School & District Management Opinion

The 4 Gifts Principals Should Give Teachers This Year (Hint: Not Another School Mug)

How to support teachers and nourish their craft
By Sharif El-Mekki — September 26, 2023 4 min read
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The back-to-school jitters are behind us. The scheduling and staffing mix-ups and snafus are (I hope) in the rearview mirror. We’re now firmly in that sort of “normal time” of the school year where routines have been and are established, the cadence of the school day and week are driving along, and staff, students, and leadership alike find themselves in media res.

For school leaders, this is a pivotal moment. Do we take the ambition, aspiration, and optimism of the start of the school year forward, building on the momentum of the early days? Or does the gravitational pull of normalcy drive the sort of reversion to the leadership mean that too often begins to take place as the calendar turns to October and November? No school leader sets out to slide into stagnation, but it happens.

Here’s how to avoid it: School and building leaders, share some back-to-school gifts with your staff. Not a staff pizza party or a school-branded mug, but instead, give them the meaningful gifts that really support them, nourish their craft, and propel them to do their best work.

About This Series

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.

First, give your staff the gift of time and space to collaborate. Your staff doesn’t need 20 extra minutes to mark papers, though I’m sure they would take them. Instead, give them the chance to be fully what they truly are: professionals with expertise and a range of talents who deserve the space to connect with peers in meaningful ways. Research—from South Korea to Southern California, Finland to Philadelphia—shows that when educators have dedicated and structured time to develop lesson plans and collaborate on teaching strategies, students thrive.

Second, provide the educators in your building with the imperative of anti-racism in all that you do. There is a world of structural racism and bias that pervades our public education system; it creeps into every corner of how we work as educators, how our schools function. The effects of it are chilling for Black and brown students and educators alike. Hold space for Black and brown educators and students, move beyond the affinity-group confines, and celebrate the diversity of your staff and student body. Empower teachers of diverse backgrounds to have meaningful input on leadership decisions and elevate minority voices across the school community to highlight new and important perspectives.

Doing so will enable you to both recruit and retain more Black and brown teachers, bolster a school culture premised on understanding and respect, and advance student well-being.

Third, and more tangibly, teachers do need stuff. Again, not so much a new school sweatshirt (though few would turn one down), but through programs like Donors Choose and the #ClearTheLists campaign, school leaders can be important assets in ensuring that resources make their way into teachers’ classrooms, above and beyond what the district is able to provide.

I hold out hope that we will one day be in a place in this country where our public school teachers don’t need to fundraise—that all our classrooms will have all that they need to fully serve every single student—but we are not at that day. In the meantime, these efforts can deliver resources where they are needed. With the aid of a motivated school leader, these campaigns can be remarkably successful difference makers for teachers and students.

Fourth, give teachers access to professional growth and networking opportunities. PD is great; great PD is even better. Building a professional network beyond the school walls, where content enrichment, personal growth, and new relationships can be built is a game changer. Providing teachers the time, resources, and opportunity to attend conferences, professional gatherings, and the like can open an educator’s eyes to new strategies and teaching moves. It can reinspire and reinvigorate stale practice and provide teachers sustenance through challenging times in their careers.

There are any number of great opportunities along these lines, including SXSW EDU, Southern Education Foundation, EduCon, ASU+GSV, LitCon, ASCD, and Learning Forward’s annual gatherings. A world of enrichment and connection awaits. In November, the organization I lead, the Center for Black Educator Development, will host the 6th annual Black Men in Education Convening, the largest and most influential gathering for Black male educators and our allies. Sponsoring some of your teachers to attend a gathering like these can be a catalyst for growth, both personal and professional.

These are just a few of the potential gifts that school leaders can provide to their staff. Finding the right combination can send a signal that they are valued and give substance to a school culture of personal dignity and professional respect—key factors in avoiding the midyear malaise and the foundation for an inspired school year.

A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2023 edition of Education Week as The 4 Gifts Principals Should Give Teachers This Year


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