This is the time of the school year when principals do their best to meet two very important, and very different, mandates: ensure a successful conclusion to the current school year and begin the planning process for September.

Specific staffing parameters will be provided by each school district. The principal certainly needs to be very well versed in the key details, while also being committed to humanizing this very important, but often quite stressful, process. Change is exciting for some and rather overwhelming for others, so school leaders need to ensure teachers feel supported and informed.

Guiding Principles

Staff deserve to know their projected teaching assignment for next year as soon as possible, with the clear understanding that at this point in the process everything is tentative. Tentative means a slight change in assignment is possible over the next few months, but it does not mean staff should ever be surprised by a drastic development between now and the first day of school.

Principals have a moral obligation to ensure that all of their future staffing decisions are based on what is best for the overall school. Staffing season must have no place for personal friendships, petty vindictiveness or adopting a change for the sake of change mentality. All staffing decisions need to be very deliberate and driven by considerable thought and preparation.

The staffing process is one of the seminal times in every school year, and relationships between administration and some teachers can become strained. The reality is that not everyone is going to be delighted with their projected assignment, and principals have to ensure that staff concerns are always recognized and respected. It is not a question of a principal waffling on any decisions, but rather allowing teachers a genuine opportunity to feel heard.

From an emotional perspective, present staff will be very much aware of how their colleagues were treated, and from a practical perspective, the overall impact of staffing decisions can resonate for a long time.

Acquiring Information

Principals should already have distributed a staff preference sheet regarding next year’s assignments. These sheets afford teachers the opportunity to state their wishes for this fall. The hard reality is that these staff preferences sometimes don’t align with the principal’s preferences for a given staff member. As much as teachers clearly need to have their voice, principals will clearly make the ultimate decision as to where the given teacher will best fit within next year’s staff.

Receiving this information from staff and related discussions will help the principal gradually insert more and more pieces into next year’s staffing puzzle. The overall framework for this puzzle, however, will first come from the district level. As such, schools will soon receive their enrollment projections for next year and the accompanying staffing allocations.

Assembling The Team

Staff movement can be internal or external, while other teachers will be very content continuing with their present assignment next year. As much as the principal’s focus must always be on the best interests of the given school, it is also essential never to lose sight of the goals and aspirations of each staff member.

Leaders want to develop and nurture a school climate in which people are encouraged continually to push the envelope. For those seeking a change, principals need to be honest about what potential internal or external moves they would endorse. Losing key staff can certainly be frustrating in the short-term, but departing staff may well serve as the strongest advocates for your school and leadership. Rest assured, staff leaving your school at year end will share a very definite opinion of the principal’s leadership, supportive or otherwise.

Prioritizing Communication

The rumor mill can run rampant during staffing season and maintaining ongoing communication with affected staff is crucial. The principal must be very intentional about what staffing related updates would be best shared at a staff meeting as opposed to what information should be discussed privately with specific teachers. That being said, the only staffing information that should be conveyed electronically are ongoing reminders of key dates and timelines.

Early in the process, principals need to be honest and upfront with staff if their specific preferences cannot and will not be met in terms of next year’s assignments. Such conversations obviously need to be handled in a respectful manner, but there is no place for providing unrealistic optimism or false hope. Teachers deserve to know early on if they should be pursuing external opportunities, as finding out months later greatly diminishes their marketability.

Overarching Thoughts

Whenever current staff members plan to apply to other schools, principals must be both supportive and honest with the teacher as to what kind of reference they will receive. It is simply unconscionable for principals to tell teachers that their pursuits will be strongly endorsed, only to offer very tepid support of said teacher when called upon by administrative colleagues.

Speaking of administrative colleagues, principals must always be forthright when discussing teachers seeking external positions. A principal’s professional, and personal, credibility takes a permanent hit if their comments regarding a teacher are proven to be far from accurate. The bottom line is that all parties involved in all different aspects of staffing deserve to know the truth.

As much as some staff changes are inevitable, and healthy, principals should be very concerned if there is a large number of teachers actively seeking positions elsewhere. A mass staff exodus is generally a stinging indictment of one’s leadership and should trigger some deep and honest self-reflection.

About the authors

Jamie Bricker and Jack Barclay are retired school principals who live just outside of Toronto, Ontario. They co-host the Matters of Principal podcast.