Leading Off: Improving Your Culture Through Onboarding

Amanda Holdsworth, Ed.D., APR
Amanda Holdsworth, Ed.D., APR

Editor’s Note: Despite all that is going on with the COVID-19 crisis, preparations for when schools can reopen and the onboarding of new employees is still important. This article gives some guidance for new staff and new situations.

Do you remember the moment you arrived at your new school on your first day as an employee? You were most likely feeling excited, anxious and perhaps even a bit nervous.

Now think back to that day: Were you greeted at the door and assigned a mentor or given a schedule for your first day? Did someone from the school reach out a week or two in advance with a friendly greeting and excitement for you to start? Were you told what to expect as a new employee?

Some schools do an amazing job of onboarding new employees. Their principals recognize that recruiting and retaining top talent can be challenging and time-consuming, and they want to do everything they can to facilitate a cohesive team.

Other school leaders, unfortunately, let new employees flounder, with the expectation that other staff members or teachers will show them what to do and where to go. For this lack of an onboarding plan, they cite reasons such as being “too busy.”

The effects of engagement on culture

According to a 2017 report by The Learning Policy Institute, 90% of open teaching positions each year are due to teachers leaving the profession, with almost two-thirds of those leaving because of dissatisfaction with their roles. In schools, you can’t hide dissatisfied employees or a poor organizational culture. Parents and students will notice quickly if teachers or staff members are unhappy, and they may begin to question what’s really happening behind the scenes.

On the flip side, employees who feel valued, supported and appreciated are likely to be loyal to a school, serve in leadership roles and contribute to a positive culture. They become the school’s biggest cheerleaders, empowering and engaging those around them, including students and co-workers.

How onboarding can lead to better engagement

New employees are usually energetic and excited to be there, and if you can properly guide them through their first weeks and months on the job, they are more likely to maintain that enthusiasm both in and out of the classroom.

A proven way to do this is through onboarding, the process of integrating a new employee into an organization using both formal and informal processes. The purpose is to welcome new employees; get them up to speed on your mission, vision and values; review policies and procedures; and introduce them to other staff members and teachers. In short, you want new employees to feel like a member of your team from day one, engaged and ready to contribute.

What to include in your onboarding program

Although the school district may hold a new employee orientation event, only you know your school, your team and the demands and expectations they must meet every day. A school-specific onboarding program does not have to be difficult or complicated, nor does it have to be completely revamped each year.

  • Make it timely:
    Start by deciding how much time you can dedicate to new employees. If it’s two hours at the beginning of teachers’ first week back or a full day, ensure that the session length is doable. I recommend, for the sake of efficiency and timeliness, that you conduct one training for all new employees as close to their first day as possible.

  • Determine the content:
    Each school has its own unique culture, which consists of informal rules such as where to park, where to store lunches, which copier to use, etc. Ask current employees what they wish they would have known when they started at your school, and you’ll most likely come up with a great checklist of items to review with the newbies. Also consider asking current employees if they would like to be included in the process; they’ll feel valued and appreciated for their expertise, which, in turn, creates a stronger culture.

  • Evaluate:
    Finally, follow up with new employees two weeks after their onboarding session. Have an informal sit-down with them to find out if there’s anything you should have covered, what you can improve on for future programs and how you can help them succeed in their new roles. This will help you not only capture valuable feedback but also reinforce the type of engagement and involvement that leads to a positive culture.


Dr. Amanda Holdsworth, APR, founder of Amanda Holdsworth Communications, has worked in school PR and marketing for two decades. Contact her at hello@holdsworthcommunications.com.