Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

How to Create a Culture of Care in Your School: Lessons From 10 Years as Principal

Advice for putting people first
By Matthew Ebert — October 10, 2023 4 min read
Photo illustration of principal giving students a high five.
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Ten years. That is how long I served as a principal in a Baltimore middle school—through four district leaders, two U.S. presidents, and a pandemic.

There was no secret lever to pull. No magic button to press. But over this time, by cultivating a school culture that put people, adults and kids, at the center of the work, my school achieved positive outcomes for children, strong relationships with families, multiple successful school renewals, and incredibly high staff retention—even during COVID.

I learned that teachers don’t need more time in front of students. They need more time to analyze data and make adjustments. They need time to eat lunch and use the restroom. They need it daily.

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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.

Professionals don’t want to be gifted trinkets that say, “You’re a superhero.” They want to be treated with respect and care in every interaction. They want to be valued, seen, and heard. Where they can, they want to be loved.

My team and I designed our school schedule with teacher planning time in mind. We prioritized time in the day for the staff to do all the things that teachers really have to do in a week. We made space for them to call families, grade assignments, and plan so that they wouldn’t have to take it home with them.

I designed my schedule with weekly, personal conversations with teachers around personal and professional growth. I met with each team member weekly, biweekly, or monthly in one-on-one sessions. I devoted most of that time for them to lead the conversation. I listened and gave insights when appropriate.

In the beginning of a relationship, those conversations weren’t about teaching and learning. For first-year teachers, it was about how to make it through the day. For staff with young children, it was holding the space for them to talk about just how hard it is to be a working parent. For staff with older parents, it was being mindful in the conversation that they were always carrying a heavy weight.

All these real-life moments were the foundation of creating a culture of care. And yes, from there, we were able to talk about instruction, data, and professional growth. That work was only possible because each one of these people knew that I saw them as people before anything else.

We held as few meetings as possible. When we did, they were targeted and specific. If we were going to gather, we did so with a clear purpose and tangible outcomes. When the meeting ended, everyone left. There was no “meeting after the meeting.”

We didn’t look outside for professional development. We encouraged our teachers to learn new things and lead us in the work. And we paid them when they did it.

I wrote memos every week about culture, climate, successes, and my own personal failings. I wrote about the kids at school, my kids at home, and what I was hoping for. We talked about our alumni and how they were doing—for better or worse. Each staff member wrote one of their own memos per year to share the things that mattered to them.

We pushed a culture of care through action. We prioritized the focus to be on adults, knowing that with the right coaching and care, the kids would thrive. We empowered teachers to make decisions and gave them a safe space to make mistakes.

When people felt empowered, safe, and trusted, they were able to innovate.

Together, our school rolled out a teacher-created, honors-level science curriculum in all grades. We accelerated our math program and added Algebra 1. We integrated a mindfulness, meditation, and yoga class.

We developed a schoolwide mantra shared at our daily morning meetings. We became arts-integrated. We flipped our classrooms and leveraged blended learning. We established a Spanish spelling bee. We overhauled grading and transitioned to assessing mastery when we saw things weren’t working.

Every single one of these initiatives came from teachers.

These ideas came up in our one-on-one sessions. They arose in the #makeitbetter channel of our schoolwide communication tool. They were raised in content and team meetings. My job wasn’t to bottleneck these conversations but to provide opportunities for educators to try out new things. We knew some would work and some would fail but that they were all worth attempts.

We never stopped iterating. Good ideas were refined until they were great. Then they were tweaked.

When we noticed that our high-achieving students were often unsuccessful in their first year of high school, teachers led an effort to empower those students with less hand holding. We shifted our grading system. We piloted it in classrooms. Then, we talked about it. A team of teachers made revisions, led professional development, and we tried it again. It was hard, imperfect, and the right thing to do. We continued to push forward in every aspect of the work.

These were our school community’s values: Take care of yourself, take care of our children, and, most importantly, take care of each other.

Teachers don’t need more in-school wellness activities; they need time to be humans outside of school—to tend to their children, their parents, or their cats. As school leaders, we need to let teachers teach. We need to support them through coaching and mentorship, not for compliance but for growth. We need to protect them from everything else that is not teaching, assessment, and planning.

If we want teachers to stay, then we need to give them the time, space, mentorship, and care that they require to find joy and success in the workplace.

There are no easy answers. There never were. The only way we can build stronger schools is if we cultivate a culture of care for the adults. The only way for us to succeed is if we take care of ourselves, take care of our children, and, most importantly, take care of each other.

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