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February 1, 2017
Vol. 59
No. 2

Five Signs Your Staff Has Tuned Out

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If staff engagement seems muted, use these moves to get on the same frequency.

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As a first-year principal at Whitt Elementary School in Wylie, Texas, Amber Teamann came in fired up to make changes. Just six weeks into the year, she wanted to overhaul the school's awards culture, which mostly focused on high achievers. She later learned that this tradition was deeply valued by the campus and community.
"Looking back," she laments, "I was a fool!" The young administrator hadn't yet built rapport with staff, hadn't earned their trust, and didn't seek their feedback on changes. Their resistance to her "forced vision," as she recalls, was immediate. "I spent the rest of the year trying to make up for it—that I had come in and didn't recognize that this was not the Amber Teamann school; this was Whitt Elementary, and they had a history and a tradition."
Although she reached a compromise on the awards issue—renaming the ceremonies "student celebrations" and moving kindergarteners to a portfolio-based system—the experience "was disastrous in relationship building," reflects Teamann.
The end-of-year culture survey revealed the extent of teachers' unhappiness. Seeing their unfiltered comments was "a pretty humbling moment," explains Teamann. She just wishes she had recognized the signs sooner.

Sources of Discord

How can school leaders tell if they're at risk of alienating or losing buy-in from staff? Experts suggest looking for these indicators.

1. They're not showing up.

The most obvious sign that teachers are disengaged is when they're regularly calling in sick, says ASCD author and former principal Baruti Kafele. "Of course, folks are going to get ill from time to time, but when you see patterns of having to cover classes throughout the year, there's something going on."
And when teachers do come to work, he adds, they're putting forth minimal effort. They "don't want to participate in anything outside of what they do in the classroom," like attend events or take part in extracurricular activities.
They may also be less likely to volunteer for leadership roles, observes Shane Safir, author of The Listening Leader. It can become increasingly tough to recruit teacher leaders for key positions—grade-level teams, department chairs, and committee work—when no one is willing to "step up to the plate."

2. They're disengaged from students.

An even more concerning sign than attendance is when teachers aren't meaningfully connecting with students, says Todd Whitaker, author of School Culture Rewired (ASCD, 2015). When you visit classrooms, scan the room to see whether students and teachers seem enthusiastic, he advises. Are teachers trying creative things to drum up interest? Are they going the extra mile to reach students who aren't engaged? Additionally, "are they still contacting parents," asks Whitaker, and "being proactive instead of just reactive?"

3. They're not speaking up.

Another indicator of staff disengagement, says Safir, is when authentic conversations are taking place among staff at the "watercooler, parking lot, or during happy hour" but few people are speaking up during staff meetings.
Safir refers to Roland Barth's term "nondiscussables"—subjects that are important to talk about but only get discussed in private spaces. The more nondiscussables, she asserts, the less healthy the staff culture.
When teachers stop seeking you out or sharing their concerns with you, it could allude to a lack of trust, explains Whitaker. Teamann admits she was almost "oblivious" to the fact that her teachers felt comfortable approaching the assistant principal and counselor but "they weren't coming to me with concerns or issues."
"There was a lot of compliance but not a lot of engagement" in that first year, she adds. "They were still trying to figure me out."

4. They're showing nonverbal cues.

Principals can also watch for more subtle evidence, such as teachers' facial expressions and body language during staff meetings, says Safir. "Do people appear to be engaged or checked out? Are they doing other work? Are they disgruntled or frustrated?" Observe whether staff exchange glances, whether they are sitting back instead of leaning in, or even their seating arrangements. One sign of disengagement or "self-protection behavior," Safir notes, is if teachers congregate in small subgroups, exchange a lot of nonverbal cues, and don't take part in the full community.

5. They feel defeated.

Finally, school leaders should take an honest assessment of the overall climate: "Is there a negative vibe in the building?" asks Kafele. Are staff members complaining? Are they isolating themselves from one another? The clearest indicator that staff has checked out is that "there's no spirit," Kafele avows, "no real pride in being at the [school]."

