SITUATIONAL AWARENESS: Steering Your Ship through Rough Waters

A school leader exemplifies the leadership value of Integrity when he or she is “aware of the details and undercurrents in the running of the school and [utilize] this information to address current and potential problems.”[1] The scope of the school leader’s role is all-encompassing – and trusted leaders fully understand their role is multi-faceted. For example, they recognize that they cannot focus on only student achievement or only teacher development. “To maximize school effectiveness, the internal elements of teaching and learning, school structure, school culture and climate, power and politics, and motivation must work harmoniously to produce the desired performance goals.”[2]

The only focus the trusted leader maintains is the primary ends of the school – ensuring all facets support those ends. This is a huge task. Trusted leaders are fully aware of their realities, yet remain committed to pursuing the complete breadth of the school’s mission. To the greatest extent possible, they are aware of every situation, all the little storms that may be brewing, while at the same time steering their ship through those rough waters toward the established goals of the school’s mission and vision.

Maintaining a Crew

One storm continuously brewing in many schools is personnel retention. When school leaders fail to demonstrate Situational Awareness in relationship to retention, the end-result can sink their ships. Retention in many private and faith-based schools is highly challenging as second-income earners staff these schools.[3] Often, in these cases, the school employee’s spouse is the primary breadwinner. Thus, for example, when the spouse makes a move to another position in another city, there are no retention options.

In international schools, the challenges are even more complex with visa, medical, language, cultural, and cost-of-living issues. Some international schools have annual teacher turnover rates as high as 60%.[4] However, schools are not alone in facing this challenge. “Top execs from the largest 1,000 companies in the United States said their greatest staffing concern was retention.”[5] Nevertheless, another survey revealed, “that although 75 percent of executives said that employee retention was one of their top three business priorities, only 15 percent had any plan in place to reduce turnover.”[6]

Staying On Course

Trusted school leaders demonstrate Situational Awareness when they clearly understand the influencing factors and challenges of turnover and retention – and yet maintain consistency by remaining mission-centered in the midst of these challenges. Any school’s success and effectiveness in genuinely carrying out its mission and fulfilling its vision, directly relates to its level of human talent.

Schools that genuinely fulfill their mission statements have personnel who fully internalize the school’s mission – passionately embracing the school’s values. Trusted leaders recognize this, and understand that retaining talent needs to be intentional and planned. “Talent retention has become a serious and perplexing problem for all types of organizations. Managing talent retention and keeping talent departure below target and industry norms is one of the most challenging issues facing businesses [and schools].”[7]

Changing the Crew

Research reveals clear distinctions in the types of turnover, and that not all turnover is negative. There are times when it can be quite advantageous to the school’s health and progress. Research on turnover can also be quite conflicting. There are studies that clearly show a connection between a low percentage of turnover rates and literally, “millions of dollars in improved organizational performance. However, that same research shows that sometimes turnover doesn’t hurt organizational performance, and in over 20% of studies reviewed, higher turnover rates were associated with better organizational performance.”[8] Therefore, leaders cannot make blanket statements regarding turnover and school effectiveness. Yet, they must recognize that turnover is always costly! This statement rings true no matter the situation. There are related indirect and direct costs every time a school replaces a faculty or staff member.

There are costs that cannot be calculated, and trusted school leaders know the biggest costs are not necessarily financial. This is especially true when one loses key players who have been instrumental in shaping the school’s pursuit of mission fulfillment. “The area of most concern in managing talent is when top performers or critical employees depart their jobs.”[9] So, how do leaders intentionally create provisions to keep their brightest and best engaged in the school long term?

Trusted school leaders are sensitive in understanding the individual motivations for any given person to serve on their team. They demonstrate Situational Awareness to the unique and very specific elements that drive and guide team engagement. What inspires one individual to make a long-term commitment to the school, may not be a driving force for another’s commitment. One study has shown that there is a very significant difference between the motivations of the employee and the employing organization.[10]

Trusted Captains Retain the Best Sailors

However, the most common thread within the research clearly points to the relationship between the employee and his or her direct supervisor and/or leader. School personnel stay and demonstrate deep levels of commitment, regardless of pay or benefits, if working in an environment led by someone they trust. This type of leader “inspires others to want to work for them…They love to both teach and learn… They are the great leaders that take people into the day-to-day battle of the job… The more you know, the more you will be trusted. The more you are trusted, the better your retention rates.”[11]

Great educators (i.e. the ones everyone prays will serve on their teams) want to serve with trusted school leaders. “In other words, they want to know that you have a flag to wave. A flag they would be proud to follow.”[12] Therefore, for the trusted school leader, when addressing retention issues, the first place to look is the mirror.

©2017 Toby A. Travis, Ed.D.


[1] Marzano et. al., School Leadership That Works, 737-738, Kindle.

[2] Hoy and Miskel, Educational Administration, 309, Kindle.

[3] Colin Poyntz and Geoffrey Walford, “The New Christian Schools: a survey,” Educational Studies 20, no. 1 (1994): 127-143.

[4] “Teacher turnover rate up to 60% a year at some schools,” The National, accessed 22 June 2016,

[5] Richard P. Finnegan, Rethinking Retention in Good Times and Bad: Breakthrough Ideas for Keeping Your Best Workers (Boston: Davies-Black, 2010), 209-210, Kindle.

[6] Leigh Branham, The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave: How to Recognize the Subtle Signs and Act Before It’s Too Late (Boston: AMACOM, 2012), 145-146, Kindle.

[7] Jack J. Phillips and Lisa Edwards, Managing Talent Retention: An ROI Approach (San Francisco: Pfeiffer, 2009), 252-254, Kindle.

[8] Ibid., 342-346, Kindle.

[9] Ibid., 550-551, Kindle.

[10] Michel Syrett and Marion Devine, Managing Talent: Recruiting, retaining and getting the most from talented people (London: Profile Books, 2014), 102-104, Kindle.

[11] Gary Conness, Employee Retention and the 21st Century Leader (Seattle, Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2013), 185-186, Kindle.

[12] David P. Snyder, How to Hire a Champion: Insider Secrets to Find, Select, and Keep Great Employees (Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press, 2007), 53-54, Kindle.


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