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Field Trip: Hiring, Engaging & Growing Great Teachers
Branding their district, attracting great candidates, engaging teachers and making sure all departments are aligned: how Blue Valley Schools upholds a stellar academic record and ensures they have an exemplary teacher in every classroom for every child.
This interview with Chief Human Resources Officer Bob Kreifels explores:
- How Blue Valley’s HR department determines which applicants are the best fit for their district, and then, how they attract them
- The rebranding effort that helped shape their success
- Internal cross-department collaboration to provide ongoing support for new hires – and make sure they’re equipped to succeed (and stay)
BOB KREIFELS: There’s always going to be a normal amount of turnover, but I think it’s really important for an institution to be reflective on why people leave and how to maybe improve retention.
Welcome to the Podcast for Leaders in Education, where we bring you stories from people who are innovating and creatively solving problems in K-12.
BOB KREIFELS: When you have principals that are able to highly engage their staff, then the teachers become more engaged which results in more engagement for students, which results in increased student learning and success.
Making sure every student gets a great education means attracting, hiring, and retaining great teachers, and promoting growth at every stage of their careers. Each episode, we speak with a leader in K-12 who has a story to tell along these lines and lessons to share. From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.
Today, I’m speaking with Bob Kreifels, Chief Human Resources Officer at Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kansas. Overland Park is a suburb of Kansas City and Blue Valley is known for its high academic performance. Thanks for joining us today Bob.
BOB KREIFELS: You’re welcome.
Blue Valley has good reason to be proud of its academic record…. On the math and science sections of the PISA exam, their students outperformed nearly every educational system in the world, following only Shanghai, China. They’re #1 on Niche Ranking’s 2017 “Best Places to Teach in Kansas.” And guess which district can claim the 2017 Kansas Teacher of the Year? I asked Bob what he attributes Blue Valley’s success to.
BOB KREIFELS: Well, I think probably the primary root of our success is in the strength of our teaching staff and our school system. We’ve had a concentrated effort on trying to bring in quality teachers and provide the best education possible for our students.
Your school board has set a strategic goal to have an exemplary teacher in every classroom for every child. Now that’s a worthy goal and certainly it involves multiple departments across the district. What did this mean for human resources? What questions did you ask in HR to meet this goal?
BOB KREIFELS: Once we had that goal identified, we began a process of trying to determine what an exemplary teacher actually was or how we would define it, how would we recruit and attract exemplary teachers and then obviously how would we maintain and retain exemplary teachers.
I know that Blue Valley is in a suburban environment in Kansas City. What impact does your location and your locale have on what you’re doing? Are there particular things that you’re seeing or tactics that you use due to your particular environment?
BOB KREIFELS: Well, we’re very fortunate to have our school district in a geographic area that does very well economically. Johnson County, Kansas is a county that has been recognized for being an attractive place for businesses, for families, for strong school districts, so that’s been a natural draw for people but of course that’s also made us increase the quality of services that we provide because of the high expectations that are put in front of us.
Blue Valley’s HR department began working on how they presented the district to potential applicants… a rebranding effort. That first meant looking at data to determine what were the qualities and attributes they were looking for in teachers.
BOB KREIFELS: Right, so part of our rebranding process really had multiple steps in it. One of the key steps was for us to determine what we were going to think about in terms of attributes of an exemplary teacher, so we tried to do some research on that piece. And we worked with our building principals and had one on one interviews with them and asked them questions about what they felt like exemplary teaching looked like in the classroom, and the people that they currently had in their building that they would match up with those attributes.
That gave us a lot of data that we were able to take a look at and determine what were the commonalities and were there some things that we could use then from that data in how we recruited, how we interviewed, and how we selected teachers that we thought would be the most exemplary for our students.
Once they had a clear picture of the ideal candidates they were looking for, they also looked at data to better understand what the applicants wanted. What were the things that would draw those applicants to Blue Valley?
BOB KREIFELS: We started off by trying to collect additional data. We developed a survey, and we worked with our communications department on this. I just want to make sure that I give acknowledgment to our other departments in terms of communications, academic services, particular professional learning. So it’s really been a collaborative effort in the school district. We developed a survey and we administered it to our current student teachers that we had had, teachers in year one, teachers in year two, three, and then four and beyond.
That survey really had five components to it. We wanted to ask questions about salary and benefits, about support and opportunities, digital communication, academic standards, and then achieving our goal, you know, how can we make sure that we do get that exemplary teacher?
They also asked teachers to rate how important different benefits and aspects of the job were when choosing a school district in which to work.
BOB KREIFELS: We asked about professional development, PLCs, academics, salary. We also went on and we asked questions about, “What would attract you to Blue Valley? What’s important to you in a school district” And then we asked questions like, “What words or phrases would you use to best describe Blue Valley or best describe the best Blue Valley teacher that you know?”
We developed some Wordles –
I had to look that up – it’s a type of word cloud.
BOB KREIFELS: — and in those Wordles, the strongest responses or the most common responses, the words that really popped out there were dedication, collaboration, and innovation. That became our HR tagline and what we built our rebranding under.
