After two years of fits and starts, school leaders and their staff are itching to return to the familiar rhythms of school life.
But if there’s anything they’ve learned over the pandemic years, it’s that well-laid plans can quickly go awry.
With that kind of learned uncertainty looming in the background, how do school and district leaders get their staffs pumped up early in the school year and keep them motivated over the next 10 months?
Here’s the advice we got from school leaders who are making it happen.
Get to know your teachers
Oprah has her ‘Favorite Things.’ Get yours ready, too. Use the first few days of school to learn what brings your staff joy: their favorite drinks (hot and cold), songs, snacks, games, music, colors, T-shirt sizes, and hobbies.
That’s the kind of information you can use to personalize key moments over the next few months—from surprises, to awards, to tokens of appreciation.
“Love is in the details,” said Belicia Reaves, the principal of Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., who asks her staff to fill out a Google form with their favorite things at the start of each school year.
“I think the instructional coaches literally have candy chests,” Reaves added. “The teachers can go into their office and grab a piece of chocolate.”
Music is one of the things that Cindy Sholtys-Cromwell, the principal of Kelso Virtual Academy and Loowit High School in Kelso, Wash., uses to bring a smile to teachers’ faces during the year. (She asks them to add their “go-to music” and other favorite items to a list.)
Sholtys-Cromwell has used the submissions to create a playlist in her “JammyPack,” and hits the play button on a teacher’s go-to tune when she enters their classroom.
“We all have that music tune that when you hear it, it makes a good day great, and it makes a rough day, like ‘OK, I can get through this,’” she said. “My secretary knows if I am playing ‘Sweet Caroline,’ which I love, that means I am stressed out, and Cindy needs a time out for a minute. Music can be cues for people.”
At CICS Bucktown Chicago, teachers can find their beloved LaCroix sparkling water in the administrators’ offices and teacher’s lounge.
During a long and harried school day, just reaching for something familiar—however small—“goes such a long way,” said Sarah O’Connell, the school’s principal.
“It’s those little things that add up, those small things that add up to really make a difference,” she said. “It’s not necessarily some big thing. It’s the consistency of the small things.”
Ensure teachers have the tools to start off right
White boards, extra paper, stacked bookshelves, new rugs—even working air conditioners. Don’t underestimate just how much of a difference it makes for teachers to walk into their classrooms and have everything they need to do their jobs.
O’Connell and Kristin Eng, one of CICS Bucktown’s two assistant principals, spent a lot of time this summer checking off items from teachers’ classroom wish-lists. They were looking to support not just their teachers’ physical learning environments but also to ensure that the staff had important teaching tools, such as access to the online curriculum, ready to go on Day 1.
Walls even got a fresh coat of paint; classrooms were deep-cleaned.
“Kristin and I were both teachers; it’s something we empathize with, and we know it could be hard coming back, with the pandemic,” O’Connell said. “We want to start fresh. We want a brand new year and [we want] to be optimistic about what’s ahead. It is really nice when things look organized, and things are looking really good, and you have the resources that you need.”
Remember October—and February, too
The school year has its peaks and valleys, and principals should be ready to give their staff a jolt when they hit the lows.
Teachers arrive excited and raring to go in August and September, but then classes start, standardized testing rolls around, and pretty soon all that energy starts to fizzle.
October and February—often called the “slump months”—can get pretty tough.
It’s a good time to increase staff check-ins, plan team-building events (a joint workout, yoga or dance class, perhaps), activate your mental health committees, or cut down on a professional development session so teachers have more time to grade or plan lessons.
People don’t stick around in jobs they don’t feel appreciated in.
“We try to be strategic about those things, so it’s not just random,” said O’Connell, who has also invited a chiropractor to the school to give massages to the staff.
“It’s like we know this week is going to be tough, there’s a lot of testing, and reports that are due. We really try to map it out, so [the support] really comes at the right time.”
“Plan ahead and prepare,” said LaDonna Braswell, the principal of North Parkway Middle School in Jackson, Tenn., who organizes outings, including potluck dinners, and additional pick-me-ups for staff during months when teachers are “emotionally tired.”
North Parkway Middle School hosted a tailgating and face-painting event as a bonding exercise for staff in February, followed by karaoke in March. Staff also wrote appreciative shout-outs celebrating their colleagues, which the school’s secretary read over the intercom.
Break the monotony of staff meetings
Staff meetings can be a slog, so Sholtys-Cromwell, the Washington state principal, finds ways to ensure they’re not just another thing teachers have to get through.
