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August 4, 2022
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Structure, Systems, and Strategies: 3 Underappreciated Ways Leaders Can Help Teachers This Year

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Effective leaders need to work consistently toward providing support in varied and strategic ways.
Leadership
3 WAYS LEADERS CAN SUPPORT STAFF – AND THEMSELVES – IN THE NEW SCHOOL YEAR
Credit: goodstudio/shutterstock
In my experience as a superintendent, there’s a common request underlying the frustrations of teachers and school staff: ”I want to feel supported.”  School leaders losing sleep over balancing the demands of parent concerns, student needs, personnel issues, and paperwork—all in the name of supporting teachers—can feel puzzled and overwhelmed by this. “How can they not feel supported?”  they may ask themselves.   
In our district, as in many across the country, our last school year was underscored by teachers and principals being worn out by efforts to reset classroom management and address absence-fueled gaps in continuity after a year of unconventional learning in our schools.  How much more can leaders take on? 
Reflecting on this conundrum, I’ve identified a few strategies to help school leaders support their teachers, without having to jeopardize their personal and professional wellbeing. These come from my own lived successes and challenges of the past three school years as a district leader aiming to recover lost learning, move achievement forward, and keep morale high. These three tips can help leaders streamline support for their teachers and maintain a positive culture throughout the building.   

1)  Don’t Shy Away from High Expectations

Just like students, teachers work best with a structure in place. They want to know what is expected of them and, if changes are suggested, want clear directions. Keep expectations high and articulate a concise pathway (including a timeline) for how to meet them. Next, keep staff motivated through positive communication and feedback.  Take time to regularly explain your expectations so staff members understand how they impact students and families.   
Throughout the year, make your written feedback meaningful, objective, and applicable; keep spoken feedback kind and empathetic but targeted to align advice with helping staff meet expectations. Meet staff where they are and help them move forward, step by step. As a result of the pandemic and its disruptions, we’ve learned to live with flexibility and adaptability as part of our professional lives, but as school leaders we need to try to keep expectations high and consistent, especially for our core and most important priorities. Effective leaders use a balanced set of data sources, feedback, and observations to collaboratively prioritize one to three annual goals aligned with a few key expectations meant to support success.  

Example in Practice:

Our district set an expectation for virtual and teacher-led collaborative meetings this year (complete with early release days on a master schedule), based on our efforts to increase alignment across our buildings. In December, when transportation issues, caused by a region-wide bus driver shortage, threw a wrench in our dismissal plans, expectations for these meetings didn’t change. Instead, we communicated the problem to staff, asked for ideas, offered three top solutions, and pressed on with alternative meeting arrangements that still prioritized the importance of this teamwork. Our teachers opted for afterschool timeslots or floating sub coverage to allow meetings to continue. Plans may change, but expectations should not!   

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2)  Focus on Systems, Systems, Systems 

Effective and well-managed systems cut down on employee stress and could be critical to preventing the frustration and burnout many educators cite as they leave the field. Leaders who develop, implement, and support good systems—regardless of the scale of their organization—are working to ensure all staff have access to the resources, people, and support they need. Systems clarify expectations. They build trust and confidence not only in the organization, but also in the leader.  
Leaders should consider the day-to-day realities of how communication, transitions, data-review, special events, or family engagement occur when choosing where and when a clearer system is needed. If there is confusion or inconsistency around a process within a school, there may be a need for a more robust system.  When engrained culture has led to a bad habit in practice, such as last-minute scrambling when grades are due, the right system can help move toward the implementation of more sustainable practices.  These become a powerful tool for promoting equity, as they remove barriers, create consistency, and establish a level playing field for all staff members. Once established, leaders can differentiate within the framework of a system to offer every staff member tailored and direct support.   

Example in Practice:

This year, we implemented a system for staff check-ins with our administration. Every staff member scheduled a regular 20-minute meeting, selecting a time and platform (in-person or virtual) that best fit their needs. The time was theirs to use—the staff member set the topics, the priorities, and the questions they needed answered. The administrative team listened and responded, giving each staff member a personalized experience aimed at helping them address their self-identified top priority. Not only was this system great for morale, but it also ensured every staff member—from the outspoken to the reserved—had an opportunity to be heard.

3) Support with Strategies, Not Emotions

As school leaders, we all gave (and received) a lot of grace over the past few school years. As we gear up for a new year, we should continue the lessons in empathy and companionship instilled since 2020 while working toward research-based solutions to the instructional and behavioral challenges observed in our classrooms. Teachers don’t want a martyr as their leader; nor do they want to commiserate with you. Instead, they want a leader who can focus on responding to their needs with concrete strategies aimed at helping them solve their problems. Avoid taking all the burden on yourself and avoid asking teachers to expend copious amounts of emotional energy worrying about the situation instead of focusing on solutions. Instead, use a team approach, rooted in a wealth of data, to research and select key strategies for reaching a solution. The best way to show your staff you support them is to work with them to describe a problem, identify the root cause, and develop a plan of correction. It’s a collaborative process, and the leader must facilitate, collaborate, and be present.   

Example in Practice:  

It was June 2022, the end of a long year, and it seemed like the entire 6th grade was having a meltdown. The classroom community crumbled and the focus on academics took a backseat to student disruptions and external distractions. Teachers were frustrated, and students were shutting down. We held a team meeting to discuss the problem. Once the concerns were made clear, we needed a plan. Not a plan to float through the last few weeks of the year or suspend kids from activities, but a plan to help repair broken relationships with appropriate strategies. It took time but one long, candid conversation helped us identify the root cause of the problem (broken relationships) and create an action plan focused on research-based strategies (restorative circles, 2X10 interventions with target students, and positive teacher phrasing) helped us quickly transition to a happy end of the year with successful students and teachers energized to return in the fall.

Moving Forward

Support can take on many forms. Effective leaders need to work consistently toward providing support in varied and strategic ways that set clear expectations, establish systems for meeting those expectations, and provide interventions based on strategies, all in a systematic approach that avoids draining those involved of their energy, passion, and love for teaching and learning. With a great new school year approaching, let's stay focused on the guidelines for supporting teachers—and ourselves—to the best of our abilities.     

James (Jim) Tauzel is the Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Rochester, NY, serving over 2,600 students in 17 Catholic elementary schools across a six-county region in upstate New York.  Jim has been part of the Rochester Diocese since 2015, previously serving as a building principal and Coordinator of Curriculum and Instruction.   He has additional experience working in the public school system of Texas from 2009 – 2015.  

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