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December 10, 2021

First, Engage the Teachers: A Principal’s Role in Cultivating Staff Motivation

Five ways principals can help their teachers feel empowered and effective in their work.
A principal has many roles, but one of the most influential is that of empowering teachers to engage and motivate students. Young learners watch their teachers closely and bloom best when their teachers believe they can confidently and successfully overcome challenges.
Cultivating an environment with this kind of engagement starts with the collective belief that teachers and leaders, working together, can make a difference for young people. The November 2021 edition of Educational Leadership discussed the power of educator efficacy, in which educators believe their shared effort, “as a group, can have a positive impact on students” (Goddard, 2001; Goddard, Hoy, & Hoy, 2000). Indeed, this belief is the single most influential factor in promoting student achievement—higher than student socioeconomic status, prior achievement, home support, motivation, concentration, and even a student’s persistence (Hattie, 2016).
What does this mean for principals? Studies have revealed that a principal’s instructional leadership behaviors have a significant effect on teachers (Calik et. al., 2012; Weisel & Dror, 2006). When principals foster a staff’s collective belief in themselves, their staff will incorporate that positive esteem toward their own motivation and engagement to work with students. Maintaining and building a staff’s ability to see their own power and potency requires thought, care, empathy, and a critical eye toward language and behavior.
In my 17 years as a building administrator, I watched many principals master the skill of engaging and motivating their staff. From my practitioner’s perspective, I have identified six ways principals can help their teachers feel empowered, effective, and motivated in their work.

1) Listen.

Listening requires the discipline to hear more than we speak. I once worked with a principal who used to say, “I have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” By focusing on listening, she could truly understand what teachers said to one another, how they said it, how they valued one another, and how individual teachers identified themselves within the context of the whole staff. 
When listening to teachers and teams work together, a principal might turn an ear to these questions:
  • Does the staff talk about themselves as a team? Are the words we, our, and us used more often than I?
  • Do they care for one another’s professional journey? When one of them takes on a challenge—joining a program for an advanced degree, presenting at a conference—does colleagues’ expertise and support make the work easier and more meaningful?
  • Do they celebrate success together? When something positive happens with a student, do they share the news and the credit?
  • When students falter, do they come together to solve the problem? Do they instinctively reach out for collegial help when they are uncertain how to proceed?
If a group’s conversational language leans toward individuality rather than teamwork, the principal can work to shift the language. This can happen through encouragement such as, “I appreciate how we consider our collective community when talking with one another” and “When we have conversations about our students and our school, it’s most effective when we consider the entire team above any one individual.”
It can also grow through a principal’s modeling. Principals can take care to consistently use teamwork language: “This is our school, our staff, our department, our community.” Similarly, principals can give credit to those who deserve it—especially a team of people. As a principal, the only times I deliberately pull out “I” is when I need, want, or should take exclusive responsibility for something that is not going well.
Otherwise, I rely on language that celebrates collective success. I might talk about the positive results of our assessment data and remark on our positive behavior support system. When there is something to improve, I might discuss how we can focus our efforts, what timeline we are following, and what our collective goals might be. Using “we” and “our” for both celebrations and obstacles brings everyone together for responsibility, accountability, and acknowledgement.

2) Remove competition.

Though it is often unintentional, principals who put teachers in a position to compete for approval as a motivator quells any hopes of collaboration—and thus, hurts engagement and motivation. That’s why I don’t love “Teacher of the Month” designations, special parking spots, or individual elevation, especially for actions that we hope for in all teachers. Competitive reward designations create an unavoidable hierarchy, and hierarchies damage team dynamics.
How can a principal diffuse a competitive culture? Beyond refusing to support systems that reward “winners” or “favorites” above others, principals can provide rewards and feedback— staff lunches, displays in the lounge, cards of appreciation, release time for training or professional development—to everyone, rather than just to staff who have particular responsibilities or the most visible impact.  

When principals foster a staff’s collective belief in themselves, their staff will incorporate that positive esteem toward their own motivation and engagement to work with students.

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3) Present “expectations” with care.

For principals to build or maintain staff engagement and motivation, they should consider eliminating “bossy” or “parental” language, such as “I will look for your lesson plans in my inbox on Friday” or “I expect you to arrive by 8 a.m. each day.” I worry when I hear leaders outline their goals or intentions as “expectations,” because that word cuts off all input, conversation, and shared motivation. 
Expectations are standards we set when we are looking for a potential outcome and need no wiggle room in implementation. The outcome is obtainable and—well, expected. But an expectation slices through any possibility that people will react and respond with intrinsic motivation.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t have expectations—we should just be careful with how we communicate them. If we communicate our desired outcomes with solutions-based team language, it will help teachers connect their actions to their impact.
Here are a few ways a principal might reframe language of expectations.

