My 4 tips for holding positive, powerful stay interviews
We leaders know that these days, a lot of truly great teachers are facing stress and burnout, and retention can feel more challenging than ever. Before I became a middle school principal, I was a school paraprofessional, a substitute teacher, a classroom teacher and athletic coach, and a high school assistant principal – and in each role, my success and well-being depended on feeling seen and supported by administrators. I believe that being an effective, inspiring leader for my teachers means staying in touch with what it’s like for them to work in our building – and striving to make our school a place they’ll never want to leave. That’s why I’ve been holding “stay interviews” with my team.
Stay interviews are the opposite of exit interviews: They give us administrators a chance to learn about shifts we can make to encourage our most high-performing educators to stay in our buildings. Stay interviews also give us a chance to renew our teachers’ sense of value and purpose, for this year and next year – because each interview shows our staff we are committed to supporting them. I thought stay interviews would be a challenge to organize during our busy spring season, but they’re actually very simple to execute. Here are the 4 steps I recommend:
1. Set productive expectations.
When we leaders hold stay interviews, we want to hear our team’s honest thoughts, but it’s also important to keep the conversations productive. That’s why I recommend setting the expectation that participation doesn’t just mean sharing problems, it also means working toward solutions. Every Thursday night, I share a short motivational announcement for my team, including a list of “Five Things You Need To Know About Next Week.” I put stay interviews on the list as an invitation to collaborate with me. I let teachers know they could come individually or join a group, depending on their comfort level. And I set the stage for positivity by saying, “I need problem-solvers/happiness creators/change initiators! I would love to hold ‘stay interviews’ with you on how we can make our school more amazing than ever, from small ideas to big fixes.”
2. Lead with the positives.
I love starting with that first question, because as educators share their favorite things about teaching in our school, it sets a positive tone for the next questions: their needs, problems and suggestions. For example, staff pointed out that each time our students choose our “Teacher of the Week,” our eighth-grade teachers never win. I asked why not, and everyone said, “Eighth graders think it’s uncool to vote!” But instead of getting into a discouraged mindset, staff stayed upbeat and collaborated on ideas to get our eighth graders invested. We made voting a required community activity for all our students, and we encouraged students to reflect on times when a teacher made them feel understood and valued. And it worked! Now we see eighth-grade educators getting recognized as well, and eighth-grade students getting excited about celebrating their teachers.
3. Tackle harder questions with transparency.
After those first few questions, your teachers will probably feel ready to open up more, so you can get into the questions that may bring up negativity or stress:
To help teachers feel comfortable with tough questions, I remind them that I want our school to be the best school they’ve ever been part of, and if that’s what they want too, then I want them to stay with us forever! Some replies will be hard for us leaders to hear, but those replies bring us great opportunities to demonstrate our commitment and transparency, and that can make a big difference to retaining our staff.
Sometimes issues arise that I can’t control, and I tell teachers we don’t have to solve it right then – I’ll reflect on it, work on it and stay in touch about it. For example, a number of educators said our English curriculum puts extra work on their plates, but doesn’t make an effective difference for their students. When I kept hearing that problem, I knew it was probably burdening my entire English team. But curriculum is a district-level concern that I can’t change, so I had to be upfront about that. I said, “I’m going to continue to gather data on these responses, and if I see trends, then I’m going to take that data and pass it to our district administration.” Every teacher in the room said, “Well, that sounds awesome.” Now, no matter what I can or can’t change, my team knows I’m standing with them and advocating for them.
4. Offer follow-ups.
In some stay interviews, you might get a group of educators with nothing but good things to say. So many teachers told me the only reason they’d consider leaving would be for a promotion to instructional coach or administrator. That kind of feedback means so much to us leaders, because it tells us we’re creating the supportive culture our teachers need! But on the other hand, because that team culture is so important to educators, sometimes they don’t want to express criticism that involves another teacher. That’s why, after every group stay interview, I invite each participant to an optional 1:1 follow-up. For one teacher, that 1:1 created space to say they thought they were being unfairly held to a higher standard than another teacher. That gave me the chance to provide the clarity and affirmation the teacher really needed, but couldn’t ask for in front of a group. That teacher left our 1:1 feeling a lot better about growing their practice – so I highly recommend being proactive about those follow-up invitations!
When it comes to promoting team culture, I’m a perfectionist: I want to empower every educator to be a difference-maker for our students and a happiness-builder for our school. I support about 100 staff members, and I might not always know exactly what teachers need to thrive in their roles and invest in our school – but with stay interviews, I can show them that I always want to find out. Stay interviews provide a dedicated space for us to invest in our teachers – and to create the conditions they need to invest in our students and schools.
Every time a teacher asks me for a stay interview, I love to reply, “I am always here to listen to you and learn from you, so let’s get something on the calendar. I can do these interviews forever!” And I love to end each interview with, “Thank you for trusting me enough to share this information.”