10 Tips to Nurturing Educator Talent in your School

In part three of my webinar series on talent management for school leaders, I took participants through ten tips to nurturing educator talent that I’ve garnered from my own leadership along with insights gathered from some of the more impactful and innovative schools that I’ve visited over the years. I offer them below for your consideration.

Relentless Mission Talk & Shared Vocabulary

In part one of my webinar, I started with mission and vision talk because that is where everything begins. The best person for one school will not be the best person for another. It depends upon the mission of the school as well as the context. That is the first key task in talent management, getting the right people on the team, people who live and breathe your school’s distinct mission, vision, and philosophy.

Yet, when you look at great schools, it doesn’t stop with hiring practices. Part of investing in and nurturing top talent in your school is working hard at keeping the mission, vision and philosophy alive and central to who you are and what you do. That means embedding it into everything, being relentless about it. It means having a shared vocabulary that supports the mission, vision and philosophy and nurturing the intentional use of it.

When people visit your school and wonder if they’ve stepped into a strange cult, then you might be on the right track. Of course, I don’t mean that completely literally, but I’m referring to this idea that people continue to have their own ideas and opinions, but they have a strong alignment with what matters most in the school. Like a best friend, you start finding yourself able to finish each other’s sentences (even if you don’t actually do it). You have a shared understanding of certain words and approaches so that you don’t have to waste precious energy redefining and re-defending everything (even when outsiders are not sure what you are talking about). This takes intentionality and investment in nurturing a certain culture, but once it is developed, it amplifies the impact and distinctiveness of your school community, not to mention cultivating a strong sense of loyalty and belonging among team members.

Quarterly measurable goals (team & individual)

It doesn’t have to be quarterly. It could be more often too. Yet, it can’t just be those painful and largely unproductive annual evaluations. A year is too long. We will see much more growth and progress if we are setting short-term goals and having a time for reflection and feedback that is frequent.

The Google approach is a promising option. As I understand it, this involves 1 to 3 team or unit quarterly goals (which could be the entire school if you are a small staff). In addition, each individual can have 1 to 3 quarterly goals that feed into the larger team goals.

Consider using something like the SMART goal system. The goal should be specific and measurable. It should the worthy and challenging, but measurable and realistic. It should also be time-bound.

Persistent Feedback Loops  (as it relates to individual and team goals)

Goals are good but then we need feedback on our progress. Are we on track, on target, going off target or something else? People in pursuit of excellence tend to crave feedback because they know it is key to getting better. If you are building this into the culture and it is a standard part of the interactions among teachers and others, then you’ve won half of the battle. You’ve made huge strides toward a high-impact culture, especially if people heed the insights from the feedback and make adjustments accordingly.

If people are nervous about feedback, then that might be a sign that we need to do it more often, so often that it becomes more familiar, less frightening, and more fundamental to how you do things. Of course, we also want feedback to be about getting better, not just beating people down. This means building trust, respect and making it about growth and learning.

Best people on biggest opportunities, not biggest problems. (ala Jim Collins)

As Jim Collins notes, you want to beware of wearing out your best people by always giving them the biggest problems. Give them a chance to invest time in promising opportunities that resonate with their gifts and passions as well. Also, money matters to most people, but we underestimate the power of meaning in our work. That is a huge part of helping people stay engaged and growing. As such, take the time to find out how the other person sees a project. Do they look at it as a problem or opportunity? You might be giving them a great opportunity, but they might not see it that way.

Significant investment in self-initiated and group agreed upon high-quality professional development.

When I’ve visited many high-impact organizations, they don’t tend to cut corners when it comes to professional development. I went to one school that paid for a skilled teacher to leave for a full year to get her MA in English at Harvard (the school was 1000 miles away) and then return (for a minimum of 3 years) to help build a world-class writing across the curriculum program for the school. Now that is investing in top talent for the sake of the school. The principal found outside funding to cover the costs.

Another school paid for all new teachers to go on a cross-country trip and attend an immersive 2-week training that cost them about $4500-5000 per person as part of their orientation and professional development. It made sure they were grounded in a key brain-based learning philosophy that they wanted to permeate the school. Was there a local graduate course that taught brain-based learning? Probably so. Yet, they were committed to the best training they could find.

