Ensuring That Teachers Don’t Run Out of Gas
A middle school principal looks at ways to manage work efficiently so that teachers aren’t running on empty at the end of the year.
Recently, I opened up my faculty meeting by saying, “Everyone here has been working so hard on behalf of our students, and I’m sure you must be tired. The business of helping students can be both challenging and rewarding.”
This elicited a wave of emphatic head nodding and some gentle laughter. Everyone in the room appeared to relax a little, and the tension in the room eased. I think they just needed to be validated.
“It’s OK to admit you’re tired,” I said, and shared that I felt they same way—they weren’t alone.
The students in our school were tired as well: A quick review of the absentee and tardy data showed a noticeable rise for the month, indicating to me that students were struggling to get out of the house in the morning. An eye test at arrival told the same story—the students were sluggish coming through the door.
From the custodians to the counselors, my fellow administrators to the cafeteria personnel, everyone showed signs of fatigue. But giving up is not an option for us, so we needed to find ways to eliminate needless stressors and maintain positive momentum.
Using Teachers’ Time Efficiently
Leaders must become adept at measuring their own stamina as well as the stamina of those around them; sensible pacing is one key to long-term success. As an administrator, I can reduce the burden on staff by monitoring the time spent working on initiatives and in meetings. It’s important to know when to push and when to ease up on the gas.
Know when to say no: There are not enough resources to pursue every great idea. Be clear about what’s in the pipeline, and don’t add anything that isn’t essential to the school’s mission. I was once asked to pilot a promising writing program. While I saw its value, my teachers were already managing several undertakings—we had to pass because the work would not have been manageable, and therefore the program would have been ineffective.
Start small: Successfully timing implementation stages is crucial for progress. For instance, we are rolling out a social and emotional learning platform, and instead of doing so all at once, we’re starting with interested students and staff. This way we can learn what does and doesn’t work well, so our resources are well spent when we bring it to the whole school.
Rethink meetings: Meetings should be short without losing their substance, and face-to-face meetings aren’t always needed to have a discussion or gather feedback. Google Forms work for short staff surveys, and emails where everyone "replies all" can be efficient and effective. However, the most enjoyable meeting replacement is setting out into the building with a pen and notepad in hand and stopping in to see teachers while they’re teaching, holding team meetings, or taking a break. When they’re teaching, I target times when group work is taking place and work our discussion in and around the instruction.
Learning to Listen
Listen to your staff: Listening is key to measuring how much energy your team has left in the collective tank. Through informal conversations—often as you’re passing through the hallways—you can understand what those around you need, and of equal importance, how much they have left to give.
In these moments, you may learn that someone needs time to do a webinar, or maybe they have something to tend to in their personal life and you can lend logistical support or encouragement. When this happens, we brainstorm solutions like class coverage or professional development opportunities. You may also find staff members who provide insights or solutions to current challenges within the school.
Listen to yourself: It’s essential to become aware of your own signs of fatigue and listen to your internal voice. Develop an awareness of your physical cues and honor your needs. When I’m tense, my neck tightens and I get headaches. When this happens, I give myself permission to slow down and make sure I’m eating properly and staying hydrated.
Education is a profession that requires us to give, so it’s essential that we maintain a reserve of energy or our impact will not be as great as it could be. You cannot give what you do not have yourself.
Communicating With Intention
Make your words count: Along with learning to listen, it’s important that we remember that our words count. What we say has the ability to pick others up or bring them down. I tell my staff, “We got this,” and offer them words of thanks or praise for their efforts. By ensuring that your discussions are encouraging and supportive, you will help your staff through the rough patches.
Share your purpose: Find ways to build purpose into everything you do. When exhaustion sets in, purpose can become the driving force that gets you over the next hill. On my team, that purpose is making sure our work is student-centered. Our conversations always circle back to student outcomes. Being mindful of our purpose is how we strengthen our resolve to do great things for our learners—it keeps wind in our sails even when we feel like giving up.
In the end, the meaningful work taking place in education must get done. Finding strategies to intentionally push forward will help you and your team rise to the challenge.