Throughout this year, you will see the voices of many SAIS board members in this spot as the organization transitions to new leadership. Our February news comes from Autumn Adkins Graves, head of St. Anne’s-Belfield School, a PK-12 boarding and day school in Charlottesville, VA. Lisa Ha, chief strategic communications officer at St. Anne’s-Belfield, was also a contributing author. 

As we are currently in teacher recruitment season, I know many of you are thinking about how best to position your schools to attract the best applicants. The rate of teachers exiting the profession is at an all-time high. A large swath of the world’s employees feel disengaged and disillusioned at work — up to 77%, according to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report. That same report says nearly six in ten employees are “quiet quitting,” being physically present but psychologically distant at work. As a sign of changing demographics and perceptions of work, it is estimated that in 2027, 50% of the total U.S. workforce will engage in the gig economy.

It’s a different world and economy than when I started as a “triple threat” in the mid-1990s: teacher, coach, and dorm parent. I remember signing my first teaching contract, agreeing that my school was my only employer and that I could not, under any circumstances, hold an outside job without written permission from the head of school. Nowadays, I am pretty sure teachers would laugh me out of the room if I told them that was a condition of employment. It is highly tempting to look at “young people today” and dismiss them as “not wanting to work” or “demanding white-glove treatment” that we never received ourselves. However, as economies and attitudes shift, have we independent school leaders adequately led our schools to be responsive to the times? How do we balance being in service to students, families, and teachers with calls for increased flexibility? 

Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business states that organizations should focus on how all employees experience what she calls the four freedoms that generate flourishing at work: being our authentic selves, becoming our best selves, occasionally fading into the background, and failing in ways that help us and our teams learn. Ensuring our schools distribute these four freedoms across our entire organization, especially among historically underrepresented groups, is particularly essential. 

Research suggests that Dr. Roberts is offering sage advice. When asked for one change to make their current employer a great workplace, 57% of “quiet quitters” had answers related to engagement and culture or wellbeing. They wanted more recognition, learning opportunities, fair treatment, clearer goals, and better management. Perhaps counterintuitively, but in line with previous bodies of research on the topic, better pay and benefits were only cited by 28% of respondents. In short, employees desire the freedom to flourish.

As head of school, I am constantly working to create an environment where teachers can flourish so our students can thrive. While we are not immune to the same recruitment and retention challenges that so many schools are navigating, I am considering a few methods to ensure the short- and long-term health of our school’s talent.

The Freedom to Be

Dr. Roberts describes the “Freedom to Be” as having affirmation and comfort in being our authentic selves at work. 

Support Entrepreneurs and Employee Interests Outside of School 
As a leadership team, we recognize that employees may have other interests in addition to their full-time teaching role, which can include “moonlighting” or secondary employment. Like most schools, we want our arts teachers to be working artists so they stay fresh and connected to their discipline. We want our computer science teachers to continue flexing their programming skills in non-academic settings. We want our coaches and physical education teachers to continue being athletes. We want our teachers to have a “life of the mind” outside their teaching roles and keep their research, writing, and analysis skills fresh and relevant. We celebrate these teachers via social media or special news stories about the businesses they start, their gallery or film openings, or the boards on which they sit. 

We also value entrepreneurial skills as a critical toolkit our students must develop to thrive in the evolving economy. As teachers serve as role models and practitioners, supporting teachers in their entrepreneurial pursuits can inspire and instruct our students.  

The Freedom to Become

Employees have a desire to learn and grow. What growth looks like differs from person to person, and our schools need to consider how we nurture that ambition in our teachers. Some teachers aspire to school leadership, and others want to be masterful teachers. It is important that school leaders provide differentiated opportunities to develop these ambitions in the same way we differentiate our assessments for our students. 

Develop Leadership Capacity
I firmly believe leadership can be from any seat at the proverbial table. To best support teachers’ development, it helps them to understand how the school runs and why we do what we do from an operations and academic perspective. Knowing more about the business of schools enables teachers and staff to make more informed decisions. Some of the best suggestions for school strategy and improvement can come from well-informed teachers and staff. These colleagues are more impactful. They become my thought partners. 