In the end, this is the key. These great schools look for learning opportunities with the best minds they can find. Who are the 5-10 best minds or most skilled people in the world in this area? How can we observe them or learn from them? Then invest in bringing them to the school, reading their work, connecting via online technologies or something else. In the world of Skype and Google Hangouts, this is easier than ever for individual and group learning. It is also inspiring to many people to connect with some people.

Don’t forget experiential learning. Consider finding ways for people to get away and go observe great teachers and schools in action elsewhere. These field trips can be quite powerful and high-quality learning opportunities and they often cost far less than a course or conference.

Growth & personal development is a non-negotiable part of the culture.

This is another consistent trait. If we want to invest in top talent, we want to create a true culture of learning among the teachers. I mean, how are we ever going to have a great school if the people designing the learning experiences or nurturing the students do not embody traits like curiosity and a love of learning? This must be a non-negotiable that everyone embraces and encourages of one another. We read and discuss ideas together. We independently pursue new knowledge and skills. We thirst for getting better and/or learning new things.

You know that you have a culture of learning when more learning is seen as a reward. In some schools, teachers groan about professional development because they see it as irrelevant and a chore. Yet, in these impactful schools, a teacher “reward” might be two sub days and the money to go visit other high-impact schools. It is like in a video game. Your reward for winning one level is that you get to go to the next level. Now that is a sign of an engaging environment and it is possible among teachers (and students) in a school. Embed it in the rituals and practices and see what happens.

As this is part of the culture, we will see people peer mentoring, engaging in observations of one another, encouraging each other, setting up peer accountability and more. You know that you have a strong learning culture among teachers when peers hold one another accountable and that isn’t just the job of an isolated leader.

Communicate how they are an asset.

I can live in my head so much that I admit this is not a current strength. I can forget to do this and have to be quite intentional about making it a priority. Yet, this is powerful. You can have highly competent people who don’t reach their potential because they don’t have high levels of confidence. Yet, you can help nurture that by pointing out, in objective ways, how they are an asset, how they are contributing to important parts of the school. Do it sincerely and often. Do it in writing, in person, and in front of others (except when that is de-motivating for certain personalities).

Mandatory show and tell.

When people do go away to learn something, pursue new knowledge through a formal degree, go visit another school, take a class, go to a conference or something else; set up time for them to share what they learned and maybe lead a discussion with peers. This is a great way to spread the learning but also to further build that culture of learning.

Give them a voice.

We want people who have a voice and sense of agency. Invite the community into the decisions. This builds community, generates great ideas, and gives people a growing sense of agency and ownership; which is a key to engagement.

Be deeply invested in their optimal impact, even if that leads them elsewhere.

I believe that the mission of individual schools is important but there is a broader educational ecosystem that matters too. If you do all of the above, you will be helping people to grow and develop in amazing ways. This may well mean that they discover gifts and abilities that make them great leaders in other schools. This is a good thing. Invest in them while they are there and then genuinely desire the best for them and for their gifts to be best utilized, even when that means their moving on. In the end, you will have a strong connection that will likely benefit your school in unexpected ways after they leave. Who knows? In the future, they might end up sending you more top talent.

Other Ideas

Of course, there are many professional development ideas as well, but the 10 ideas above are what I considered to be key areas. If you are looking for other professional development ideas, please see the following article on 20 Ideas for Professional Development in the Digital Age.

20 Ideas for Professional Development in the Digital Age


Hiring Practices of World Class Schools

I have the privilege of leading a three-part webinar series on talent management for schools. Session number two is focused on acquiring top teacher talent for your school. As I’ve visited many great schools and organizations around the world, there is a clear pattern in their hiring practices, and I’m convinced that this is one valuable way to create a great school. It certainly isn’t the only ingredient, but based upon the missions and visions that I’ve seen in many schools, this is usually one of the important factors. As such, following are ten tips about hiring great teacher talent that I’ve extracted from my conversations, observations, and direct experience over the years.

1. Don’t wait for them to come to you.

Do winning NBA teams just wait for people to apply for a job to join the team? Of course not. They recruit. They search and study the possible candidates and they reach out to these people. I’ve met leaders of top schools that scout out top talent around the world and invest years nurturing some of that talent to join their school. This sort of commitment to finding and recruiting the best candidates continues because the people who do it see the results. They see how you can build an educator dream team. That doesn’t usually happen if you limit your search to the applicants from a few job postings.

