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Administration & Leadership

Building a Culture that Respects Teachers and Reduces Stress

When teachers are given time to work closely with other teachers, and have achievable goals—school culture thrives.

February 5, 2021
Group of teachers meet in a classroom
Allison Shelley for the Alliance for Excellent Education

School leaders play a pivotal role in building a strong school culture and cultivating a collective sense of agency among teachers; the belief that “together, they can help students succeed” is a critical part of that, write Bryan Goodwin and Susan Shebby for ASCD’s Educational Leadership.

Creating a schoolwide culture of collective success draws on work by education researchers like John Hattie, among others, who found that when educators share this feeling of efficacy, the impact on student achievement can be astounding: “Collective teacher efficacy is greater than three times more powerful and predictive of student achievement than socioeconomic status,” Hattie and his co-authors wrote in 2018. “It is also greater than three times more predictive of student achievement than student motivation and concentration, persistence, and engagement.”

Though they caution that “there’s no simple checklist to follow,” Goodwin and Shebby, who are the chief executive and a managing evaluator, respectively, at education research organization McREL International, outline several ways school leaders can set the conditions for collective efficacy to emerge among educators.

Move From Vertical to Horizontal Power Structures

“Feeling powerless dampens teachers' sense of efficacy,” write Goodwin and Shebby, and the research on teaching frequently concludes that feelings of isolation, marginalization, and exhaustion creep into the lives of working educators year to year, depressing morale and driving up burnout and attrition. Schools must invest in practices and power-sharing structures that allow for greater, more frequent communication and collaboration among peers who understand them—both to provide emotional support, and to allow for more collaborative planning to manage the workload and the stress.

While leaders must still be the stewards of a school’s mission and day-to-day operations, relying too much on hierarchical structures and top-down messaging leaves teachers feeling disconnected from their most likely source of daily solace: their peers working alongside them.

Traditional professional development, for example, “isn’t the only, or even best, path to building efficacy,” write Goodwin and Shebby. Instead, “efficacy often emerges from vicarious experiences—seeing people we relate to overcoming challenges like our own,” they write. In other words, several hours of virtual PD might feel overwhelming for teachers right now. Instead, consider setting up opportunities for teachers to “learn from one another through (virtual) classroom observation or collective problem-solving.”

Building in blocks of time for planning and reflection can be especially helpful for teachers. “We are often starved for time in schools, and the stress that comes from this rubs off on students,” writes Katy Farber, a professional development coordinator and former sixth grade teacher. But for teachers to feel their schools are places that support and motivate them, they need time to “reflect, make meaning, and connect.” It’s incumbent on school leaders to “plan these moments into meetings or agendas,” Farber notes, so that “teachers don’t feel as though they’re just hopping on yet another treadmill.”

And teachers need breaks. In his early days as principal at Fall-Hamilton Elementary, in Nashville, Mathew Portell focused his social and emotional work on the students. “I didn’t support teachers in the way that I should’ve, and could’ve, because I was a new principal and I just didn’t know how,” says Portell. One way the school is changing that is with a system called “tap-in/tap-out,” which allows teachers to call on a colleague when they need a quick break from the classroom. “At the end of the day, you know that these kids rely on you, so we also need to take care of ourselves,” says Natalie Vadas, a teacher at Fall-Hamilton.

Don’t Go Big

Part of the work of school leaders is to sketch out goals for the school year and hatch ambitious, long-term plans that reach far into the future. But paying attention to small, short-term goals is just as important, because when people experience incremental positive progress, it can “boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions,” write Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer for the Harvard Business Review. The more people experience these small, positive boosts, “the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.”

So when school leaders set incremental goals and “help teachers achieve small successes,” Goodwin and Shebby write, it can be enough to make them feel that they’re “making strides to overcome challenges,” even if it’s just one small thing that’s going right in the classroom. Focusing on long-term goals to the exclusion of these smaller wins can create a sense that teachers are just spinning their wheels and making no real progress in their daily work.

Identify Influential Teacher Leaders

Because a few “influential or vocal teachers” can sometimes have an outsized impact on colleagues, write Goodwin and Shebby, it’s important to reach out and engage with them to “keep teacher conversations productive—focused on both listening to, and solving, one another’s problems to build a shared sense of optimism and efficacy.

It can be productive to identify positive, high-achieving teachers as team leaders who can “steer the ship,” writes coach and education consultant Elena Aguilar. In schools where teachers tend to stay for long periods of time, they report feeling “connected to colleagues and supported by them,” writes Aguilar. They describe feeling like they’re part of a team with a shared mission. And when “a team is effective, then people learn from each other. They accomplish far more than would be possible alone. They inspire and challenge each other.” But strong teams benefit from positive, smart team leaders so there’s “the kind of intentionality, planning, and facilitation in the moment that’s essential for a team to be high functioning,” writes Aguilar.

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