Reducing employee negativity in schools

School districts create positive workplaces with new hiring practices and customer service training

Lack of resources. Tight deadlines. Inadequate training. These scenarios can trigger anxiety, frustration or other negative emotions at public schools.

“I felt all of these things” says Chett Daniel, a former fourth-grade ELA teacher at Neosho School District in Missouri.

Daniel quit teaching last year to launch his own consulting firm, K12 HR Solutions. “Often, the areas related to negativity are the ever-changing dynamics in education.”

Some districts are building positive workplaces where employees always feel valued, respected and connected.

Start at square one

Daniel says the process starts with hiring. Examine the critical functions of each job. Can applicants perform those tasks?

When hiring teachers, for example, ask candidates to quickly design a lesson based on your objectives, and then have them teach the lesson to your hiring panel, who will act like students. How do the candidates perform? How do they manage typical student behavior?

Likewise, evaluate professional development opportunities. Do they prepare employees to perform their job responsibilities? Inadequate training and unrealistic performance expectations can cause frustration, anger and pessimism about job success or longevity.

Several years ago, Daniel began working with Richard Scaletta, superintendent at General McLane School District in Pennsylvania, to analyze the critical functions of jobs throughout the K12 district, which supports about 300 teachers and staff.

“One of our purposes was to continue our positive work culture” says Scaletta. Hiring people who support your core values also reduces negativity.

Empowerment and quality relationships also inspire positivity. Teachers at McLane serve on the superintendent’s advisory committee and address school matters as members of collaborative leadership teams with their principals.

“People are very happy to be working here” Scaletta says. “Our employees are not ‘paycheckers.’ There’s a high level of job satisfaction.”

‘Pay it forward’

Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD—a suburban Dallas district that supports roughly 3,400 teachers and staff—trains frontline employees on customer service.

“We’re trying to eliminate negative interactions by developing a customer experience culture where people are treated ‘right,’‚Á„Á¢” says Jason Liewehr, director of personnel services at the district.

“We’re hyperfocused on our employees and want them to all receive an exceptional experience in every interaction they have with the district.”

An in-house workshop trains frontline staff to diffuse negative situations. Training first centered on negative interactions with external customers, such as parents, but the focus has shifted to also include all district staff.

“Rather than an employee walking away with a negative story about their time in our school system, they’ll walk away with a positive story” he says.

“If employees are treated right, they’ll treat students right, which will lead to maximizing their potential for good and positive interactions in the world.”

It’s the “pay it forward” concept: If a person is treated the right way, they’ll treat others that way.

Small gestures

Meanwhile, there are other ways to combat employee negativity, says Lisa Pierce, senior consultant at HR Consultants in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a national firm that works with school districts.

Consider small gestures such as spotlighting workers in employee newsletters or on social media pages. Highlight their families, interests or volunteer activities. Encourage administrators to informally praise employees about their good work.

“Don’t assume that employees or teachers know they’re doing a great job” Pierce says. “Show some kind of appreciation. Do something nice. Say, ‘You make us proud to be part of this district.'”


Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer specializing in human resource issues.

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