2. Look in the less obvious places.

I realize that this is sacrilege in the halls of modern teacher licensure, but I stand by it, as I’ve seen the results. Yes, there are great teacher education programs that graduate excellent future teachers, and you certainly can (and probably should) look for great teachers working in these teacher education programs and other great schools. Yet, there is also incredible talent in some of the most unexpected areas. If you are creative in the way that you design your school, you can tap into amazing talent consisting of artists, entrepreneurs, inventors, scientists, poets, authors, retired professional athletes, decorated soldiers, entertainers, humanitarians, and professionals from dozens of fields. Sometimes these people can be a wonderful enhancement to the mission.

3. Look in the talent hotbeds.

Some places are just hotbeds for talent. Some think it is because top talent is drawn together in certain places. Others think it is because of the culture in certain communities and contexts…that it has a way of helping people achieve their best. I think it is combination of the two. Regardless, if you want to find top talent, look in schools and places that are already doing the sort of excellent work that you want to maintain or create in your learning organization. This might seem like common sense, but because we are sometimes used to just waiting for people to apply, we don’t look in these places.

One such collection of places that I highly recommend is international schools. I’m convinced that these are hotbeds for teachers who are curious, have a genuine love of learning, tend to be open to new things and adventure, and can be a great fit for an innovative school.

4. Read resumes from the bottom up.

Some argue that resumes don’t tell you much and I sympathize with that. Yet, I don’t think they are useless. It is just that some of the more telling and interesting insights to me come at the bottom of the resume. Look in the sections about hobbies, interests, achievements, and affiliations. Ask lots of questions about these as they can tell you a great deal about a person’s passions, deepest convictions, and their core identity. Since I believe that you ultimately teach what and who you are, this strikes me as a valuable approach.

5. Look for people who’ve experienced excellence in some area of their lives.

Related to the last one, look for people who’ve achieved excellence in their lives, set grand goals for themselves and achieved them (or failed but were not afraid to try something huge). Look for people who’ve invested themselves in developing a skill or knowledge base 0ver a long period of time, and they understand the power of persistence and deliberate practice. These are role models for learners, but they’ve also demonstrated an ability to use learning to achieve important things in their lives. They are about learning, not just schooling, which is what we want in any great school. This is why I give a second glance at people who’ve played music over a lifetime (and still do), distance runners and triathletes, people who earned black belts in a martial art (or are on their way), Eagle Scouts, practicing artists, and those who are long-time participants of some sort of rich, non-school community of practice.

6. Find strong evidence of curiosity and a love of learning.

Related to the last one, beware of the prospect who is more interested in the trappings of school than the substance of learning. We don’t need more experts in or students of the education system (recognizing that this is a bit self-incriminating) as much as we need people who are really curious about life, learning, and what it takes to help young people grow and become deeply curious, experiencing rich and rewarding learning. Find people who embody that in their lives and show evidence of helping others do the same.

7. Don’t settle.

Building the right team takes time and it can be tempting to just settle for a good. Don’t do it. Persist. Keep looking. Find that person who seems to be made to work at your school. I know that this can be nerve-wracking, but I also know from direct experience (even learning the hard way) that settling doesn’t work out in the long run, and it is far more costly than the pain and effort to work through a vacancy for a time.

8. Don’t delegate too quickly.

Depending upon the size of your organization, I realize that this is difficult advice to follow. Yet, I’m convinced that, if you are a key champion for the mission and vision of your learning organization, you want and need to be an active part of the search for new talent. Talent acquisition can make or destroy a great school, and I can think of few responsibilities of a school leader that are more important than talent management.

9. Only hire guilty teachers.

Do not hire someone unless there is, without question, enough evidence that any reasonable jury would find the candidate guilty of being sold out to what matters most to your school. This requires, of course, knowing what matters to your school. As I’ve written elsewhere, find out what is essential about your school, what is important, and what is merely present. Don’t hire a teacher unless they embody all the essentials. I’m not just talking about people who are okay with them. You want people who are completely, unashamedly guilty of being sold out to your mission, vision and core values.