She often asks teachers at the start of meetings to pull out their phones, scroll through their pictures, and select a photo—school appropriate, of course—that instantly brings a smile to their faces. She then asks them to share the story behind the photo with someone in the room.
It’s a short exercise that immediately lifts the mood.
“It takes at maximum three minutes to do that activity—four if you have chatty staff—and it instantly re-grounds and builds in that happy hormone again,” Sholtys-Cromwell said.
Reaves, the Capital City Public Charter School principal, does something similar to kick off meetings, which she calls, “silent appreciations.” Staff members write on Post-it notes what they appreciate about their colleagues—which can include thank yous and inside jokes—and then post the notes on their colleagues so they can read them.
“From janitorial staff to head of school, we celebrate each other so that everybody gets recognized for their contributions,” Reaves said.
Still, Sholtys-Cromwell is sure to be respectful of teachers’ time and keep meetings on time.
“I’ve never had a meeting that I didn’t have to,” Sholtys-Cromwell said. “I’ve always tried to bring some laughter at the beginning and end it with my why, my passion, and how we are making a difference in the lives of the students and the families we serve. Always ground back to what we do. I do that throughout the year.”
Show—and share—the love
Show your staff that you appreciate them in big and small ways—and at unexpected moments.
Reaves marks staff members’ birthdays with “birthday shout-outs” and an email to the entire staff highlighting what she knows about the staff member and their contributions to the school community. Other staffers chime in in the replies.
“It’s just my personal way of letting them know that they are unique to our Capital City family, and we value them,” Reaves said.
On “Joy Days” she gives gift cards and writes “small notes of love” to staff with reminders of something wonderful they’d done.
She sends personal cards to staff during transitions in the school year—for example, during winter break or at the end of the year. Students joined in during the winter break last year and decorated their teachers’ doors with their own signs of affection.
“Last year, it was tough in terms of shifts and changes, and, I think, coming back, it was just a note of gratitude for both the staff and the students,” Reaves said.
And whenever she goes into a teacher’s classroom or has a one-on-one with a teacher, Reaves makes sure she follows up promptly with a note of appreciation or praise. (The Post-it notes are a holdover from Reaves’ days as an instructional coach.)
The quick, personal feedback validates the effort the teachers put into planning the activity or lesson.
“It’s a quick way to get feedback—I can leave it at the computer or on the desk,” Reaves said. “It’s instantaneous feedback that teachers love and thrive off.”
If you don’t celebrate along the way, people are not going to be with you at the end.
Each month, Sherelle Barnes, the principal of Edgewood Elementary in Baltimore, shines the spotlight on a staff member. The recognition is complete with a glamour shot of the month’s honoree. Staff can be recognized for both in-school and out-of-school accomplishments. One teacher, for example, recently earned plaudits for work in their master’s program.
“If you don’t celebrate along the way, people are not going to be with you at the end,” Barnes said.
Cromwell also adds some levity to her expressions of gratitude, dropping off unexpected treats for her staff.
On a whim, she’d buy snacks in blue wrappers and leave them on teachers’ desks with a note, saying, “Out of the blue, I just want you to know that I care.” On other occasions, she’d leave a pack of Extra gum, with a sticker, “Thank you for going the extra mile.”
The aim: to ensure teachers know that you see and appreciate them.
“People don’t stick around in jobs they don’t feel appreciated in,” Sholtys-Cromwell said. “And I think that it is so critical that principals show appreciation. ... But I love having fun with my staff. Work hard, play hard. And to be able to do that to build and unite a team—this is great stuff.”
Create a new calendar
Don’t just mark the 100th day of school (please do) or regular holidays. Celebrate other occasions that can inject a bit of fun into the building.
Sholtys-Cromwell created “The School Celebration Newsletter”for school leaders, a subscription newsletter with more than 3,000 on the mailing list, that has alternative days that principals can celebrate.
On National College Colors Day (Sept. 2), everyone on campus can don a college or military T-shirt or sweatshirt. Schools that participate in the AVID college-readiness program can include the celebration as part of their school’s end-of-year report, Sholtys-Cromwell said.
On National Dog Day (Aug. 26), principals can ask staff to take photos of their dogs, which then can be made into a collage and shared on the school’s social media pages.
There’s also a National Tell A Joke Day (Aug. 16).
“I love knock, knock jokes,” said Sholtys-Cromwell, “so, you better believe I bust out my knock, knock joke book that day, and everybody I see—whether I know you or not—gets a knock, knock joke.”
