Research Insights: Connecting Belongingness and Faculty Retention

Spring 2024

By Jill Bergeron, Meghan Bollens, Liz Davis

This article appeared as "A Place to Call Home" in the Spring 2024 issue of Independent School.

Public and private schools have been facing teacher shortages for decades. Post-pandemic, it’s become even more dire. According to a RAND Corp. survey in 2020–2021, nearly 25% of independent school teachers reported that they planned to leave their schools by the end of the school year. But we know that great schools require great teachers: Faculty retention improves student outcomes, saves money on hiring and training costs, and yields continuity within a school community. So as this trend continues to impact schools across the country, how can school leaders support and keep their faculty? 

In 2023, as part of our doctoral capstone research at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, we focused on the challenges of building a diverse, qualified pipeline of prospective teachers and retaining them.
We began to consider what aspects of school climate might influence retention and what could be controlled and supported to yield higher rates of retention. In our literature review, we had read about the importance of student belonging and about employee belonging in other types of workplaces. We wanted to test the findings of the role of belonging in the independent school workplace. 

Social psychologists and researchers Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary identify the need to belong as the “desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation.” The person who experiences belongingness has “lasting positive and significant interpersonal relationships”—that is, frequent interactions with other people and relationships marked by stability, affective concern, and continuation into the foreseeable future.

We used three questions to guide our study: How do feelings of belongingness influence teacher retention at independent schools? What characteristics of an independent school climate foster feelings of belonging among faculty? What can independent schools do to increase belongingness outcomes among faculty? 

In March 2023, we sent a survey to 5,336 teachers at NAIS member schools, representing day (84%) and boarding schools (2%), coeducational schools (88%), and different grade levels. It included a validated workplace belongingness scale, workplace-related needs satisfaction questions, and open-ended questions for qualitative feedback. Through the analysis of this study, we believe that schools can begin to see the effects of nurturing talent so they’ll want to stay. There’s a strong correlation between faculty belongingness and faculty retention. 

The Findings

What helps teachers feel a sense of belongingness? In the survey, we used Lalatendu Kesari Jena and Sajeet Pradhan’s Workplace Belongingness Scale (on page 37) to measure statements such as “I am able to work in this school without sacrificing my principles” and “My personal needs are well met by this school.” We also asked survey respondents to share in what ways their school made them feel that they belonged (or that they didn’t belong); in what ways their sense of belonging impacted their decision to sign a contract for another year; and anything else they thought we should know about their work environment. 

According to the survey, the top three factors contributing to teachers’ feelings of belongingness across schools were “social connections,” “support,” and “recognition.” Social connections with other teachers were most frequently cited as an important influence on feelings of belonging, followed by support from administrators and school leaders. Faculty also spoke about the importance of feeling “seen and heard,” which could be in the form of recognition. 

White and Asian respondents primarily chose “social connections” as a key factor of belongingness, while respondents of color selected “recognition,” “feeling seen and heard,” and “support” as important factors. These findings suggest that teachers of color experience belongingness differently from their white colleagues and therefore require different support.

Respondents who ranked their relationships higher with colleagues and other community members also had higher scores of belongingness. As one respondent noted in the survey, “My sense of belonging is determined by my relationships here, and those relationships are a huge part of why I stay despite ongoing frustrations.” 

As school administrators look to enhance feelings of belongingness, they should consider how their own relationships with teachers affect the workplace climate. Many individuals cited leadership as one of the greatest contributors to a positive or negative work environment. In fact, teachers who reported that they would not return to their school the following year cited leadership as one of the top reasons and the most significant element affecting the workplace environment.

Good Opportunities

As part of our capstone project, we tested our findings in our own schools, and what we’ve seen on the ground aligns with the research we conducted. At one of our schools, St. Edmund’s Academy (PA), we completed a professional development audit and decided to dedicate an in-service day to belonging. Faculty responded to the same survey questions to provide comparative results, which were circulated and analyzed. We built in time for faculty group breakouts to brainstorm programs to address school climate. A post-survey demonstrated the value of this exercise. One faculty member shared, “This session reaffirmed my sense of belonging in a way that I hadn’t realized was possible.” 

What can your school do to increase belongingness and faculty retention? 

