Driving Toward Educator Growth and Retention: The Four Quadrants of Staff Culture in K-12 Schools

As schools returned to largely in-person learning this fall, they needed to confront not just the socio-emotional health of their students, but also their educators. Early data suggest that educator retention challenges will become even more urgent due to the second-order effects of the pandemic. At the same time, schools are emerging from the pandemic with an opportunity to rethink the why behind all of their efforts, and create a new vision for an equitable professional growth system that serves both educators and students.

Having worked with districts across the country, we’ve seen leaders undertake this rethinking process in new and inspiring ways. We’ve distilled these culture shifts into what we’re calling “The Four Quadrants of Staff Culture.” 

What we’ve found is that building a culture of both performance and support is how districts can both hold high expectations for their educators, while ensuring those educators have the high-quality support that drives meaningful growth.

This is the first post in a series exploring a framework for creating school district staff cultures that increase educator growth and retention. In this post, we’ll share an overview of the framework and provide some practical tips for how you can move your district toward a path of both high performance and high support. As we continue, we’ll explore specific aspects of building this type of staff culture in more detail to help you create a roadmap to increased educator growth and career satisfaction in your district.

Building a culture of both performance and support is how districts can hold high expectations for their educators, while ensuring those educators have the high-quality support that drives meaningful growth.

The Four Quadrants of Staff Culture in K-12 Schools

Educator development has significant impacts on K-12 outcomes. By increasing teacher growth and retention, schools can improve the quality and outcomes of the education they provide, while lowering costs and providing more operational stability. It’s one area of investment schools can make to create a significant positive impact on teacher retention and student achievement.

But to fully realize that opportunity, a district must build the right practice and process that leads to these results. And to build up that practice and process, a district must first create the right culture around educator growth. 

In our work with K-12 districts across the country, we’ve found that there are two core commonalities to the highest-performing districts. Those districts find their success through building a culture that values both performance and support.

A culture of support is one where educators are given the mentorship and help needed to move their skills and career forward. In this environment, teachers experience regular non-evaluative observation and feedback, instructional coaching, mentorship meetings, professional development offerings, and other activities designed to provide comprehensive and impactful support.  Districts with cultures of support ensure that administrators and teachers have regular communication and understand how to work together to create the best outcomes. It’s one where educators feel safe and secure to do their work as they see best.

A culture of performance is one that is focused on results, standards, and delivering on expectations. In districts with a culture of performance, there is a shared understanding of common goals and outcomes that support the district’s strategic plan and goals. It’s a culture that continually examines results and quantitative outcomes to see what’s driving good or bad results, and then adapts based on that data.

When we break the concepts down along axes, categories form that show where a district may fall within this framework:  

Culture of Compliance – Low support and low performance

Culture of Complacency – High support and low performance

Culture of Churn – Low support and high performance:  

Culture of Growth – High support and high performance

A district’s membership in any of the above quadrants represents just a snapshot. Culture is something that can be built by teams that work well together, and every district can take actions to move into the upper right quadrant of high support and high performance. Both of these dynamics are necessary to build a successful staff culture. 

Balancing the two is easier said than done, though: with education resources always at a premium, districts might feel like they have to spend their limited time and capacity on one or the other. But it’s not an either-or situation. 

Next time: an overview of practical, high-level strategies for building cultures of support and performance.

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