Give teachers time
Time is one of those things teachers can’t get enough of. Finding ways to give some of that back to them will make you a hero.
During the early days of the pandemic, when North Parkway Middle School was still in a hybrid mode, Braswell, the Tennessee principal, ensured that teachers got an hour to take care of whatever they needed to, whether it was to take mental health break or sit quietly for 30-60 minutes in a room or their car.
It allowed them “to move away from the structure of the day,” Braswell said. “That’s why I implemented something to say we care about you, you’re just as important as our kids.”
Freeing up time for teachers during the school day allows them to finish grading at school so they don’t have to take work home with them, said Marcus Belin, the principal of Huntley High School in Huntley, Ill.
That means they can spend more time with their families or on their personal hobbies, Belin said.
Have a temperature check
Principals don’t always have to be the ones responsible for keeping up the mood.
There are others on the team—teachers, assistant principals, instructional coaches—who already have deep connections with the staff and who people in the building already flock to because of their expertise, experience, wisdom, and personalities.
How about asking them to help?
Braswell is trying something new this year by designating a staff member in each department as a kind of “positive temperature gauge.”
“When they feel it’s a bit negative on [the] team or ‘I feel like we’re at our low moments,’ they are responsible for coming up with something for their team or making sure that the team is working [to overcome] the low moments,” she said.
Braswell was inspired to try this approach this year after seeing the staff’s excitement at the start of the school year. She was determined to maintain that vibe.
“Everything was positive,” she said. “The quiet people were excited, talking. It was almost unbelievable … I looked around and said, ‘We’re going to have to keep this up.’ The administrative team can’t be everywhere at all times, but we can empower teacher-leaders to empower morale.”
Build relationships, show empathy
Teachers bring their entire selves to work—they are parents, sisters, fathers, and mothers. Many are shouldering additional responsibilities on top of their job duties.
Inquire, with genuine concern, about the mother who is sick or a child who just started daycare.
Get to know them so that when something doesn’t seem quite right, you can spot it before it’s too late. When you ask how they’re doing, really mean, ‘How are you doing?’’
Shared activities, such as games or a meal, can also strengthen bonds between principals and staff.
“When you break bread with someone, you get to know them on a different level,” Sholtys-Cromwell said. “And providing those opportunities—whether it’s Rice Krispies treats, or nachos, or we order out breakfast early one morning and we eat before school starts—it just builds that relationship, it builds your culture that ‘We are here, we are here to work, but we’re here to take care of each other.’”
And principals should find ways to build communities within their buildings.
Many teachers collaborate with like groups, whether it’s 9th grade teachers working together or science teachers running collaborative planning sessions. Mixing teams can give a boost to teacher morale, Reaves said.
Keep people in the loop
Uncertainty is one of the things that causes anxiety. So keeping teachers informed about what’s next is extremely important, Reaves said.
We know there are going to [tough times]; so we have to be prepared for it and be OK talking about things that are going on ...
The school’s instructional coaches ensure teachers are apprised of what’s ahead through a weekly Sunday bulletin. That heads-up gives the staff a chance to get ready, Reaves said.
“Our school loves to know what’s coming so they can prepare—in the same way that we want teachers to prepare for kids,” Reaves said. “It doesn’t have to be a gotcha moment.”
That goes both ways. As the principal, you also have to get staff input and constantly check what’s working, what’s not, and how and where you can improve.
You can get input through formal surveys or simply asking staff to write their reflections after a meeting or professional development session, Eng, the Chicago assistant principal, said.
Eng and O’Connell host quarterly coffee klatches with staff.
“It’s a part of the check-in, but we also just let them know, ‘Hey this is what’s happening in the school for this quarter or what’s coming down the pipeline,’ ” Eng said.
Don’t forget to pay some extra attention to the new teachers, who will be adjusting all year long.
Openness and honesty are key—especially when things are not rosy, O’Connell said.
“It’s important that we are constantly talking about it, and are open about the frustrations, because [they’re] going to happen,” O’Connell said. “I feel like sometimes leaders will try to be like ‘No, everything is perfect,’ or ‘There aren’t going to be tough times.’ We know there are going to be; so we have to be prepared for it and be OK talking about things that are going on, and be open, and honest about it.”
Coverage of principals and school leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/programs/education-economic. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 05, 2022 edition of Education Week as Keep School Staff Motivated All Year Long: Advice From Principals