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The Self-Fulfilling School Culture

What do the lessons in Outliers tell us about the self-perpetuating cycle taking root in the education job market?

John Jennings

Managing Editor

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell touches on the idea that kids who are born earlier in the year are more likely to be stand-out hockey players.
As the logic goes, the older kids’ slight edge in physical development leads to more ice time, more all-star teams, and more opportunities to improve their skills in the early years. By the time the physical difference becomes negligible, the older kids have separated themselves from the pack on the basis of skill and experience.
A similar phenomenon of systemic bias is taking root in the education job market of late. It’s a six-step process that looks something like this.
  1. The school districts with the best cultures also have the loudest advocates.
  2. The brand, vision, and success of these districts receives more exposure due to #1.
  3. The most mobile generation in the history of our workforce is attracted to these districts due to #2.
  4. Leaders get to choose from the strongest applicant pools when a new position is posted due to #3.
  5. The number of high-performers working for these districts increases due to #4.
  6. The culture, achievement, and desirability of these districts improves due to #5.
Just like that, the gap continues to widen between “destination” school districts and those stuck in the past.
This article is not about the leadership, policies, and values needed to transform your culture. There is a wealth of literature on those subjects already. This article is about the steps you can take to spread the word about that culture once it’s established.

3 Steps to More Qualified Applicants

1. Tighten Up Your Mission

The typical school mission statement is a by-committee hodgepodge of buzzwords and vague objectives, written in such a way that it would be difficult to speak it out loud. Every employee should not only know the mission, but be able to recite it at the drop of a hat. When done right, your mission is your culture. 
Sloganize it: Boil your mission down to a 3-5 word description of what your district stands for.

Brandify it: Add your new slogan to your website, incorporate it in your logo, bake it into the header or footer of all your printed communications. This is who you are.

Evangelize it: Print it on a t-shirtMake it a hashtag. Create a mental association between the concept and the organization.

When prospective applicants look into your district, you only get one shot at a first impression. Make sure they can clearly see what makes you different.


2. Create Culture-Centered Content

How do you get from “words on a wall” to “ingrained in the hearts and minds of your community”? You have to live that mission every day. You also have to support it with content people can relate to, then get that content in front of the people who need to see it – namely, prospective applicants and current employees.
Make a video: Missouri’s Parkway School District did. More than 3 million views later, every person who aspires to work for a school district in St. Louis County, MO knows one thing – Parkway Cares.

Create something you can point to and say, “this is why we do what we do.” You’ll see.

3. Make Your Careers Page Interesting

We know the overwhelming majority of people are doing almost all of their research online before filling out an application, yet most school district careers pages offer little more than a small blurb about the district and links to current openings, which are often described in terms that sound more daunting than exciting.
Prioritize it: Yes, you have certification requirements, pay scales, background check procedures, and everything else you’re obligated to present. But that doesn’t need to be the first thing people are bombarded with when they land on your page. Lead with culture. Share employee spotlights. Highlight a day in the life of some of your more common positions. Call attention to the values and skills that make someone a great fit for your organization.
Chunk it: User experience is important on this page. You don’t want to lose important candidates because they couldn’t find what they were looking for. Use data to identify which information the people who visit this page consume the most, then group it together and present it in order of importance. That’s what we did here.

Ultimately, you want people to leave your careers page thinking, “Wow, that looks like a place I want to work!”

The Talent Chase

Yes, the workforce is growing thanks to the sheer size of the Millennial generation. But the world is also shrinking, bringing more opportunities to the doorsteps of high performers. Of all the employers in your community, it is most critically important for you to attract, retain, and develop the best and the brightest, from your business offices to your classrooms.
The societal value we place on working in education may be out of whack, but there are still plenty of amazing people who want to contribute to your mission – they just need to understand why they should choose you. Once you get the ball rolling, that self-fulfilling momentum will take care of the rest.


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