Following the ezine advice on how to employ high quality staff, the second in the series discusses how to keep the right staff once they’re on board

In the first Secondary Headship e-bulletin we focused on the need for schools to ensure that they recruit high-quality staff. Assuming that you do recruit well, the next stage is to continue Jim Collins’s analogy (from his book Good to Great), keeping the right staff members ‘on the bus’. This is crucial if the organisation is to move forward and is the issue we consider here.

Retaining the right staff is a huge challenge and one that schools neglect at their peril. A good question to ask yourself is, ‘Do all of the staff in your school feel valued?’ I remember, as a deputy head, this question troubling me in an internal school review and then being even more troubled by the responses received!

What motivates staff?
Interestingly, the obvious answer of financial gain usually scores quite low in the list of personal drivers. In my experience the three key aspects that most correlate with personal motivation are:

  • job satisfaction
  • recognition
  • praise.

Understanding this should help school leaders choose a range of appropriate strategies in order to demonstrate to individuals that they are clearly valued.

Job satisfaction
Not only do you have to keep the right staff on the bus, you need to make sure they are in the right seats! It is essential that staff are given roles that match the skills, attributes and qualities they possess in order to feel that they are personally challenged and stretched. Senior leaders often manage this ‘matching exercise’, however, it is my belief that it is even more effective when middle leaders act to match roles and personal attributes without constantly referring to senior leaders for affirmation. Middle leaders then feel empowered to take decisive action and make best use of the people they have at their disposal. In this way both middle leaders and their teachers feel valued.

Another aspect linked to job satisfaction is avoiding the ‘plateau effect’, where people reach a certain stage in their career and fail to develop professionally at the same rate as they had done in their early years in teaching . Schools can do this by first, recognising the potential in staff and second, by investing in their professional development. This is even more productive if linked to a school-based project to act as an intellectual and work-related challenge.

Effective school staff can help influence the school culture, but are they given opportunities to do so? Creating systems for them to engage in mentoring and coaching activities with colleagues enables them to pass on their knowledge to others and identifies them as lead practitioners.

This is the area that I find most difficult. As a deputy head I felt very much in touch with staff in a way that I don’t as a headteacher. As a result, it is important for me to have a range of strategies to ensure that I have access to information about what staff do that justifies recognition. This needs to go beyond the information that can be gleaned from the weekly bulletin and is more about the small, seemingly incidental things people do that make a difference in the lives of their colleagues and students.

There is a need to develop a culture whereby the headteacher clearly outlines a desire to hear about the good things. I view my senior leaders as my eyes and ears within school and I expect regular updates from them linked to the departments and year groups they oversee. This process is formalised within meetings between middle and senior leaders and the information gathered allows me to speak to staff about aspects of their work they think I have no knowledge of.

Middle leaders play a role in this ‘investigation’ and are encouraged to tell me about examples worthy of merit and recognition. There are some clear benefits for middle leaders in doing this; when I speak to the member of staff to praise their work I will always identify the source of the information and therefore this reflects positively on the middle leader. This is what Daniel Goleman refers to in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ as the ‘emotional bank account’ and it allows leaders to make ‘withdrawals’ at a future date.

One strategy that has proved particularly successful is our staff ‘Star of the Week’ which is designed to reward acts of random kindness. All staff are encouraged to email me with their nomination, along with an explanation, and it has enabled me to become aware of some things that would otherwise have been missed. Also, when faced with multiple nominations, it allows me the opportunity to choose the nomination I feel most closely resembles the culture that I want to encourage. Some examples that have been highlighted at staff briefings include the teacher who donated her ‘not so old’ car to the motor vehicle maintenance curriculum group rather than use it as a trade-in against a new car and the staff member who gives up Saturday mornings to referee football matches for the sixth form team. These are the actions that deserve to be highlighted and used as an example to others.

What most people respond to is a kind word, compliment and expression of gratitude. Staff really do appreciate this, however, it is also the thing that can so easily be missed out, citing being ‘too busy’ as an excuse. Praising people can be done publicly and this has its place through staff meetings, reports to governors and assemblies. Our staff ‘Star of the Week’ is rewarded with a bottle of wine or flowers each week, although the nomination is the thing that people appreciate more than the gift.

I will often walk to a part of the school to praise a member of staff whilst visiting a number of lessons. What I am more aware of now is that the message can be diluted as staff think that I am just casually dropping the praise into conversation rather than understanding my real motive for visiting. Whilst I still use this approach, I also set aside some time each week to write personal postcards and to invite staff to my office to offer words of thanks or congratulations. It appears to be a happy compromise!


  • Collins, J (2001), Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, Random House Business Books
  • Goleman, D (1996), Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2009

About the author: Kieran McGrane and the leadership team at Federation of West Sleekburn Middle School and Bedlingtonshire Community High School, Northumberland