School Culture

When Leaders Seek First to Understand

Supporting teachers by listening to their needs is key to creating a strong collegial culture and retaining great teachers.

July 10, 2018

“And that’s a wrap! Year 6 is in the books, and this concludes my time as a classroom teacher.... To all my teacher colleagues, friends, mentors, and students: Thanks for the memories. It’s been a beautiful chapter.” This is a quote from Holly Newton, a former first-grade teacher in Sanford, Florida, but it could have come from a great many teachers.

Over summer vacation, the memories of the school year begin to fade for many teachers with their acts of self-care, but for others this is a time of transition and good-byes—many teachers are making the decisions to leave not only their schools but the career of teaching as well.

It’s no secret that teacher retention is a major issue in schools across the country, and that stress is a cause. A recent report from Penn State University and the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation claims that 46 percent of teachers report high daily stress during the school year. That’s tied with nurses as the highest rate among all occupational groups in the U.S.. The top contributors to teacher stress are the leadership, culture, and climate of their schools.

And over the summer principals all across the country are sitting in interviews, trying to find the best candidates for their needs and their students’ needs. I’ve been there, and that’s not an easy task. However, if the school is not ready to foster the development and support of teachers while listening to their needs, the cycle of trying to find the perfect candidate will continue.

After speaking to educators around the country, I’ve found that they often feel no one is listening to them. Although this is a systemic issue that needs extensive attention across districts and indeed the country as a whole, it’s fundamentally imperative that teachers’ voices be heard in their individual schools. That’s why my school has spent the last couple of years creating norms—so great teachers would continue to teach.

Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

In the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a key to true transformative leadership lies in Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. School leaders need to incorporate the time, space, and permission to listen to what teachers are saying without thinking of a response. Unless administrators become purposeful in seeking to understand their teachers’ perspectives, they can risk misinterpreting ripples in their school’s culture as a teacher problem when they could in fact be a leadership problem.

Leaders who listen to their staff without trying to formulate a solution or response at the same time—leaders who just listen—can transform a school’s culture into one of trust, support, and collaboration. Teachers must be allowed to have a voice in creating solutions to the stresses they experience through the demands placed on them by both leadership and the culture within schools.

As part of our efforts to create this listening environment, staff meetings at my school are rooted in Habit 5 and commonly take place in a circle format, which allows everyone in the circle to see each other while sharing or listening. We utilize a talking stick to denote who has the floor to speak—and more importantly this gives the participants, including me, space and permission to listen. We bring school-wide concerns to the circle, and everyone has a chance to share their opinions.

As a participant, the school principal can hear individual teacher or school-wide concerns and provide genuine and authentic support if needed. The concept of Habit 5 can also be utilized in both formal and informal conversations with teachers to gain a deeper understanding of individual and school-wide needs.

As we began to engage in this norm of Habit 5, I realized that there was so much more to the teachers’ experiences than I had previously known. I also noticed that teachers were more likely to engage in Habit 5 with their students when their leaders modeled the expectation with them. It set up a connection through empathic listening and authentic support.


My school has further developed Habit 5 into the concept of operating under a preforgiven mindset, with the understanding that we are all committed to doing what is best for each other and our students. We developed this concept not because we expect each other to make mistakes, but because we seek first to understand and then to be understood. As a trauma-informed school, we have truly shifted from the idea of asking students, “What is wrong with you?” to “What has happened to you?” This concept can also be applied to the adults in the building.

The job we do daily is stressful—that is undeniable. We also understand the impact of vicarious trauma and the impact stress can have on relationships we value. If a colleague gets frustrated or reacts in a nonproductive manner, we approach the situation with a preforgiven mindset. This doesn’t eliminate responsibility, but approaching a situation empathically, with support and understanding, allows for productive vulnerability while creating a collegial culture.

Our efforts to make sure teachers feel heard have improved conditions at my school—our teacher retention has improved, and anonymous climate survey data indicates that teachers believe the climate has improved, as this response demonstrates: “Excellent staff relationships, supportive win-win attitudes, collaboration, supportive administration, administration trust as a professional to make my own instructional decisions.” That doesn’t mean we’ve solved every problem—it means we feel confident about trying to solve them together.

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