Use a belongingness scale to capture and monitor faculty sentiment. Collecting concrete data can help inform future planning. For ease of use, consider the Workplace Belongingness Scale that we used in our survey. This 12-item scale scores belongingness from 1 to 5. By comparing a school’s belonging numbers to our baseline mean of 3.62, leaders can get a quick snapshot of how their school compares to the average we calculated from our sample of NAIS member schools. Leaders may explore focus groups or additional qualitative data collection methods to further understand their faculty’s feelings.   

Evaluate and revamp professional development. School leaders should evaluate whether their current investments in professional development, training, and in-service activities contribute to belongingness. Many schools already align professional development spending with their board-approved strategic imperatives. Simple investments—using time, space, and food wisely—can shift an exercise with no emphasis on belonging to one in which colleagues have a chance to connect and share experiences. 

Focus on feedback. School leaders have an opportunity to foster climates where meaningful feedback improves everyone’s craft. However, giving and receiving feedback is an art form that requires practice. Leaders need training on how to provide effective feedback to teachers while also being mindful of how these same teachers like to receive feedback. Offering professional development on this topic will not only improve a leader’s ability to give and receive feedback but will also enhance the workplace culture where the employees feel seen and heard. 

Foster relationships. Relationships are built when there are opportunities for people to get to know each other outside of the classroom. This can include formal team-building activities along with less formal social gatherings. A culture of collaboration, support, and respect among teachers is created in an environment where teachers feel comfortable seeking advice and sharing ideas. Encouraging recognition among staff members and promoting a sense of appreciation and camaraderie reinforce a positive environment where teachers support one another, thus further building collegial faculty relationships. 

Invest in leadership development. Some of our survey responses capture what a culture of appreciation and trust looks like:

“Our school leader is personable and takes the time to note effort.” 

“People make an effort to know you—both staff and admin. They celebrate all the parts of academic and personal life and pump each other up.”

While these feelings may be intangible, they can be developed through intentional actions and behaviors. Administrators must design routines that prioritize relationships and recognize efforts and accomplishments. Perhaps the most useful path to leadership success comes from following in the footsteps of other noteworthy leaders. To do this, administrators need mentors and coaches. Engaging in a mentorship forum can help emerging and struggling leaders create communities that foster greater belongingness among their teachers.   

As independent school leaders, we have a responsibility to cultivate environments where teachers feel a sense of belonging. Intentional efforts to build social connections, provide support, and offer recognition can enhance a sense of belongingness. By prioritizing this component of school climate, investing in leadership training, and creating opportunities for relationship-building, we can retain our talented teachers. When teachers feel seen, heard, and valued, they are more likely to stay. Our students and our schools will thrive when we commit to fostering communities where our teachers experience true belonging. 

Workplace Belongingness Scale

This 12-item scale scores belongingness from 1 to 5, or strongly disagree to strongly agree.
  1. I am able to work in this school without sacrificing my principles.
  2. I use “we/us” rather than “they/them” when I refer to my school to outsiders.
  3. I feel that there is a connection between my own values and beliefs and those of my school.
  4. I generally carry more positive emotions than negative ones while I am at school.
  5. Being a part of my school inspires me to do more than what is expected.
  6. At work I have a lot in common with my coworkers.
  7. Fairness is maintained while executing rules and policies in my school.
  8. My personal needs are well-met by my school.
  9. Whenever I have any personal or professional issues my school extends necessary help and support.
  10. My career goals are well-considered by my school.
  11. My school tries to make my job as exciting and promising as possible.
  12. Accomplishments at work are adequately rewarded in my school.

Go Deeper

This Peabody College at Vanderbilt University capstone project suggests that low retention rates offer motivation for independent schools to invest in communities of belonging, which can lead to happiness and feelings of family among faculty. By improving retention, schools can also help students succeed in the classroom. Read the full report, “Belongingness and Faculty Retention in Independent Schools."
Jill Bergeron

Dr. Jill Bergeron is the middle school director at Brentwood School in Los Angeles, California.

Meghan Bollens

Dr. Meghan Bollens is associate head of school at St. Edmund’s Academy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Liz Davis

Dr. Liz Davis is head of middle school at Alta Vista School in San Francisco, California.