Administration & Leadership

9 Ways for Schools to Honor Teacher Needs This Year

Administrators can use these tried-and-true strategies to meet the needs of their staff—from planning time to bathroom breaks.

July 28, 2023
SolStock / iStock

As administrators know, teachers have diverse needs. For a productive, healthy school community, it’s critical that teachers feel those needs are being met—or, at the very least, taken seriously.

When Edutopia asked teachers what principals could do to make them feel seen and heard, we received hundreds of responses. Some teachers sought respect: “I need her to trust that I have the experience to pace my classroom appropriately for the learners I have.” Others sought time: “I love it when they give the gift of time—when they realize we need time to just get things done instead of PD.”

Some wanted clarity: “Have systems in place for clear and frequent communication." Many asked for support: “Acknowledge mental health concerns and needs. Everyone deserves balance in their work/home life.” And some simply wanted to be listened to: “I know they’re super busy, but I need a chance to be heard here and there.” 

Thankfully, school leaders have the power to honor these needs—to reduce stress, carve out planning time, rebuild teachers’ work-life balance, and more.

Here are nine actionable, administrator-tested strategies we gathered from our archives—and across the web—to help school leaders ensure that teachers’ needs are met.

1. Focus on Subtraction

Start with a major shift in your mindset. Research suggests that when people are asked to look for process improvements, they "systematically default" to things they can add, and they tend to overlook subtractive changes—especially when under stress. It might feel like progress means adding more meetings, more goals, and more tech tools, but subtraction can often be even more beneficial; consolidating or removing elements can free up teachers’ time and energy to focus on what really matters, suggests MIT professor Justin Reich, writing for ASCD.

Educational consultant Michelle Blanchet recommends having a “ditch meeting” where you and your staff can brainstorm what to eliminate. Good administrators should “understand that they need to be willing to remove things from one’s plate before adding more,” educator Brenda Richards agrees.

Relatedly, it’s natural for school leaders to have expansive visions—but there are benefits to setting smaller, short-term targets, write researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer for the Harvard Business Review. Meeting periodic small-scale goals boosts people’s motivation and positive feelings toward work. “Big wins are great—but they are relatively rare,” they write, which can leave teachers feeling unmotivated.

2. Take the Temperature

You can’t fix what you can’t see. Both private, one-to-one meetings and anonymous surveys allow leaders to gather information and identify problems in culture or processes before they fester. You can pluck survey question ideas from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Quality of Worklife Questionnaire—like “How often do the demands of your job interfere with your family life?” and “After an average work day, about how many hours do you have to relax or pursue activities that you enjoy?”

Merrimack College’s yearly teacher survey offers other questions, like “How would you rate the impact of your mental health/wellness on your teaching and professional growth this year?” and “How would you describe your district’s programming to support employees’ mental health/wellness?” Based on teachers’ responses, consider what interventions best fit your staff.

Informal conversations are important, too: “Come visit my room for reasons other than observations,” requests educator Stephanie Hudson Tanner. In talking to teachers, you may hear about challenging life circumstances you were unaware of, which “can help both you and the staff member proactively prepare for any challenges ahead,” writes high school principal Jessica Cabeen.

3. Reduce Meeting Clutter

Busy teachers really don’t like unnecessary meetings. Pressure-test a prospective meeting: If you can’t produce a rich agenda in advance, you can probably delay for a bit. And if you find that the goal of an approaching meeting is simply to disseminate basic information, then the meeting can be an email instead, suggests college readiness teacher Jill Fletcher—an idea that has been echoed by dozens of teachers commenting on Edutopia’s social media platforms.

Try an experiment: If you meet once a week, meet every other week instead, suggests educator Jennifer Gonzalez for Cult of Pedagogy. You’ll likely be surprised to see that things still run smoothly with half as many meetings. Whatever you do, don’t let the tail wag the dog: “It’s not necessary to have a meeting simply because the schedule says that faculty meetings are in the cafeteria on Mondays,” Fletcher writes.

4. Respect (and Leverage) Teachers’ Expertise

Within a school, teachers are often the best equipped to understand the needs of their students, so it follows that good school policy emerges from collaboration. “Ask for input from the teachers on big school decisions before implementing them... and actually consider the input and change the plan if needed,“ comments educator Lauren Swisher.

When considering a truly transformative change in your school, go slower and work on buy-in: Recruit a few trusted teachers to run a pilot program before rolling it out to the rest of the staff, educator Monica Washington recommends to EducationWeek.