Holding Up the Mirror

No matter which symptoms of disengagement emerge, "the cause is always leadership, always," contends Whitaker. "If things are going great, it's because of leadership; if things are going poorly, it's because of leadership."
"As humans, we focus so much on who other people are that it's very easy to lose sight of who we are," adds Kafele. "If teachers are not performing, children are not performing, parents are not involved, and the community is detached, where in that conversation are we saying, 'I might be the cause of that?'"
In The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence (ASCD, 2015), Kafele recommends self-reflection as part of a leader's daily practice. As a principal who led the transformation of four urban schools in New Jersey, Kafele made a habit of literally looking into his office mirror each morning and asking, "Who am I?" (identity in the context of students and leadership), "What am I about?" (purpose as a leader), and "What is my most recent evidence?" (activities in the last 24 hours that support numbers 1 and 2).
"Go to that mirror," he advises, "and have a short conversation to make sure you have brought the best you to your school in the morning."
Next, look to the people around you for insight. "You have to have the audacity to ask staff to be brutally honest," explains Kafele. Climate surveys, whole-group discussions, and focus groups can provide valuable feedback.
Paul Gavoni, a behavior analyst for St. Lucie Public Schools in Florida, says a 360-degree evaluation can be especially eye-opening. "Ask the people above you, below you, and beside you" how you're doing. "Like a GPS, the goal is to get to the end point, but you have all these measurements to know that you're moving in the right direction."
Once you've gathered feedback, it's time to take ownership, maintains Whitaker. "As a leader, you have to have the wherewithal to realize that when you get this information back, you need to change what you do, not be mad at the people who gave you the feedback."
For Teamann, "stepping back and apologizing was a huge step." She reviewed the survey results with every person on campus, highlighted the staff's most pressing concerns, and vowed to take specific actions to address them. First on the agenda? Listen more and talk less.
"Whereas before I was coming in to be the boss and make decisions, now I worked with staff to find solutions," says Teamann. "I let them be the ones who filled in the gaps, and I would just ask questions: 'What about this?' and 'Have you thought about that?' and 'What if this happens?'"
"Listening is one of the missing links in school transformation," believes Safir. "If a leader is feeling triggered by their staff all the time and sitting in a place of judgment or frustration, that will be a barrier to listening," she notes. Figure out why you're "triggered by X, Y, Z person or pattern—and then also become aware of culture, gender, and identity and how those things manifest in your leadership."
Safir, who was the cofounding principal of June Jordan School for Equity in California, suggests tracking patterns of participation through an equity lens. "Pay attention to who's stepping up into leadership roles and who's speaking in meetings. Is it only veteran staff, only male staff? Are your paraprofessionals engaged?"
Then, conduct a "listening campaign" to close those gaps in participation. Schedule listening sessions with staff you need to hear from and guide the conversations with a set of anchor questions (tailored to your school's needs) to not only gather data on why they're disengaged but to also "build relational capital."

The Human Touch

When staff morale begins to sour, it can be easy to throw your hands up and attribute it to oppositional staff members or the school culture in general, acknowledges Whitaker. But instead of pointing fingers, focus on what you can do each day to change the narrative.
Safir suggests rebuilding trust by "humanizing" staff meetings and professional learning spaces. "One of the biggest causes I see of staff disengagement is that people are carrying so much stress and emotion, and they're essentially being asked to compartmentalize it." The message that's implied is, "Don't bring that here; this is a professional space."
Build in chunks of time "that are about connecting and authentically sharing your feelings and experiences as an administrator," she advises. During the first 10 minutes of your meeting, have staff engage with each other around thoughtful prompts like, "What's on the top of your mind and heart right now?" or "What's something you're carrying from your day that you need to get off your chest?"
"It's a chance to just show up as a human being with your colleagues, which is missing from a lot of meeting cultures."

Low-Hanging Fruit

Gavoni knows all too well the challenges of winning over a wary staff. Halfway through the 2015–16 year, he was pulled from his building as an assistant principal and placed into another school that was failing. Students were struggling, morale was low, and 25 percent of the staff were substitutes.
Gavoni asked teachers to identify "three things they wanted to keep and three things they wanted to change." He then pounced on a few "quick wins," changing the parking lot layout to improve parent pickup and restructuring morning arrival so that 600 kids were no longer grouped together in the same hallway before the first bell. Because students weren't being disciplined or "overly roused by negative interactions with their peers, they were coming into the classroom ready to be engaged."
"These were simple things to fix, but the staff could visually see [the progress]," says Gavoni. As a result, "they would buy into things we were doing more."
Generally, attests Whitaker, teachers will be more likely to embrace change when they've had a chance to regroup. Holidays, spring break, and the start of the school year provide "natural resets" to leverage.

Push, Don't Shove

Now in her second year as a principal, Teamann has become much more intentional—and even granular—about making sure teachers feel valued. She keeps a list of staff names and adds a check mark next to each when she sends a positive note or engages in a personal conversation.
She also asks teachers how they want to be celebrated. "I have 54 people with 54 different love languages," she observes. Some want a public shout-out or words of affirmation, while others prefer a quiet pat on the back. "It is really about recognizing what my staff need from me."
"Now everything I do goes back to the relationship," says Teamann. "How can I value this person and make sure they know I hear them, yet also challenge them to think outside the box?"


Sarah McKibben is the editor in chief of Educational Leadership magazine.

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