Holding onto Millennial Teachers: Building Adult Culture in Schools

Kami Lewis Levin, Ed.D.
May 9 · 5 min read

This is the 7th piece in a series called Holding onto Millennial Teachers: Learning About Why They Stay. The series explores what motivates them to stay and how those meeting their motivational needs can generate talent pipeline and retention strategies in even the hardest to staff schools.

For the past three decades, studies of school change have shown positive school culture as mission-critical to improving teaching and learning. According to culture expert, Steve Gruenert, school culture determines the type of conversations faculty have, the level of (unspoken) commitment among faculty, and general faculty efficacy, which in turn informs individual teacher efficacy. Additionally, constructing and maintaining a positive school culture is a key element of educational leadership because, as Ellie Drago-Severson describes in her book Leading Adult Learning, culture promotes the conditions within which people learn and grow. Millennial teachers are more likely to stay in environments where there is an investment in their development — where they feel valued.

To be clear, crafting a strong adult culture in schools focused on professional learning is a strategy that keeps students at the forefront. School culture and teacher retention are specifically linked to student performance. The literature shows that a positive school culture emphasizing improving teaching and building relationships directly impacts student motivation, engagement, and achievement.

From Greenhouse Schools: How Schools Can Build Cultures Where Teachers and Students Can Thrive. TNTP, 2012.

In fact, research on school culture has often been driven by the pressure to find cultural features of schools that are “effective” in producing student achievement. In the seminal text, Shaping School Culture, authors Terrence Deal and Kent Peterson describe a strong, positive culture as one that:

  • fosters effort and productivity.
  • improves collegial and collaborative activities that in turn promote better communication and problem-solving.
  • supports successful change and improvement efforts.
  • builds commitment and helps students and teachers identify with the school.
  • amplifies energy and motivation of staff members and students.
  • focuses attention and daily behavior on what is important and valued.

According to the research on Millennials, an overriding theme that comes up, again and again, is that, as a generation, they value human capital above financial capital in the workplace. People matter. Culture matters. Collaboration and community matter. This generation wants to be both well cared for and given autonomy. They want to be well-held.

The Importance of a Strong Holding Environment

“One might even argue that culture is, essentially, the sum total of the holding environments we experience in a given context,” (Leading Change Together).

Supporting a positive school culture for adults necessitates the construction of an effective, and layered, holding environment. As interpreted by Ellie Drago-Severson, a holding environment supports how a person makes meaning, promotes growth, and is dependable. Thus, a good holding environment serves three functions:

  • It meets a person where they are and provides appropriate supports to accommodate the way the person is currently making meaning.
  • It needs to “let go,” challenging learners and permitting them to grow beyond their existing perceptions to new and greater ways of knowing.
  • It “sticks around,” providing continuity, stability, and availability to the person in the process of growth

At its core, a good holding environment it is about attending to the human, rather than the bottom line, again a Millennial generation value. So let’s get at a new Powerful Practice to address adult culture and holding environment in schools as a strategy to retain teachers. (You can check out previous Powerful Practices here, in my last post.)

Powerful Practice #9: Be a Warm Demander

Author Lisa Delpit describes teachers who are warm demanders as those who “expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them to reach their potential in a disciplined and structured environment.” The adults in schools need this as well and a good holding environment is the launching pad.

Step 1: Stick to the Smart Goals

Once the measurable goals for student achievement are set for the year, use them as a guide for every conversation. Make them visible on agendas, in classrooms, in the halls. The Smart Goals set the bar. The Smart Goals also keep the students at the center of the work. Every teacher must be challenged to meet and exceed these goals.

Step 2: Support Systems for Smart Goal Achievement

Teaming and collaboration will yield goal achievement. Micromanagement will not. Empower teachers to lead the charge. Create the space for them to take risks, fail, learn, and try again. The faster they engage in these cycles, the sooner students' outcomes will improve. Teams can:

  • Use student data to determine skill gaps.
  • Identify 2–3 instructional strategies to address those skills gaps.
  • Practice the strategies for 4–6 weeks.
  • Use student data to determine growth.
  • Rinse and repeat.

Step 3: Celebrate Successes

Little wins can move mountains. And lots of little wins culminate in strong and positive adult culture. Just like the goals must visible, so too must all the wins. Success breeds success so naming and celebrating successes is paramount. The successes help with progress monitoring. Each one brings students closer to Smart Goal achievement. And each one will facilitate teams to get better faster.

Being a Warm Demander keeps the bar for excellence high while also providing the emotional and relational support necessary to sustain the intensity of this work. For school leaders, it’s a way of being and a model for how teachers can create a holding environment with their students in the classroom.

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Kami Lewis Levin, Ed.D.

Written by

Ed reformer, adult learning expert, working mom. Supporter of all the teachers who are creating a more equitable world every single day. One student at a time.

Educate.

Educate.

Educate magnifies the voices of changemakers in education. We empower educators to share their stories, ideas, insights, and inspiration. Educate is dedicated to the fusion of research + education policy and practice.

Kami Lewis Levin, Ed.D.

Written by

Ed reformer, adult learning expert, working mom. Supporter of all the teachers who are creating a more equitable world every single day. One student at a time.

Educate.

Educate.

Educate magnifies the voices of changemakers in education. We empower educators to share their stories, ideas, insights, and inspiration. Educate is dedicated to the fusion of research + education policy and practice.

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