10. Do they live and breathe the mission and vision for the school?

I know this is a bit of a repeat from the last point, but it is that important. Missionary hiring does not usually work out well. In fact, even if this is not entirely true, I encourage you to just assume that missionary hiring never works. What do I mean by missionary hiring? That comes from the idea of missionary dating. You meet a person who you want to spend the rest of your life with, but they don’t agree with your deepest values and beliefs. So, you date them or marry them with the hopes of converting them to your beliefs. I’ve heard stories of where that worked out for a person, but I’m going to suggest again, that this is a terribly dangerous practice in hiring. Your school culture and mission is too important to compromise on your core tenets. Only hire people who truly live and breathe the mission and vision for your school.

Be certain of it. Don’t just hope it is true. When it is hard to fill a position, I’ve seen leaders intentionally avoid asking the difficult question that would potentially surface that a person is not a good mission fit. Bad idea. In the end, a bad mission fit will probably not stick around long even if you do hire them. Or, if they do, you risk compromising your mission.

Follow these ten tips for finding and selecting top talent for your learning organization, and I am confident that you will find your mission and identity growing and strengthening over time. This is what great learning organizations do, and they do it because it works.

Are International Schools Hotbeds for Top Educator Talent?

International educators are amazing. Okay, so that is a sweeping generalization. I’m sure that we can find enough non-examples to challenge my claim. Nonetheless, I’ve been reflecting on my February trip to Hong Kong and Vietnam, where I had the pleasure of interacting with teachers at Hong Kong International School, Concordia International School in Hanoi (as well as couple other international schools in Hanoi), along with an impressive collection of international school educators from Asia and beyond who gathered in Hong Kong for the 21st Century Learning Conference. It left me considering the idea of international schools as hotbeds for top educator talent.

I’ve spoken at and attended many conferences over the years (well over a hundred), but I’ve never been to an event where educators collectively and individually demonstrated so much engagement, curiosity, and love for their work. It was the antithesis of events like [I originally referenced a specific event here, but decided it was in better taste to leave it out] which, I hate to say, have this subtle but evident intellectual stench of a dying education system. Instead, this conference of international educators was vibrant, inspiring, intellectually stimulating, and had the sweet aroma of hope for the future of education. I wasn’t with them long enough to better understand the impact of their practice, but I can say with confidence that, as a group, they conveyed a level of passion for the profession that was inspiring and heartening.

While I’m sure that some of these schools are grappling with plenty of serious issues, it was refreshing to attend an education event where people were not lamenting the latest external mandate and its implications on their school (although I’m sure that they must have at least some parallel challenges). They were not obsessing about external policy and self-preservation. Instead, they were talking about teaching and learning. As a group, these teachers cared about curiosity and a love of learning. As best as I could tell, they were largely interested in creating world-class learning communities and experiences for young people.

Again, I realize that my limited time in these contexts leaves some of these ideas as conjecture, but I’ve been to enough education conferences to trust my subjective experience to some degree, at least enough to know that the attendees at the 21st Century Learning Conference helped to create a wonderful and positive ethos, one that I would love to see at more education events, conferences, and communities. In fact, the ethos at this event was comparable to the climate at many of the innovative and student-centered learning organizations that I’ve highlighted on this blog over the years.

While it varied from school to school, there was certainly a consistent challenge among many of these international schools. Parents, for example, tend to have high standards for their children academically, wanting them to attend the best higher education institutions in the world. As such, you can find plenty of families interested in the traditional GPA, test scores and whatever else gives their student an advantage in the competitive admission process to these top Universities. At the same time, and I realize this is easier said than done (not to mention a bit presumptuous coming from an outsider), these are parents who are invested in their children’s education. If you can introduce them to the broader range of possibilities in education and the benefits for their children’s future, then you have a potent combination that can launch such a school into the stratosphere when it comes to student engagement and learning.

At minimum, reflecting on this trip and some of the distinctives of these teachers and their communities, I am certain of one thing. If I were starting a new school or I was leading a high-impact and innovative school in the United States, and I wanted to find top education talent, I guarantee you that I would be scanning the teaching rosters in top international schools around the world. I’m convinced that they have a special concentration of teachers with a sense of adventure, a commitment to excellence (in themselves and others), and an openness to trying something new and impactful in the education space.

