culture should be the cornerstone of every choice you make.

Let’s say, for example, one of your district’s values is community. If that’s the case, then you probably expect your staff to prioritize relationships. So how can you thread relationships throughout a new hire’s onboarding experience? Telling new hires that you value relationships is one thing, but making ample time for them to form relationships with building leaders and peer mentors is entirely another. That’s how you prove your values are more than lip service and integrate new folks into your district culture.

Or maybe your district has identified growth as a core value. Remember that opinion piece by Ron Carucci we mentioned earlier? In it he explains that setting up early wins is a powerful onboarding strategy that helps new hires recognize and plan for their own growth and development. “An astounding 60% of companies report that they do not set short-term goals for new hires,” Carucci writes. “A good way to start is to assign tasks with an expectation that they be completed at the three, six, and nine-month marks.”

To help your new hires focus on growth, have them work with a mentor teacher to set goals, or invite them to be part of a committee that is already working toward established goals. Not only will this encourage new hires to take ownership of their own professional development, but it “will help build trust,” Carucci writes. “New hires that feel grounded in their contribution and understand how it fits into the larger organization gain confidence and feel loyal faster.”

Improving Teacher Retention

Whether you’re onboarding a first-year teacher or a veteran principal, the goal is to create a sense of belonging. “Everything about onboarding is about heart,” Fiore says. “When you truly care about your staff, you want them to feel like they belong, that you care about their success. If you go with that, it makes it really easy to make decisions.”

School leaders have so much to contend with. But unless our schools find a way to improve teacher retention, leaders will continue expending limited energy running on the hamster wheel of turnover cycles. That’s why it’s so important to recognize that onboarding isn’t just a time for new hires to select dental plans and set up direct deposits. Onboarding is a teacher retention strategy. It’s how you create the positive experiences your staff will remember over time. It’s how you invest in the kind of relationships that are strong enough to last.

Originally published as "Welcome Aboard" in the Spring 2023 SchoolCEO Magazine.

Marie Kressin is a writer with SchoolCEO and can be reached at marie@schoolceo.com.

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