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Agreements > Expectations. Here’s Why.

By understanding and acting upon the difference between “agreements” and “expectations,” as explained by high-performance coaches, school leaders can increase success with teacher recruitment and retention.

It’s no secret that schools and districts across the U.S. face persistent challenges around teacher recruitment and retention. Many schools are experimenting with new and creative approaches, but with limited resources — time, capacity, and budget — school leaders can’t always implement every idea they’d like to try. 

However, various tools are available to all school leaders, regardless of location or environment. One of the most promising is leveraging agreements rather than relying on expectations. The “Expectations vs. Agreements” concept, developed and defined by the premier corporate trainer and business coach Steve Chandler, provides a model for forming stronger professional relationships.

Understanding Expectations vs. Agreements  

“Expectations” are a common guiding principle in professional environments, but their shortcomings prove to be detrimental. Expectations are typically generated by only one party in a relationship, are  not always written down , and tend to be implicit rather than explicit They are, in a sense, the “unwritten rules” an employer or employee may hold internally; the individual then relies on the inaccurate assumption that others do or should have equal expectations. “Agreements,” on the other hand, are co-created by both parties in a relationship. They’re clear, explicit, and put in writing, which makes it possible for them to be revisited, evaluated, and revised later. This structure ensures both parties understand the agreement and know how to be accountable. 

In many work (and personal) environments, people  rely on expectations and miss the opportunity to form agreements. In a school setting, this can be the assumptions made on both sides of an administrator-teacher relationship. For example, a teacher entering a new job without an explicit agreement with their administrator may assume this new school will be like their last school, so they know what to expect (or conversely, they may expect this will not be like their last school if they had a negative experience before). While the potential exists for this to be an improved professional experience — ultimately the administration’s goal — it won’t necessarily occur automatically without a clear discussion leading to agreement. 

Agreements Help Us Overcome the Challenges Posed by Expectations

Working from expectations presents a number of challenges. Here are just a few:

  • Each individual enters with their own set of assumptions, many of which will not be shared by the other person. 
  • Without a clear agreement to revisit, the individuals are unable to hold one another accountable in a way that’s fair and productive.  
  • Employees are often rewarded (or not rewarded) based on chance — such as when expectations happen to overlap or an employee has intuition about what their boss would like — rather than merit. 

In short, forming agreements rather than relying on expectations means the difference between knowing what a working relationship will entail versus guessing on a situational basis. The latter, of course, is a direct route to frustration. 

Making the Most of Hiring Opportunities

“Hiring is the most consequential decision a manager can make,” says Eric Woodard of Win at Work, a leadership and career coach who guides executives and job-seekers at all stages of the career cycle. 

With this in mind, administrators owe it to themselves to use all the available tools to ensure those decisions pay off in the long run. Woodard adds, “When we think about the factors that may cause us to lose some of our staff — in this case, teachers — it’s rarely the tangible things like money or the other basics. Those factors are understood within the profession. It’s typically those implicit factors; that they have a sense of being treated unfairly or being excluded or otherwise not having their expectations met.” 

By eliminating reliance on expectations, this dynamic, and the problems that result from it, can be upended.  

Chandler’s work on the topic indicates that both employers and employees who aren’t having their expectations met are chronically unhappy. For leaders, this often manifests as a feeling of powerlessness — being “out of answers” as staff routinely falls short of expectations. The beauty of a co-created agreement is that it addresses these problem areas directly, establishing a shared understanding that gives leaders more agency in creating, maintaining, and improving a productive work environment. 

As for the teachers, “people will really support what they helped create. By contrast, we frequently resist what we had no role in creating,” says Woodard. 

Teachers will have a true investment in the co-created agreement and want to see the plans through to success. 

Better Approach, Better Retention

School leaders have another factor working in their favor when implementing agreements: “Teachers inherently understand agreements, because this is largely what they’re doing on a daily basis with their students,” says Woodard. 

Understanding where teachers are coming from presents an opportunity for schools to open up a dialogue about forming agreements. Better yet, this is a conversation that can begin at the marketing stage while recruiting new faculty. Schools can communicate the appropriate factors that represent and differentiate them — for example, the mission and vision, the school’s brand, the culture — but rather than attempting to define exactly what it means to work there, school leaders can instead invite new teachers into a conversation. 

As a teacher, you likely care about helping all students achieve success and you’re interested in a school that supports you in that mission. How about we find an agreement to define the ways in which we can do that work together? 

“In my experience, good sales is service,” says Woodard. “It’s not about persuading people to do what we want, it’s about “sorting,” he explains. 

For school leaders, this means communicating how they like to operate, what they believe in, and their goals, and then finding those interested in working with them and forming agreements with those individuals. This way, we find a mutually beneficial fit and form the foundation of a strong relationship. There is a little more work involved in this process upfront versus purely one-sided communication of expectations, but there’s a much greater return on investment with a long-term relationship. It’s an opportunity to go beyond simple retention into more ambitious goals for growth. 

Improved Communication Mitigates the Risk of Disagreement

The bottom line: “When there’s no communication or agreements, people will fill in the blank,” says Woodard.

What isn’t made explicit will be inferred, often leading to assumptions and expectations that pile onto assumptions and expectations, forming a tangled web of potential conflict and misunderstanding. When we have no agreement, it’s true: disagreement is inevitable.

Once schools develop a process for forming agreements, it will also help in other areas — better parent engagement and community relations, for example. Collaboration is activated and transformed by clearly communicating with stakeholders and using that communication as an invitation for them to engage and voice their desired agreement. 

In forming personalized agreements with new and returning faculty, schools can gain an edge in recruitment, build a stronger foundation for retention, and enable administrators and teachers to collaborate toward ambitious goals.