“Regardless of how you collect feedback, reflect on it, share the results, and make its implementation transparent,” writes high school principal Mike Woodlock. Make it clear why suggestions were accepted or rejected. You can’t accept every idea that comes your way, but gathering staff feedback “gives you the ability to be more effective and inclusive in dealing with their needs” and creates a culture of mutual respect, he writes. 

5. Make Time and Space for Basic Needs

Restore some dignity to the schedule: Teachers need time to go to the restroom. Half of all teachers say they’re getting inadequate bathroom breaks, according to this article in The Atlantic, and one elementary educator recalls spending “45 minutes feeling nauseous and miserable and questioning whether teaching is really the profession for me.”

To ensure that teacher bathroom time is guaranteed, one strategy to consider is a “tap-in/tap-out” system. At Fall-Hamilton Elementary in Nashville, Tennessee, teachers who need to briefly step away from the classroom (for any reason) can text their available colleagues and quickly find someone who’s happy to cover for them for a few minutes. You can also consider ways to build designated breaks into the schedule. For some teachers—like one Reddit user who says the closest bathroom is three minutes away, while passing time is only six minutes—a short extension of the time between bells could go a long way.

If possible, designate at least one of your school’s bathrooms as adults only, and find a safe place for new mothers to pump, writes professor of education and former teacher Katy Farber.

6. Give them Planning Time

It’s one of the biggest complaints we hear: Teachers simply don’t have adequate planning time in their schedules—and by failing to allow collaborative planning, schools miss an opportunity to tap into their staff’s expertise and socialize their best practices. “With more hours to plan, teachers can more thoughtfully adapt their lessons and units to the students in front of them,” writes middle school math teacher José Vilson.

One strategy for carving time out of packed calendars: Administrators can lead students on SEL-focused morning meetings each day in the cafeteria or the gym, as middle school assistant principal Crystal Caballero does at her Washington, DC–area school. This grants teachers a bit more time to plan before first period—and offers students a variety of social and emotional benefits, Caballero writes.

You can also turn to scheduling changes. Principal Justin Uppinghouse helped develop a schedule for his Nashville elementary school that gave students extra classes with STEAM specialists outside the core staff, offering teachers blocks of time for either professional development or curriculum planning, grading, and collaboration. Plus, you can build free planning time into professional development days or use staff days as “catch-up days” for teachers to finish up their backlog of work.

7. Defend a teacher's right to disconnect

Teachers receive up to 100 emails per day, one survey found—and increasingly technology is blurring the boundary between the work life and home life of educators, research suggests. Give your staff explicit permission to disconnect from school-related communications outside of work hours. Emails and texts at odd hours can can make teachers feel as though they’re on call late into the night, explains Caroline Murphy, a researcher at the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick.

Consider adopting a time window during which emails should not be sent or answered, as principal Megel Barker suggests for ASCD—and to ensure that you’re able to stick to it, try using the “schedule send” feature so that your emails arrive at a chosen time (say, 7 a.m.) rather than sending them out immediately, Barker advises. 

You can take things one step further: Encourage your staff to remove their work email accounts from their smartphones altogether, and model this behavior yourself. “I share with staff that I do not have work email on my phone,” principal Jessica Cabeen confirms.

8. On Self-Care, Go Beyond Lip Service

“Our days as educators are so busy, and we invest so much in others, that finding time for our own self-care and rest can be difficult,” writes Spanish and STEAM teacher Rachelle Dené Poth. If your staff members are experiencing high levels of stress, consider incorporating elements of self-care into workdays, rather than asking teachers to carve out free time for them—and find ways for the school to pay any relevant fees.

At Arcadia High School, outside of Los Angeles, for example, administrators created a staff helpline for “mini check-in therapy sessions,” in partnership with trained counselors. The school also hired a yoga instructor for weekly virtual classes, and Arcadia teachers have the option to participate in 30-minute mini-lessons on topics of interest, such as mindfulness and positive psychology. Before staff meetings, Arcadia’s wellness counselor leads the group on mindfulness and breathing exercises. “Starting from a place of peace and calm makes all of us more receptive and present during the meeting,” writes assistant principal Michele Lew.

9. Avoid Micromanaging

School leaders might feel compelled to keep a close eye on teachers’ work hours and clock the time they spend in the school building. But “as long as they are getting their work done and are there for students, we should call it even,” write Oregon principals Rachael and John George for ASCD. Bring a little more remote work options into the mix. “Grading can happen in a coffee shop, and online in-service trainings can be done at home in your pajamas. It is all OK,” the principals insist.

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