At my current and previous schools, I have a practice of offering a professional development opportunity so colleagues are better informed thought partners for our leadership team or to prepare them for future leadership positions at my school or another institution. Over the course of a year, a small cohort of colleagues learn about the school’s inner workings, culminating in an incubator project that the employee undertakes, sometimes bearing responsibility for the project beyond our year together. While certainly time-intensive for all participants, this approach has proven to be an excellent and meaningful way to build leadership capacity, cultivate innovation, and increase the sense of community among high-potential teachers and staff members.

Some faculty and staff do have aspirations for administrative and school leadership positions. I encourage you to identify and cultivate those aspirations, even if your school is small and any advancement would mean the employee must move on to their next opportunity. There is no better compliment to your school or to you as a leader than when someone you have cultivated takes the next step in their leadership journey. 

The Freedom to Fade

“In a dominant culture of hustle and perfectionism,” Dr. Roberts says, “employees need a way to take a break from the performance pressure.” 

Give Permission to Rejuvenate
During the height of the pandemic, when the line between work and home became extremely thin, many of our school employees relied on technology to perform the majority of our duties. Pressure to be “always on” intensified. Several months after COVID moved into more of an endemic mode, I remember being hit by the realization that I was no longer spending my weekends and evenings acting as a public health director. I was simply serving as a head of school again (as “simple” as being a head of school can ever be.) My colleagues similarly needed to fade from pandemic mode, and I found that some required explicit permission to do so. That’s why, at the opening of a school meeting with all colleagues each August, I now remind employees that I do not expect them to be checking or responding to email after hours. I do want them to reply to parent/guardian communication within 48 school hours, but that response can simply say that the message was received, and a more thorough response is forthcoming. Likewise, in my welcome back email to families, I outline this expectation in hopes they will be understanding of this boundary. While this is a small step, being transparent in our expectations allows faculty and staff to rejuvenate without scrutiny or guilt.

The Freedom to Fail

In our school communities, we encourage risk-taking on behalf of our students. We want our students to know that school is a safe place to experiment and, when they make mistakes, to persevere and try again. How many of us apply this same perspective to our colleagues? 

Perhaps the most important freedom of all, having the psychological safety to fail — contributing ideas that may contradict the norm, raising concerns without fear of reprisal, and trying new methods that may not succeed — is vital to a thriving workforce. From my 30 years of experience in the industry, I know that those of us who work in independent schools often hold incredibly high standards for ourselves and those high standards can impede our own and our colleagues’ “Freedom to Fail.” We have had many discussions among my senior leadership team about the importance of allowing employees to fall forward and take smart risks. Thankfully, I inherited a school with an innovation culture, and continue to build that capacity within the culture. It’s a tricky balance because while we want teachers to take risks, we don’t want our students to be hurt when the innovation doesn’t work as we had hoped. It’s a delicate balance. 

What might a calculated or smart risk look like at your school? What are the signals that your colleagues feel free to fail, and what are the signs that they might not? I can’t answer this for your school, but I encourage you to have the conversation with your leadership team, revisit it periodically, and recommit to this value.

Finally, Remember That This Is a People Business

I am in no way an expert in recruitment and retention strategy. If I could devise a formula that always yielded the results that the institution wanted at the exact moment they wanted them, I would be in a completely different industry. After all, we work in the people business. There are more factors in an employee’s life than what they do at work each day. Keeping our employees’ whole, complex selves in mind keeps our schools — and you — relevant. I encourage us all to provoke conversation and insert thinking that may not be conventional in independent schools. Surround yourself with thought partners from a wide variety of industries. Cultivate talent and ambition among your teachers and staff and listen when they have ideas that may challenge your previously-held opinions. In this manner, we can continue to strive to meet the needs of our students and deliver on our missions. 

Autumn Adkins Graves
Head of School
St. Anne’s-Belfield School
Charlottesville, VA