Can you talk a little bit more about each of those? When we say dedication, collaboration and innovation, are there particular ways that those three words manifest themselves in what your teachers are looking for and in what Blue Valley really excels at?
BOB KREIFELS: Sure. When we think about dedication, things that came to mind or are really encompassed within that are people that are compassionate for students, passionate about their work, creative, hardworking, professional, empathetic. So those are the qualities that fall under dedication.
For collaboration, that really deals more with the professional learning and support. It’s having high expectations, having high standards. It’s always striving to be the best and trying to become world-class if possible.
And then under innovation, it’s about items such that you think about when you think about teacher empowerment, technology, continued education, that always learning piece that’s there. So we’ve really tried to then talk about how the Blue Valley School District can provide opportunities and that those three words really represent who we are.
You have conducted these surveys of teachers who are working at Blue Valley. Have you also spoken with teachers who are leaving and tried to find out what is it that might draw people elsewhere?
BOB KREIFELS: Yes, we have. Obviously with the teacher shortage, retention is very important to us, and we want to keep high quality and exemplary teachers if at all possible. So we’ve done a couple different things to try and help us learn more about that and maybe become better at retention.
One thing we did, we asked our principals, “Okay, talk to us about the top five to ten teachers that you feel like would truly represent the exemplary in your building,” and they gave us the names and we sent them what we called a stay interview. That stay interview said, “What makes you excited to come to work every day? Why do you remain in Blue Valley? What’s important to you?”
We learned a lot of things through that process, about the power of teacher voice, about engagement and how important that is. And salary is always an issue, but it really wasn’t. It was more about relationships, success, and having positive interactions.
That allowed us to have future conversations with our principals and continued conversations about how we can reinforce that and continue to provide a quality work experience for those, so that ultimately it impacts student success
The second part we did, we did an exit interview, and we continue to do those. We asked people to respond [who] were leaving the district, questions about why you were leaving, was there anything about our district that impacted your decision to leave, are there any learnings or suggestions that you could provide to us that would help us not only attract but then continue to retain exemplary teachers.
You know, there is always going to be a normal amount of turnover, but I think it’s really important for an institution to be reflective on why people leave and how to improve retention.
Anyone who has spent any time at all on LinkedIn has seen articles about what it looks like to work with millennials, how to hire millennials, provide support to millennial employees, and they have noted that that might need to look a little bit different than what it does for other generations. What have you seen? How have you needed to adjust your methods or your messaging?
BOB KREIFELS: Well, what we’ve seen, and what we’ve listened to, is that the way that they want to receive information, the manner in which they want us to communicate with them and for them to communicate with us, has changed. So we’ve worked with our communications department on how we can create marketing campaigns, materials, items for our recruitment fairs, that would be more attractive to a millennial.
One interesting thing that we found out was we asked them, “How would you like to be communicated with?” Most of them had indicated, or a strong majority indicated through technology. And then when we asked the question, “In what method would you like to receive information about the Blue Valley School District at a recruitment event or college visit or just even an open house?” they told us that they wanted to have something to actually hold in their hands that gave them information about Blue Valley. Which were a little bit contradictory but I think also some way helps explain maybe the way that millennials are thinking and what brings them to making a decision about employment.
As Blue Valley has put a lot of work into identifying what their needs are and determining exactly what they mean when they say ‘exemplary teacher,’ I wanted to know more about what shape that process took internally. Who did the HR department work with? What did that cross-department collaboration look like?
BOB KREIFELS: It’s a combination of really working with everybody in the organization, but primarily through academic services and our professional learning personnel. We heard very loud and clear that support and continued learning and professional learning was very important to applicants, and so we want to make sure that they understand what opportunities will be available to them when they get here, and then we want to make sure that we provide quality experiences for them when they are here. So we’ve really partnered with them, and when we take a look at any information about onboarding and our mentor process, it’s really HR working with academic services through professional learning department.
As you conduct interviews with candidates, have you noticed any change in the questions that you need to ask versus what you would be seeing a decade ago for instance?
BOB KREIFELS: Oh, absolutely. One, the manner in which our kids learn today has really changed over the years, but two, our principals have become more adept at what quality instruction looks like and what are the needs that our students have that need to be met by exemplary teachers. And so, through those discussions over the years, but really more over the past few years when we’ve had more of a targeted effort, I think that we’ve really been able to refine and think more carefully about why we would select or recommend a candidate to be a teacher in Blue Valley.
Bob, how does this cross-department collaboration work when it comes to after you have hired somebody, when it comes to onboarding and then providing ongoing support for your employees — how does human resources work with the academic services and professional learning departments to make sure that teachers are equipped to succeed once they set foot in the district?
BOB KREIFELS: We are even currently having conversations about what that’s going to look like for the new hire class of 2018. We work with our professional learning colleagues on that very first week of bringing the new teachers on board. Human resources really takes the first morning to welcome them and to make sure that they have everything that they need as a new employee. And then our professional learning department takes over the next four and a half days. Every year, they continue to reflect on what was successful, what we heard that teachers needed — so that’s the beginning of the process.
