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

As COVID-19's impact on teacher morale, retention and development continues to be felt in classrooms across the country, how are you building buy-in for your professional learning program to meet this new reality?

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 have been given the 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 buy-in, 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:

  • Support Characteristics: Districts in this category may not yet have well-defined coaching and mentorship programs, or they may be informal or inconsistent. Districts that lag in their culture of support may also lack clear definitions for educator growth paths and goals. Without deeper insight into the growth and struggles educators are experiencing, it becomes more difficult to diagnose how to provide improvements.
  • Performance Characteristics: There may be a strategic plan for the district, but it doesn’t translate into clear actions and goals for administrators, principals, coaches, and teachers. Districts in this category may also not have consistent or well-guided data collection and reporting efforts. Activity in those areas may be compliance-driven, with little movement outside the minimum requirements. Without clarity about which results matter, it becomes more difficult to determine how to increase performance and outcomes.
  • Risks: All teams start out here, so don’t panic if this sounds like your district — but it is something you’ll want to work on consciously. This is because schools and districts in this category are at risk of high educator turnover, while also losing opportunities to provide the best possible education for students. Driving positive results could become more challenging due to the negative feedback loop of suppressed educational outcomes and lack of teacher support.

Culture of Complacency – High support and low performance:

  • Support characteristics: Districts in this category place an emphasis on mentorship, coaching, and ample PD options for their educators. Informal learning walks or classroom observations are common, and there is good collaboration between teachers and their mentors and coaches, backed up by strong support from district administration. Yet without the emphasis on performance, the support can be overly reliant on qualitative feedback and individual experience, leading to a risk of less consistent and equitable activity. In addition, there may not be a fully established feedback loop to help provide insight on how to hone the type of support best for each individual.
  • Performance characteristics: Districts experiencing high support but low performance can experience a lack of clarity around goals that causes misalignment between staff. When a district doesn’t have clearly aligned and communicated expectations and goals, individuals will often fill in the gaps with what they think is best. If educators are well-supported, this may lead to some pockets of success. However, it’s likely to lead to inconsistent results that’s not in the best interest of either educators or students within the district. Coaches and mentors are placed in a difficult situation where the burden of alignment falls primarily on them. In addition, if there is a lack of attention to data and results, it will be difficult to diagnose what’s supporting improvement and what’s hindering it — creating more friction to building a culture of growth.
  • Risks: Districts in this category may experience a bit of stagnation and underachieving results. The lack of clarity around goals may produce more divergent experiences across different classrooms over time. Without a common framework to assess performance as it relates to district goals, it’s harder to determine strategies for improvement and easier for bias to subtly impact outcomes.

Culture of Churn – Low support and high performance:  

  • Support characteristics: Districts that are low on support and high on performance create an environment that some teachers may find challenging. When there are high expectations without a complementary level of support, teachers might feel that they’re on their own — and as a result struggle more to reach their full potential. A common theme for districts in these situations is prioritizing compliance activities over growth activities. Professional learning options exist, but they’re less emphasized than performance and disconnected from evaluations. When support structures aren’t clear, welcoming, and accessible, teachers are hesitant to reach out for help if they feel they are struggling.
  • Performance characteristics: Districts in this situation have done the hard work of setting strategic goals, determining the criteria and pedagogical practice that drive those outcomes, and likely emphasizes performance commitments to the broader community. But while district strategic goals may be set, the evaluation rubric may be clear, and PD may be available… if a district has a low culture of support, it’s unlikely these goals are fully connected to educator progress. In this situation, a district may find that levels of teacher success vary more than they should. It could also lead to burnout, as teachers may find it hard to have a large balance of the responsibility charting their own development path against more rigorous standards.
  • Risks: Districts with cultures that highly value performance but undervalue support often experience higher teacher turnover. Some educators can flourish in this situation as self-starters in their own professional growth, but for most people, it’s just counterproductive. Many teachers may rapidly begin to feel burned out if they are struggling to reach performance goals without the right support network around them to diagnose the blockers and help work past them. Districts that find themselves in this spot should begin to think about comprehensive supports that unlock teachers’ potential and enable the team to reach the performance goals with minimum friction and uncertainty.

Culture of Growth – High support and high performance:

  • Support characteristics: Teachers are provided with continuous, job-embedded, and high-quality professional support in a variety of forms such as mentorship, coaching, and high quality professional learning opportunities. Clear goals are set, and how to achieve them is mutually understood. Consistent and organized data collection and reporting equitably guides efforts to improve educator growth across the entire workforce. PLCs likely exist within the district and are active and healthy. Overall, educators feel supported so that they are always ready to ask for help when needed, and provide help and guidance when they can. This eagerness for improvement and support helps drive positive and continual growth for the district as an organization and the educators within it.
  • Performance characteristics:  District strategic goals are set and understood at the high level, and those goals translate down all the way to individual actions and responsibilities that are well-understood by administrators, principals, coaches, mentors, and teachers. With this level of alignment, educators know what they’re responsible for, how to achieve it, and how to ask for help and support if things aren’t working out. Since teachers know they’ll be supported, there is minimal hesitation to reach out when they notice things aren’t going perfectly — that means issues get addressed earlier before they become challenges. And with this support network, the educators within the district feel that the goals are attainable and can approach them with confidence.
  • Opportunity:  Districts that have strong cultures of support and performance are set up for success. When the culture of performance is able to set an ambitious tone, identify goals, and set high standards for a district, educators are aware of what’s needed to be successful. When that clarity is combined with a robust culture of support and associated activities, those educators know exactly how to supplement their own work and development with the help of their peer and coach/mentor network. This also enables principals and administrators to have clearer frameworks in how they look at performance across a district, and diagnose how to adjust the levers and use the tools of support available to continually optimize outcomes. Districts in this quadrant have the potential to fully realize all of their capabilities and strengths as a team of educators, and can create the feedback loops that guide them to do so.

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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