The Route to Achievement Leads Through the Human Resources Door

by Douglas Gephart

The fundamental difference between a high-performing school district and one struggling to close the achievement gap can be found inside the doors of your human resources department. That’s where the all-important duty of recruiting, supporting and retaining high-caliber teachers and other staff members is a make-or-break proposition.

Superintendents and other instructional leaders must know how teachers are performing, through first-hand observation and then engage in critical conversations about how effective teaching leads to greater student achievement. The human resources department plays a big part in how that happens.


GephartDoug Gephart

In Fremont, Calif., a highly diverse district of nearly 32,000 students whose families speak 114 different languages, we recognized the No. 1 factor influencing student achievement is directly related to the quality of instruction provided by the classroom teacher. Similarly, we realized the key to our recruiting strategy was the commitment to offer outstanding professional development programs aligned with the district’s instructional priorities and children’s learning needs.

Deeper Probes
In times of high demand and shortages of staff in key instructional areas, it is all too easy to make a hiring selection based upon someone’s past experiences without knowing why the candidate is available and why he or she wants to work in your school district. At these moments, you want the human resources department to check their assumptions with a thorough background exam. Unfortunately, school districts often take a shortcut in the interest of time, but that sometimes returns to haunt them after the candidate is employed.

A few years ago, faced with a shortage of advanced math instructors, we interviewed a candidate with a math major and 22 years of experience with beaming professional references. We asked ourselves, “Why would such a highly qualified teacher be willing to change districts and relocate to our community?”

Probing deeper and challenging why the previous school district would be so supportive about losing a high-quality teacher, the superintendent divulged the teacher’s indiscretion in providing backrubs to a female student he was tutoring, creating a major uproar in their small community. Initially this was concealed from our staff, but when pressed by the director of human resources, the superintendent was compelled to share the hidden details.

Taking the time to complete a thorough background check before placing the teacher in a classroom of unsuspecting children will save valuable time and resources from possibly disciplining the employee and initiating possible dismissal proceedings if the employee’s past indiscretions become a liability in the district.

Systemic Support
Recruiting high-performing teachers is not an easy task. Having recruited teachers extensively in California and throughout the country, my staff and I recognized salary was only one factor influencing candidate decisions in selecting a school district. Teacher salary may catch their eye, but quality candidates are too savvy to make salary their top priority.

The first question new teachers ask is “How will I be supported by the school district once I am hired?” School districts need to show teachers the systemic programs in place that will provide them with professional development and ongoing support to ensure their success.

Fremont Unified School District and other districts in California recognize the importance of supporting teacher development and implemented California’s Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment program for all first- and second-year teachers. Our new teachers rave about the training they receive in the areas of instructional delivery and, equally important, they believe the mentoring support they receive from school site mentors is invaluable when addressing student behavior issues. Our new teachers cite these examples as reasons Fremont was their district of choice.

Similarly, Arizona State University developed the Beginning Educator Support Team for teacher induction, mentoring and professional development statewide, an exemplary two-year mentoring program. These and similar programs for both new and veteran teachers are the keys to recruitment and retention of highly qualified teachers.

Tech Efficiencies
Beyond recruiting the best-available talent, the most effective human resources departments use technology to reduce ongoing employee costs and provide outstanding customer service. In my 35 years in education, this is perhaps the greatest shortcoming in central-office operations.

School districts cannot improve their organizational efficiencies without the benefits of technological advancements that will streamline personnel and payroll procedures; expedite employment application processes; reduce staffing costs with an automated substitute calling system; and minimize the need for staffing by becoming a paperless office. When developing school district priorities, superintendents need to make the human resources department one of their priorities.

The New Haven Unified School District in California is an example of a school district that has prioritized district resources to allow the human resources department to fully use technology to improve efficiencies.

The New Haven district gained community funding to provide uniform computer support throughout the district, enabling the human resources department to reduce paperwork, create direct access of potential job candidates to human resources staff and free up staff time for greater customer service to district employees and others.

Which Path?
Decisions involving school district personnel should not be taken lightly. Every hiring decision will move the district one step closer to or one step further from the path of educational excellence.

To maximize the human resources department’s contribution, district leadership must create a vision that aligns the interview and selection process with the desired knowledge, skills and attributes of school district staff. The vision ought to embrace diversity of culture, race and philosophy; create a professional development program that mirrors the district’s standards; and provide the human resources department with the resources and support to meet the school district’s mission.

Doug Gephart is a retired superintendent and past president of the American Association of School Personnel Administrators. He lives in Pleasanton, Calif. E-mail: