Administration & Leadership

Supporting Teachers in a Difficult Year

A new principal shares her strategies for making sure teachers can air concerns about both their work and the health of everyone in the school.

November 20, 2020
PeopleImages / iStock

I became a school principal just weeks before the pandemic led to widespread closures of school buildings. Months later, I see that many teachers still feel alone and a little lost, often depending on their comfort level with technology. Many also miss the comfort of their physical classrooms—their home away from home—and most important, they miss their students. While I can virtually drop in and visit their online classes, that’s different from a physical walk-through and an in-person check-in. These days, they need different kinds of support, delivered in different ways.

I’ve been fortunate to work with teachers who shared with me what they really needed, both initially and on an ongoing basis. I listened closely and arrived at several strategies that can serve as a durable framework for supporting teachers through this unprecedented time.

Offer Affirmation and Celebrate Success

In the face of myriad challenges, teachers are doing the very best that they can, and they need acknowledgment of that fact from administrators. Assume positive intentions. Make it clear that you know how hard they are working, and that you know the increase in accountability and rigor in the face of distance learning has been incredibly stressful. Also make sure to let them know that they are not expected to master every tech tool in order to be considered successful.

Celebrate successes in a weekly shout-out, as this is the time to coach, motivate, and meet all staff where they are. It should be stressed that all staff members be considered in a weekly shout-out, as our custodians are working extremely hard to make sure we are Covid-19 compliant behind the scenes.

Set aside time to touch base informally with your teachers. At our school, we have an optional monthly video chat set up so that we can virtually eat lunch together. This was requested by teachers, who stated that they, like our students, need social and emotional support during this time.

Focus on One Thing

I think principals and teachers can agree on two words that characterize teaching during a pandemic: information overload. It can be overwhelming for teachers when they log off video chats for the day to find a full email inbox. Teachers are flipping their lessons (which is extremely time-consuming), giving district assessments, and learning new tools. Piling on still more, including well-meant professional development opportunities to learn a new tool, can simply be too much.

Some teachers have privately expressed to me that they do not want to speak up about how overwhelmed they are because they feel judged. Principals can validate how teachers feel and steer away from judgment because, to be honest, many principals feel the same way.

This is a time for principals to focus on one tool or one directive at a time. For example, many new tools were released within Google Suite, and it would have been overwhelming for teachers to go over all of them at once. A better strategy would be to introduce them to the new breakout-rooms feature and leave it at that. If too many new things are piled on at once, you risk having some teachers tune out altogether. (Note, however, that this situation might present an opportunity to build capacity among teachers—e.g., if one teacher is a pro with a certain tool, and if they are willing, let them lead the others.)

Teachers also appreciate transparency regarding federal and state mandates; however, they need information in practical terms as well as support to set ambitious, yet attainable, goals with a timeline and friendly reminders in between. Principals can help distill information for teachers—about that one thing—without bombarding them.

Recognize That Fear Is a Real Thing

Shifting from distance learning to hybrid and back to distance learning creates anxiety and requires a lot of planning, and it can generate perfectly natural and reasonable fear. Fear of the virus and anxiety over the many variables that are in play needs to be acknowledged, respected, and responded to thoughtfully.

Across the country, teachers are being asked to return to work or take an unpaid leave of absence or resign, essentially forcing them to choose between a career that they love and their health or that of their families. Some teachers have underlying health conditions that they have to take into account, while others are ready to return to work. There are also politics at play, with many making comparisons between the protocols (or lack thereof) of neighboring districts.

Teachers feel vulnerable and need to be reassured that the school site and district are going to keep everyone safe. Principals must remember that transparency of information is key, in digestible updates. Offer an open-dialogue policy, especially at the end of every faculty meeting for any questions and concerns. If you do not have the answer to a question raised, be transparent about that and tell the teacher you will find one and get back to them.

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