We have a full two year mentorship program where we want to stay very closely connected to those teachers as they come onto Blue Valley because we know that that’s the most critical time for them to experience success and to determine that this is the right place for them to be and that they feel like they have the tools that they need, the resources they need, and the support they need to grow and become great teachers and do good things for our kids.
Of course, once you’ve hired great teachers, you want them to stay. What kind of work have you done in increasing retention at Blue Valley, making sure employees and teachers are engaged, that kind of thing?
BOB KREIFELS: Well, a couple of things that I can think of. We have taken a look at engagement and how important that is for an institution. The more highly engaged your employees are, obviously, the higher the productivity and how that translates to a school is, when you have district level and principals that are able to highly engage their staff, then the teachers become more engaged, which results in more engagement for students, which results in increased student learning and success.
So that’s been a conversation that we continue to have and bring up and take a look at. We’ve looked at some of the research that Gallup has done on that and tried to have conversations around that with our staff. Another thing that we have done and this isn’t something that we came up with, we actually read this in some studies, the idea of being irresistible and for us what that means is, really, a focus on retention. How can we just be somewhere that either is going to pull people in or once they’re here, how can we help them want to continue to stay here and be a part of our community?
So there’s a couple things that I would say. How can you make yourself irresistible? One, I think you have to provide quality professional learning opportunities. We know that personalized communication, we have a superintendent who frequently puts out short videos but it’s just a personal touch that our employees really appreciate, knowing that we have leadership that really cares about them and the work that they do every day. We did a compensation study and adjusted our pay. You know, we are fortunate to be able to do that because pay also helps people feel good about their work. And then, we’re really taking a look at what well-being and wellness is for our employees, and how to make sure that when people are at work, they’re healthy emotionally, physically, and really are able to do the best job possible for our kids when they’re here every day.
That’s a great description of your process. How are you able to look at the results? How do you measure impact, measure retention, measure engagement? What kind of data do you look at and how do you gather it?
BOB KREIFELS: Well, I think part of our results come from the information that we get out of our exit surveys but it also comes from anecdotal data from our principals, conversations. In Kansas, we have a Horizons award that goes to first-year teachers and I don’t know if it’s national, but I know we have it here. Every one of our principals is talking about this superstar or the superstars that they have in their hiring classes over the past few years, which just makes me feel really good about our work, that we we know that we’re bringing on some really awesome new talent.
But we’ve also had some people that have decided to come to Blue Valley that we’re pretty proud of. We’ve been able to attract a couple Kansas Teacher of the Year recipients from other school districts. Most recently we’ve had a few people come from a neighboring district and they specifically talked about our presence on social media and how we described what we were doing for our teachers as one of the attractors for them to want to take a look at us. I think that we need to continue to try and find ways to validate our work but I feel like we’re on the right track and I think there’s more good things to come.
I asked Bob to give me a picture of what all this looks like at the individual level – for one teacher, from recruiting, to hiring, to onboarding, to engaging and providing support.
BOB KREIFELS: Well I’ve been thinking about somebody who … When I was a part of the interview process, she was just to me such an amazing talented person with such a positive attitude. One of my fears was, if she left her current district to come to us, could we afford to pay her to match her salary? Because we’re not the highest paying school district, and conversations that I had with her on day one … She did accept the job, which we’re thrilled about, and she’s amazing. On day one, after the introductory part of welcoming them, she came up to me and said, “I just want you to know that I have never felt this valued, and have never felt so warmly embraced for a teaching job as I have right now. And this is my first day.”
Of course, we do some things during the summer to reach out to them, and we have some brief sessions with technology and getting them ready so that on day one they’re ready to go. But every time I have seen her through this school year, she just lights up and just says, “I can’t even imagine what it would be like not to work here.”
Certainly I’m not taking credit for that because it’s really our organization, it’s our culture, it’s the people that she gets to work with that are quality individuals. And she happens to be an instructional design coach, so she works with a couple of our elementaries in providing in-classroom support to teachers, but both of her principals continue to sing her praises. Her colleagues in the buildings are so thrilled to be able to have her as a resource, and I really believe that she would not have thought about coming to Blue Valley had we not changed our branding, had we not pushed our message out there and become an example of a great school district that does good things for kids, and really provides great professional learning and support for teachers.
Looking back over the past five years or so as you’ve worked to make sure that every classroom has an exemplary teacher, what have you learned? To follow up on that, what additional steps will you be taking going forward?
BOB KREIFELS: I think what I’ve learned, and this relates to a question that you asked me earlier, is what does the interview process look like today as opposed to five years ago and 10 years ago? I think for some people, and probably even for some of our administrators, a lot of their hiring decisions were around likability. And I think today, our decisions, of course, include that relationship piece. But it’s also, “What other attributes will a successful teacher need to have in order to meet our expectations and be successful when they come to Blue Valley?”
Bob Kreifels is Chief Human Resources Officer at Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kansas. Bob, thank you again for speaking with us today.
BOB KREIFELS: You’re very welcome Ryan. It’s been a pleasure.
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For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.