With regard to the last paragraph, I should be more direct. I know the audience for my blog pretty well. I realize that one segment of my readership consists of many founders and leaders of innovative education organizations and schools. As such, I’m really writing this for you. If you are looking to find top educator talent for your school, check out the international schools.

Who Cares What College You Attended?

You worked hard throughout high school to earn a spot in that top ranked college. Throughout your time there, you continued to work and learn, hoping that it will pay off after graduation. You graduate college and apply for that first full-time job, proud to have the name of that well-known school near the top of your resume, right beside, “Bachelor of Science.” It is a large company, but you are excited that going to that top school gives you an edge over the competition, at least you think that it will. To your surprise, you come across a news article explaining that the company for which you applied a job strips out the school names from all applications, leaving you to compete with others on the basis of your basic background, but even more so your demonstrated competence.

The value and perception of credentials and competence is expanding as we continue to see experiments that highlight a regard for competence as much (or even more than) affiliation with a given higher education brand. Consider this recent news about a Fortune 500’s adjustment to their hiring practices. We are seeing an interesting tension in societies around the world, where more people are realizing that the top talent comes from all over the place, and popularity heuristics for narrowing a large pool of applicants is also causing these companies to miss out on some of the best talent in that pool. They take the Stanford graduate for a marketing job over the genius who went to a state school and could have transformed their business. As business analytics continues to reach and reshape human resource departments around the world, more people are coming to discover this fact. As Willing Hunting said amid an altercation in a pub with a proud Ivy League student,

“See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don’t do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fxxxxx education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.”

The quote isn’t factual, but it has proverbial truth. There is an unquestionable difference between going to a top college and having a library card. Yet, it is true in the sense that a motivated person can obtain a world-class education in alternative ways; whether through self-study or getting the most out of a less prestigious college. This is not to say that Ivy League and other élite schools lack value. Many of them continue to show themselves to be outstanding learning communities, providing students with unprecedented access to some brilliant and world-class thinkers, doers, and difference-makers. They also nurture a community where willing people can build some of the best lifelong networks available. At the same time, “some” is an important word. They don’t contain all or even the majority of the world-class thinkers, doers and difference-makers.

This is why we are seeing news headlines like this: “Professional services firm Deloitte has changed its selection process so recruiters do not know where candidates went to school or university.” As explained in one of my favorite talent management books, The Rare Find, people in all types of organizations who ultimately care about the highest level of performance are seeking new ways to review applicants, no longer leaning on a simple strategy like only hiring people from a certain school or set of schools. That might work relatively well in terms of hiring solid employees, but it is also a bit like only narrowly insisting upon only buying one brand of food or clothing because you know and trust the quality of their product. That meets your needs, but diminishes the possibility of you discovering and experiencing all the other amazing food and clothing in the world.

All this is happening just as we read and learn more about the value of not just nurturing or hiring well-rounded people; but understanding that some of the highest performers are not well-rounded. They are what some refer to as “spikey” or what I call wonderfully lopsided. They play to and build on their strengths instead of spending most of their time trying to round themselves perfectly by fixing all their flaws. Of course, some flaws hinder the ability to flourish and need addressing, but there is also a compelling case for focusing on what you do well. There is a place for the equivalent of the decathlete, but there is also plenty of room for the world-class sprinters, distance runners, or high-jumpers; and this is coming from a person who has a lifelong fascination with what it means to be a renaissance man.

This is not about diminishing one pathway. It is just about recognizing that there is more than one path to high-performance, excellence or competence. I recently learned about a large and well-known company that seeks to only hire from three or four schools that they trust. This probably makes their job easier. These schools have consistently produced good graduates who do well on the job. That is not the problem. The problem is that, in doing this, they might have missed out on a more diverse and even higher performing cohort of new hires who could set them apart from the competition and take their company to the next level. Heuristics are helpful, even necessary, as we only have so much time in the day. I understand the reason of the hiring unit that cuts down the people quickly by only accepting applicants with a certain credential or sifting by looking for people from certain schools. However, there is also value in evaluating our heuristics on occasion to see if there might be better ways to find the best and brightest. This is also a great way to address at least one workforce development problem today, namely wasted gifts, talents and abilities from willing people with uncommon backgrounds.