Reframing Expectations

4) Look inward.

“When the principal has a cold, everyone in the building has a cold,” a mentor advised me long ago. How the teachers feel is a direct correlation with how their leader feels. If principals truly believe in their staff and students, and believe in the impact they have, the staff will know it. Of course, we all get colds; we all have days of despair when everything seems fruitless and overwhelming. But it’s our response to those days that determine how we—and, thus, our staff—will overcome them.
If you believe in the outcomes of your work, your teachers will feel empowered to do the same. I have found it helpful to seek out data that pinpoints areas of success, and I make a list of specific ways students benefit by being part of my school. A colleague of mine liked this idea, and created a list for his high school that looked like this:
  • A majority of our students exceed expectations of achievement projections on standardized tests.
  • Seventy-six percent of our students participate in some sort of extra-curricular activity
  • Facilities are used after hours every day of the week to support activities, clubs, and study groups.
  • Behavior referrals to the office have decreased, while team-based PBIS solutions have increased.
Lists like this should be personalized to each individual building, as they should reflect the goals and plans of teachers and students. I refer to my own list whenever I need a boost of motivation, and I share that list with others so they can see the same progress I see. I’ll put the list in its entirety in my weekly email, or I will share a particularly positive data point at a team or staff meeting. Staying engaged and motivated by my school’s success keeps me healthy and free of the chronic cold that would affect my whole staff. 

5) Build teachers up.

Some people don’t need the validation of others and are unaffected by their supervisors’ opinion. I am not one of them. I like it when my supervisors acknowledge my success. 
Principals have found many ways to show gratitude for a staff’s cohesive work—meals, notes, written or verbal acknowledgement. As explained earlier, this acknowledgement should not be of a competitive nature, but one in which each staff member feels seen, heard, and valued for their individual and collective contributions.
I live by the mantra, “If you think you’re saying ‘thank you’ enough, you’re about halfway there.”  I use every opportunity to thank teachers for specific efforts they have made: in passing conversation, in walkthrough feedback, in formal evaluations, in a card slipped in a teacher’s mailbox, in a public forum of parents or community members. Expressing gratitude and appreciation is a fantastic way to build engagement and motivation for an entire school community.
Student growth happens when students have teachers who believe in them—and in themselves. A principal’s role is to identify how the staff fits together as a team, model and celebrate community success without competition, avoid “expectation” language, and make sure to build teacher confidence, motivation, and engagement through positive feedback and support. When principals do these things, their school culture reflects a collective mission that students—and the staff who support them—are all contributing members of the school community. When this happens, motivation and engagement will increase, creating a cycle that feeds the positive school environment all students deserve.

Hattie, J., Fisher, D., Frey, N., Gojak, L. M., Moore, S. D., & Mellman, W. (2016). Visible learning for mathematics, grades K-12: What works best to optimize student learning. Corwin Press.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Goddard, R. D. (2001). Collective efficacy: A neglected construct in the study of the schools and student achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(3), 467-476.

Goddard, R. D. (2002). Collective efficacy and school organization: A multilevel analysis of teacher influence in schools. In W.K. Hoy, and C. G. Miskel (Eds), Theory and Research in Educational Administration (pp. 169–184). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Goddard, R. D., & Goddard, Y. L. (2001). A multilevel analysis of the relationship between teacher and collective efficacy in urban schools. Teaching and Teacher Education, 17, 807-818 

Goddard, R. D., Hoy, W. K., & Hoy, A. W. (2000). Collective teacher efficacy: Its meaning, measure, and impact on student achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 37(2), 479-507.

Goddard, R. D., Hoy, W. K., & Hoy, A. W. (2004). Collective efficacy: Theoretical development, empirical evidence, and future directions. Educational Researcher, 33(3), 3-13. 

Goddard, R. D., LoGerfo, L., & Hoy, W. K. (2004). High school accountability: The role of perceived collective efficacy. Educational Policy, 18(3), 403-425. Guskey, T. R. (1987).

Weisel, A., & Dror, O. (2006). School climate, sense of efficacy and Israeli teachers’ attitudes toward inclusion of students with special needs. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 1(2), 157-174.

Calik, T., Sezgin, F., Kavgaci, H., & Cagatay Kilinc, A. (2012). Examination of Relationships between Instructional Leadership of School Principals and Self-Efficacy of Teachers and Collective Teacher Efficacy. Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice, 12(4), 2498-2504.

Ross, J. A. (1994). The impact of an inservice to promote cooperative learning on the stability of teacher efficacy. Teaching & Teacher Education, 10(4), 381-394.

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