Intentional Retention Via Perception Surveys

Type: Article
Topics: District & School Operations, School Administrator Magazine, School Staff Shortages

May 01, 2024

In Kalamazoo, Mich., human resources leadership makes major gains in holding onto teachers by identifying the intangible aspects of support
A Black woman sitting at her desk using her computer wearing a black blazer
Sheila Dorsey-Smith, assistant superintendent for human resources at Kalamazoo Public Schools in Michigan, leads the district’s initiative to improve teacher job satisfaction. PHOTO COURTESY OF KALAMAZOO, MICH., PUBLIC SCHOOLS

A school’s strength depends on the resilience and stability of its teaching staff. Teacher retention affects more than just the classroom. It affects culture, student achievement and overall well-being.

For a school district’s human resources administrator like me, the challenge isn’t just hiring teachers, but shaping and maintaining an environment that supports their professional growth and keeps them interested in continuing to learn and work in the district.

Kalamazoo Public Schools is a mid-sized urban school district of 12,200 students in southwest Michigan. It is a college town with a university that once had a bustling teacher education department.

When I arrived 14 years ago to take on the role of assistant superintendent for human resources, I thought the district had a pervasive “Happy Days” feel. The community felt much smaller than it was. Everyone appeared to be on a first-name basis, and most teachers worked in the school district until they retired. As a matter of fact, there were few vacant positions as the district was a destination workplace for the community.

Serious Reconsiderations

Over the years, the landscape changed, with some of the younger teachers working long enough to qualify for student loan repayments and others leaving the district to be closer to family. We knew each departing teacher’s destination and reason for leaving, and we felt good about that.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, with all the concerns around safety as well as the negative impact of culture and climate issues that resulted in increased student behavioral concerns.

Like all districts around the country, Kalamazoo Public Schools was affected harshly by the pandemic. The district closed to in-person instruction for 18 months, and when it reopened, many teachers were terrified to return to face-to-face instruction. Some felt a sense of hopelessness that students were behind academically from a year-and-a-half of online instruction.

The pandemic prompted many teachers to reconsider what was important in their lives and to make decisions accordingly. For our school system, that meant that for the first time in many years, we had vacancies during a national teacher shortage with few prospects to fill those vacancies. The changing circumstances prompted us to shift our attention toward keeping our existing teachers.

Deeper Understanding

As the human resources official, I needed to listen to our teachers and understand their priorities. My approach to leading change involves understanding the reasons behind the proposed change and enabling effective communication among stakeholders. A central focus is to ensure our staff feels supported, which is achieved through actively hearing and incorporating their voices into our work.

Part of our retention strategy was to better understand teachers’ comprehensive needs by administering periodic surveys. We realized through regular conversations with union leadership that one issue was the teachers’ distrust of surveys due to the unfounded fear of lack of confidentiality and subsequent retaliation. We needed a way to provide real-time feedback to schools that might affect building-level teacher retention while ensuring teachers’ anonymity.

There is a saying that parents pick their children’s teachers, and teachers decide to stay in a school based on their perception of school leadership. I wanted to test that theory. At a professional conference years earlier, I met Henry Wellington, founder and CEO of Upbeat, a company that administered confidential teacher perception surveys on teacher engagement. We needed concrete data to move forward strategically, so I called Upbeat to help.

An Improvement Journey

We began our cultural and climate improvement process by sharing our vision with the administrators’ union and then the teachers’ union. Once they understood the possible impact of the survey data on teacher retention, we promoted the survey together at the central-office and building levels. The teachers’ union promoted the survey and encouraged teacher participation through its social media presence.

Principals initially were reticent to participate because it seemed to them that teachers would be evaluating them as building leaders. We assured principals the survey data had no bearing on their evaluation and emphasized the data were intended for the school to interpret and use as a guide toward improvement.

We administered the first teacher survey over a two-week period in spring 2021. A few of the themes were professional development, teacher/teacher trust and school safety and order. Upbeat returned an analysis of the results to us within two weeks, as well as district-level and school-based reports.

At the district level, we used data to develop goals and focus areas. For instance, 29 percent of the teachers in our district felt they were not involved in hiring professional staff. That was an easy fix. We simply instructed school hiring teams to include teachers on the panels of professional staff hiring. Due to our twice-a-year data cycles, we were able to monitor responses to that question. Most recently, 44 percent of teachers said they felt they were included in the hiring of professional staff.

Trusting Relationships

A key component of the Upbeat partnership is supporting principals and empowering them to make culture changes based on staff feedback. After the survey administration, each Kalamazoo principal met with experienced leadership coaches to review her or his school’s individualized reports, share the data with teaching staff and create a specific action plan for their teachers.

Because of our significant trust in our building leaders, we allowed principals to choose their continuous improvement focus by analyzing their data and collaborating with their coach. Even more than central-office administrators, principals are eager to retain their teachers to sustain the momentum of building-level initiatives.

Our schools have interpreted their school-level data with their staff and implemented actionable goals to change teacher perceptions about engagement. Because teachers see the data and are a part of it, they feel ownership and know the data are being used to implement positive changes in their schools.

