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K-12 HR Leaders Share 6 Insights from the AASPA Conference

Human Resources

It’s all about the people. It’s all about the students.

Most likely, one of these (or both!) is why you’re in Human Resources in education. While the transactional work of HR — compliance, legislation, recruiting, paperwork — often take up the day-to-day, conferences are a great way to get re-energized about the important work of HR.

At the AASPA (American Association of School Personnel Administrators) Annual Conference this year, I interviewed nearly 20 HR leaders about what’s on their minds. What are their biggest challenges? How are they handling the teacher shortage? Why did they enter HR, and why do they stay?

Here’s what they had to say!

The Strategic Role of Human Resources 

Many HR leaders shared the difficulty of focusing on strategic work, while the transactional work — “putting out fires” — often clamors for the most attention. Yet, everyone agreed: HR leaders play a crucial strategic role in their school districts.

“We’re trying to educate other members of our organization that Human Resources does not just hire and fire employees. We’re a partner with each employee ensuring they get the best placement into a role, that they develop their skill set, that they have opportunities to grow and that they’re eligible for promotions.”  — Amy Holcombe, Executive Director of Talent Development, Guilford County Schools, NC

HR leaders are responsible for finding, hiring, developing and retaining the school district’s most valuable assets — its people. And what makes HR leaders so good at this job, is that they don’t view employees as just “assets” — they see individuals who need to be supported in their roles. HR leaders take the “human” in “human resources” very seriously.

This human perspective is a valuable voice in any organization, but how much more so in a school district — where engaging and supporting employees directly impacts student achievement?

At a conference like AASPA, HR leaders are reminded of the importance of this work in every facet of the K-12 organization.

The Challenge of the Teacher Shortage 

Without question, the teacher shortage is one of the top challenges faced by HR leaders in K-12. As our recent report on the teacher shortage found, many districts are still struggling to fill positions like special education, foreign languages and high school math and science.

Why? Many feel it’s an issue of pay and benefits. Others feel universities are not turning out the candidates needed with specialized skills. Still others say it’s the intense difficulty of the job and lack of support provided for new teachers.

HR leaders emphasized the importance of providing support for new teachers to ensure retention.

“It isn’t just what we do before someone comes on board with us; it’s what we do after they start working with our district. We have an outstanding mentoring program that we’ve recently overhauled that has really brought new teacher issues and how we support those teachers to the forefront.” — Dale Fisher, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources, Deerfield Public School District 109, IL

The Power of Culture

The teacher shortage is compounded by the flight of new teachers and administrators from their roles. Education has become a sieve, with many teachers lasting 5 years or even less.

HR leaders recognize that providing an engaging, supportive culture is key to solving the retention crisis. Strategic Human Resources leaders are now standing in the gap — finding innovative ways to support and engage new employees. From recruiting and onboarding, to professional development and evaluation, HR leaders have a huge impact on both first impressions and lasting retention.

“HR’s role in the school district is to make sure that we are maximizing people and their efforts and ability to do their jobs. We do that by making sure that you have a culture where people feel valued, feel respected, feel like their input matters and enjoy coming to work. That includes removing obstacles for people so that they’re able to effectively do their jobs and blossom and flourish in their roles.”  — Brian White, Executive Director of HR & Operations, Auburn-Washburn USD 437, Kansas

Supporting Professional Development for All Employees 

HR leaders were quick to share their passion for supporting employee development. Many are working in close partnership with the Curriculum and Instruction team to identify needs for development, provide appropriate training and tie results back to employee evaluations. In other districts, HR leaders have some involvement, but would like a larger voice in professional development — more than just how it impacts pay.

Some HR leaders see a unique opportunity to provide valuable management training to administrators from an HR perspective, like having difficult conversations with employees, resolving conflict and building a positive culture.

Other Human Resources leaders have identified an important area that is a gap for many districts: professional development for non-certified staff. The majority of funding and attention is funneled to development for educators; yet, progressive districts recognize the important role all employees — including support staff — play in creating a successful learning environment for students.

Diversity in the Workforce 

Another ongoing challenge is hiring for diversity, so that the district’s employees are representative of the student population. But beyond hiring, building a culture that supports and embraces diversity starts once again with the Human Resources department.

As keynote speaker Lenora Billings-Harris noted in her presentation, HR’s job is to create and maintain an environment where people feel safe to be authentically who they are.

Remember Why You’re in HR

The HR professionals I spoke with lit up when I asked how they got into HR — and why they have stayed. You as a Human Resources professional have an extremely challenging job, dealing with often the best and worst of situations. What keeps you going?

For many, it’s the joy of working with and helping people. For others, it’s the opportunity to impact children. K-12 Human Resources leaders have an incredibly important role! Don’t forget the “why” behind the valuable work you’re doing every day.

“I appreciate the times that people come up to me to say, “Thank you for considering and treating me like a human being.” There are some decisions we have to make as an employer that don’t appear to be concerned about the individual. But if we try to make those decisions in the best interest of all and be kind and considerate of the fact that these are human beings, it’s going to go a long way to making you feel like you can put your head on the pillow at night, knowing that you’ve done the best you can.” — Rebecca Partlow, Chief Personnel Officer, Rock Hill School District, SC


How about you? What did you learn from the AASPA Conference?

Allison Wert

Allison (Ali) Wert is the Content Marketing Manager of the award-winning content team at Frontline Education. She has been writing about education topics for nearly 10 years and specializes in best practices for K-12 strategic human capital management. Under her leadership, the team at Frontline was recognized as the Winner of CMA's 2017 Project of the Year and Best Content Marketing Program. Ali also helps to manage marketing for the Frontline Research & Learning Institute and The Line.