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August 17, 2022
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3 Questions to Help Leaders and Staff Find Balance This School Year

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While many may still be dreaming about a return to “normal,” moving forward means embracing the old with the new.
Leadership
3 Questions to Help Leaders and Staff Find Balance This School Year
Credit: 9dream studio / shutterstock
The pandemic disrupted how we think about our workday, sending many industries through multiple phases of in-person, remote, and hybrid work weeks to mitigate safety risks and maintain forward momentum. A rollercoaster of working conditions has encouraged reflection for many working professionals, and it’s no different for those in education. According to Hanover Research, prior to the pandemic just 13 percent of teachers reported intentions to leave the profession within the next two years. Since the pandemic, that number has almost tripled, and many districts are scrambling to fill vacancies as we speak. These trends are consistent across leadership as well, with 45 percent of principals reporting that the pandemic has adversely impacted their career plans.
Change has been constant these past few years, although varied in scale and magnitude, and changes to personnel should not be surprising to our leadership teams and staff. The level of change we will be encountering in schools this year—both in terms of personnel and school-improvement priorities—must be embraced as a fresh start, with a fresh set of eyes for our teams. It’s an opportunity to refocus and rebuild what makes our schools and districts a special place for our students and staff. Leaders must look at this moment as an opening to reflect on their work and build an education community that not only grounds their team but that creates a path forward together.
Three simple questions can get your school year off to a great start. Leaders should ask their teams collectively and individually:
  1. What are we doing well?
  2. Where do we need to improve?
  3. How can we work together to get there?
There is power in open-ended discussions that amplify the voices of teams. The leader’s job is to help teams find their balance through meaningful discourse. This means looking back, assessing where you are, and setting a path forward together that feels accessible and achievable.

Ask Staff What is Going Well to Identify Successful Organizational Change Efforts

Without a doubt, you have new members on your team who are bringing with them a fresh perspective that will benefit the whole staff if harnessed appropriately. But you can likely anticipate that bringing in a bulldozer on the first day of school will not bode well for your veteran staff; they want to amplify their work, not demolish it. Leaders new and old should take the time in the beginning of the year to sit with staff and gain an understanding of what they are proud of. Asking, “What are we doing well?” opens the door for returning staff to share their proudest work with new leaders or team members and the process through which they accomplished it. It also gives leaders raw insight into what’s working and what isn’t.
Once the discussion is flowing, ask follow-up questions to get to the core of where your school or district has been successful:
  • How did that work begin?
  • What role have you played in this work?
  • When did you know it was working?
  • Why is this work important to you?
Gaining knowledge and background on what has worked well in the past is critical. Bright spots in organizations highlight the approach, pacing, and conversations required to support forward movement.

Leaders new and old should take the time in the beginning of the year to sit with staff and gain an understanding of what their teachers are proud of.

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Stephanie Burroughs

Sit with Staff to Talk Through Areas of Improvement

School districts are committed to school improvement conversations, but the pandemic put a spotlight on our blind spots. Leaders can anticipate that when they ask their staff, “Where do we need to improve?” they will get answers.
This exercise is not meant to be negative; it is an opportunity for leaders to understand where work has not been successful and why. These discussions get at the barriers to change, informing our framing and pacing of future work. Leaders should have follow-up questions prepared for when staff identify areas of improvement:
  • How did you identify this area of improvement?
  • What have been our barriers to making progress? Are there bright spots?
  • How do you see your role in this work?
  • Why is this work important to you?
The feedback generated can help leaders reflect on where the gaps are in unsuccessful initiatives. These could be knowledge gaps, or a lack of understanding of the issue, or they could be motivational gaps related to the perceived utility value of an initiative or educator efficacy. Organizational gaps such as time, resources, or follow-through could also be the culprit. At the end of the day, if something is not working, there is clearly a gap; the sooner you identify it, the sooner you can work together to close it.

Honor Staff Expertise by Engaging Them in Shaping Future Plans

Identifying strengths and areas of growth are the first steps to assessing the landscape in your organization, but they should be coupled with a discussion on how you can build a path forward together. Leaders should be asking how staff would like to engage in improvement efforts to better understand the culture of their team and to show that they value the individuals on their team. You do not need to have all the answers, nor should you, and it’s more likely than not that members of your team have already reflected on how to tackle improvement efforts in their role. Leaders should ask questions to discern how individuals on their team see themselves as contributors:
  • What do you believe are our next steps?
  • How can we structure our work together?
  • What can we do now?
  • Where should we be headed in the future?
We have to honor the expertise of our team members by valuing their ideas. By sitting and listening to the ideas of your team, you gain an understanding of how your members look at problems and think about problem solving. Leaders are better able to support the success of their team when they understand how their team plans for success.

It’s Time to Build a Steady Path Forward

Whether you are a leader new to your role, a leader acclimating to a new district, or a seasoned leader welcoming a new wave of hires, this is your moment to honor your team’s current work and build a steady pathway forward. There’s been a lot of change in schools lately and our teams deserve to talk through it in a safe space. Leaders need to create that breathing room for staff to engage in change conversations and empower their teams to be a part of the way forward. Asking questions, listening well, and taking notes sets the pace for school improvement and shows that you value all voices in the room.
Our role as leaders is to amplify the strengths of our team and leverage those strengths to improve our collective capacity. The first steps in finding your balance this school year are making sure your team members feel valued and heard, and that they are a part of the way forward. It’s time to build your team.

Stephanie Burroughs holds a doctorate in organizational change and leadership from the University of Southern California. Stephanie has more than 15 years of experience in education, with almost a decade of experience as a curriculum leader and administrator in K-12 education in Massachusetts.

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