A bald Black man in a gray suit in front of a brick wall and sign that says Milwood School
Craig LeSuer, principal of Milwood Public School in Kalamazoo, Mich., learned the value of expressing appreciation to his teachers so they realized he valued their contributions. PHOTO COURTESY OF KALAMAZOO, MICH., PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Although some principals initially were hesitant to implement the survey, many now acknowledge the potential of the improvement cycle as a valuable resource to support their teachers. Two Kalamazoo principals stand out in this regard: Julie McDonald and Craig LeSuer, principals at Edison Academy and Milwood Elementary School, respectively.

At Edison Academy, during the fall 2021 survey cycle, only 67 percent of teachers agreed that “administrators at my school let me know when I am doing great work.” After working with the leadership coach, McDonald developed a plan based on the elementary principal’s book study on the Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace. In the spring 2023 survey cycle, 90 percent of Edison staff said their hard work was being noticed. Also, in one of the highest-poverty schools in our district, 100 percent indicated they trusted McDonald and agreed she looked out for their well-being. The retention at Edison last year was 96 percent.

At Milwood Elementary, LeSuer encouraged his staff to take advantage of what he called a “heck of an opportunity” to provide feedback to him and the district. In the fall 2021 survey cycle, just 30 percent of teachers responded that they thought the professional development they experienced was a good use of their time.

In partnership with his leadership coach, LeSuer began working on a process for strengthening school-based professional development offerings. He accessed new funding from the state to offer support for the district’s new literacy curriculum. He solicited teachers’ input on developing a schedule of offerings that was both flexible and comprehensive. In the spring 2023 survey, 75 percent of the teachers reported that the school’s professional development was a valuable use of time. The retention among staff at Milwood was 100 percent last year.

Collective Responsibility

The teacher retention process is ongoing, and the Kalamazoo district uses the improvement cycle to enhance our support for teachers. Involving key stakeholders in climate and culture improvement has transformed retention into a collective responsibility throughout the district.

Our district achieved an 86 percent retention rate in the last school year, surpassing the statewide average. Despite the challenges faced in recent years, we have a clear strategy to listen to teachers’ needs, to act and to support retention. n

Sheila Dorsey-Smith is assistant superintendent of human resources in the Kalamazoo Public Schools in Kalamazoo, Mich.


Sheila R. Dorsey-Smith

Assistant superintendent of human resources

Kalamazoo, Mich.

Applying the Five Languages of Teacher Appreciation

In my work as an assistant superintendent of human resources, I hear a variety of concerns from individuals, union personnel and stakeholders. One of the most common themes is “I don’t (or we don’t) feel supported.”

As I work with employee groups to unpack what support looks like, neither individuals nor the unions deny that we support them in myriad ways. However, as they acknowledge the support, they often say, “Yes, that’s true, but … .” After many such conversations, I realized at the district level that we were talking about tangible resources and visible support whereas our employees were talking about intangibles.

For example, compensation often is part of the discussions about support. When we compare the compensation that we provide versus what other districts in the county or region offer, it’s clear we surpass the average compensation in every employee group.

When teachers request additional in-classroom support or support with student behavior, we discuss what that looks like in light of the district budget. Through honest dialogue, we reach an understanding about the economic aspects of support, so those areas alone are not the problem. The disconnect is with the intangibles.

Constructing Connections

The very fabric of the work I do is to build connections with individuals and bargaining units. The work has become introspective because no matter what we think we are doing, if the employee does not feel supported, retention will be a problem.

Our director of elementary education, Micole Dyson, decided to address the thinking around support with a book study on The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace by Gary Chapman and Paul White. According to Chapman and White, the five languages are words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, tangible gifts and appropriate physical touch.

Over eight months, the elementary principals read the book and followed up with action research in their buildings. By talking to, surveying and connecting with their teachers, they identified each teacher’s appreciation language. For some teachers, it was verbal affirmation. For others, it was giving gifts. For others, it was receiving gifts, spending quality time with the principal or appropriate physical touch.

Administrators were able to do small things to acknowledge staff in the way the teachers identified as important to them, ways that would make them feel supported. Principals recognized teachers’ work at staff meetings, asked them to lead professional development or gave them a favorite candy bar and a short note of appreciation.

Intentional Acts

The variety of deliberate acts by the principals provided the receivers the satisfaction and feeling of support they wanted, whether it was a card and miniature candy bar or being the featured presenter at the building’s professional development. What mattered most was that the teachers felt heard and supported in a language they understood.

Our work has been intentional, and it shows in the retention numbers as well as the number of applications to work in the district. The increase in the retention rates and upward application trends show our deliberate work is paying off.

—  Sheila Dorsey-Smith

Additional Resources

Sheila Dorsey-Smith recommends these informational resources for school leaders interested in creating an environment that supports teacher growth and retains them in the district.

  • From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)Creating School for Every Child by Michael B. Horn, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2022.
  • Healthy Leadership by Lee J. Colon and Julie Davis-Colon, CornerStone Leadership Institute, Horseshoe Bay, Texas, 2022.
  • “Shortage to Surplus: 5 Shifts to Address the National Educator Shortage” American Association of School Personnel Administrators, Overland Park, Kan., October 2023,
  • What Great Principals Do Differently: Twenty Things That Matter Most by Todd Whitaker, Routledge, New York, 2022.