Teacher Appreciation Week came and went last month with some nice social media content, sentimental reflections on the value of educators, and probably a pizza party or two in schools across the country.
But what if we made Teacher Appreciation Week last all year?
What if we created the conditions to ensure that teaching was the kind of job, day in and day out, where people felt valued, respected, heard, seen, supported, and consistently appreciated and understood?
In this biweekly column, principals and other authorities on school leadership—including researchers, education professors, district administrators, and assistant principals—offer timely and timeless advice for their peers.
To do that, we’ll have to move away from pizza parties and lean into school and district policies to facilitate teacher satisfaction and growth in all our education systems and practices.
School leaders can and must play a major role in making that happen. Here’s how:
1. Create real feedback loops. School leaders need to encourage and enable teachers to share how they experience the school, its culture, and its leadership.
Throughout my career, teachers, especially those I’ve hired, have shared with me that many schools they have worked in did not have leadership that facilitated and encouraged meaningful input from staff. Too often then, an “us” versus “them” mindset and culture dominated—where leaders and staff were on opposite sides of a divide rather than part of one whole.
Leaders who make time for feedback, create mechanisms within the school organization for it to take place, and demonstrate their commitment to really hearing teachers by following through on matters raised have a powerful advantage in driving improvement. But it takes more than a “comments box” in the main office, once-a-year anonymous surveys (where answers and suggestions disappear into the air), or a monthly staff meeting where the principal takes a few softball questions. It has to be ingrained in the very way that leaders do their jobs.
2. Get out of the office and into classrooms. Leaders need to meet teachers where they are and then take action informed by the views shared by staff. Most educators don’t expect that everything they discuss with a leader will lead to a reversal of policy or a sea change in practice. But teachers certainly do know the difference between someone who will really consider their perspective and someone who is just giving lip service to concerns and suggestions. So, approach this work with earnest authenticity, a sense of openness, and a humble willingness. Have a bias toward listening, thoughtful deliberations, and deliberate actions.
3. Be the lead learner in the school. This is a critical role for school leaders to inhabit not just for staff satisfaction but for the school improvement that can flow from it. Effective leadership-feedback loops can only be led by someone who sees themselves as a learner. Otherwise, the communication flow is meaningless. Principals who engage in this practice are able to answer a simple but powerful question: What have you learned from your staff in the past week?
How many of us can consistently answer that critical question?
4. Prioritize productive feedback for the whole leadership team. Schools have many different leaders, both formal and informal, and the posture and habits of a principal can be a powerful determinant of how that leadership distribution looks and functions. Creating effective forms of sharing and understanding how school leadership is experienced provide meaningful modeling opportunities that can inform the current and future practice of school staff themselves. Doing so will ensure that other leaders in the building similarly embrace feedback and develop in productive ways. With that, more effective forms of distributed leadership can flourish.
5. Recognize that feedback is a product of diverse lived experiences. The effective leader is one who demonstrates understanding by valuing the voices, perspectives, and experiences of all their staff. For example, if an informal survey finds that 99 out of 100 school staffers like a certain policy but that one person who isn’t fond of the policy is the lone and lonely Black man on staff, you should probably give some additional consideration to the issue. Majority might rule, but it doesn’t always mean equity and justice.
School leaders also need to embrace difference and diversity in ways that amount to more than just providing “affinity spaces’’ but never hearing what comes out of them. When they don’t productively engage with the perspectives of educators and staff from diverse backgrounds, leaders send those educators a powerful and perilous signal: Your perspective is not valued or wanted. People are like your conscience: If you ignore them long enough, they leave. In an era of growing teacher shortages, it’s the rare school leader that can maintain an organization while sending these kinds of signals.
The effects are like ripples in a pond; they spread and spread. Effective school leadership extends well beyond one school where it takes place. It influences policy and practice in other places over time as staff go into different roles and different schools.
Creating real feedback loops requires courage, openness, and humility. The work is worth it, not because of some principal of the year award or our official Teacher Appreciation Week, but because they deliver better student outcomes that flow from more stable, invested, empowered, and, yes, appreciated staff.