Given the challenges of the past several school years, leaders are faced with an urgent need to mitigate complex pressures on the teaching community—constant uncertainty, staff shortages, and increased student behavioral issues, to name a few. We cannot urge teachers to manage their own self-care, then have them return to the same working conditions as before.
How can school leaders take meaningful action to offset the frustrations, disenchantment, and burnout that teachers may be experiencing? As you plan for the coming school year and examine how to strengthen the working culture of your team, consider these three powerful strategies that let your teachers know they are valued, respected, and honored.
As a current classroom teacher (Abby) and former principal turned leadership coach (Lindsay), we are constantly talking about what makes a supportive working environment. We have both seen firsthand what leaders can do to help teachers thrive (and likewise, how the absence of a strong leader can really harm a teacher’s efficacy and even happiness). We both believe that leaders play a critical role in building a culture where teachers thrive—and stay.
Communicate Unified Expectations
In times of constant interruption to our routines and plans, we may forget how important clear communication is to supporting a safe, healthy school culture. When Abby’s administration conveyed a unified message in an assembly presenting key elements of the student handbook from top to bottom, she and her colleagues knew there was a foundation upon which support would be provided. The message was amplified in emails to families, sent through school newsletters, and even reinforced on spaces such as hallway bulletin boards.
When Abby encountered a conflict with a student over a dress code violation, she was confident in the protocols to follow because of the administration’s messages. Like a teacher who shares and practices classroom routines so that time is preserved for learning, the consistent and frequent communication by leaders freed up teachers’ ability to focus on classroom instruction, not wonder how to handle a disruption.
Building trust between teachers and school leaders requires consistent actions, not just words. As a principal, Lindsay aimed to model the expectation set for teachers to be actively present around the school during noninstructional time. She set daily reminders on her phone for each passing period and walked a lap through the hallways, stopping to visit with staff and students along the way.
When she noticed behaviors that met her expectations, she would comment on them, adding a layer of reinforcement; addressing disruptions on the spot meant that teachers could stay focused on getting instruction going right on time. The message was clear: We were a team with the same expectations for every student.
Support Teachers in Conflicts With Guardians
Chances are, you’ve seen a recent news story with angry guardians criticizing educators and schools. This can make teachers feel like no one has their back. When a challenging situation arises with a student’s parent or guardian, the leaders at Abby’s school always prioritize the teacher’s voice and judgment. Trusting a teacher’s professional judgment not only helps administrators determine an appropriate course of action but also conveys to both students and their guardians their utmost confidence in the teacher’s authority.
Consider offering your support as a lifeline that teachers can call upon if needed when students or guardians push boundaries. While not overstepping the teacher’s judgment or authority, offer to handle tough calls home or to sit in on contentious meetings with caretakers. Although teachers may want to handle these themselves, it may give them an opportunity to pass on stressful components of the job to you.
There may be times when your intervention is required. In these cases, recognize that the teacher’s professional integrity is at stake. For example, Lindsay had to determine consequences for a student who had been sharing test answers on a group chat with classmates. Before announcing her decision to suspend the student, Lindsay visited with the teacher and simply asked, “How does the solution I’m proposing affect your ability to maintain your integrity after I share it?”
This opened a safe space for talking through the likely outcome. The teacher was appreciative of the forthright response and asked me to set up a reentry meeting with the student and her guardian to rebuild their relationship. Together, we set the tone of clear expectations, shared leadership, and intentional support.
Protect Teacher Time
Behavior isn’t the only area where teachers need the support of leaders to ensure focus and stability. Schools are increasingly at risk for “initiative overload,” as a result of the myriad efforts to address the impact of the pandemic. One of Lindsay’s colleagues was recently asked to pilot a new digital curriculum resource for the district and to integrate a character education program offered by a community organization. Lindsay encouraged her to resist the urge to move forward without a clear signal from teachers that they had space and time to commit to both of the new endeavors. Her bosses raised their eyebrows a bit when she declined them both, but she knew her teachers deserved her efforts to protect their time.
In an era of staff shortages and constant disruptions from absences, Abby’s administrators never seem to forget how challenging it is for teachers to give precious planning (or teaching) time for coverage. When a teacher is absent, the administrators get right in there and substitute too. Leadership expert Alan Deutschman describes this simple yet powerful practice as “walking the walk.”
As you determine expectations for teachers to engage in work outside of instruction, including collaboration meetings, data analysis, and committees, consider this: What can you sacrifice in your own schedule or agenda to ensure that they maintain a balanced, not larger, workload?
Leaders are key players in reversing the tide of teacher burnout. Practices like these should be the norm, not the exception. They portray supportive leadership structures and systems that create and protect the necessary time and space for teachers to do their job. If you’re unsure whether your efforts are having an impact, check the pulse of your team with short, anonymous polls. One question could be “How consistently do administrators support my decisions as a teacher?” Share not only the results but actions you will take in response to the feedback. Administrators can change the narrative and use practical strategies to ensure greater job satisfaction and ultimately encourage teachers to remain in the profession.