Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 22, 2018
Vol. 13
No. 14

Improving Teacher Experience

When I start my work coaching school leaders, I pay particular attention to the energy of the school, especially in the teachers themselves. Is there teamwork and collaboration? Are staff motivated to come to work and go above and beyond? Do teachers take a personal interest in their own development? An energized school culture is all these things and more—the environment shifts to one of excitement and motivation where everyone has something personally at stake to improve outcomes for students.
As a former principal, I learned that one of the keys to successful leadership is not to prioritize your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. One of those priorities that leads to a positive school community must be focusing on the morale of teachers and staff. It's no secret that year after year, teachers are leaving this noble profession due to teacher burnout. Although some of the burdens facing teachers are beyond the control of any building leader, principals must use a proactive approach in helping alleviate possible internal pressures. Here are five ways that I help school leaders across the country show appreciation for their teachers and create a positive and sustainable classroom culture, which can then extend throughout the whole school.

Anticipate School-Year Peaks and Valleys

It has been my experience that teachers begin the year feeling energized but then become frustrated, frazzled, and overwhelmed during the months of October and March. Proactively schedule a staff appreciation dinner or outing to boost morale during October or March, as well as during testing time or especially difficult months. Plan and calendar meaningful monthly incentives from the beginning of the school year through the end of the year. Keeping teachers motivated and enthused should never be an afterthought!
As a principal, I led a school with extended days, which everybody likes in theory, but can be unsustainable if not acknowledged. I could not take away my teachers' workload, but I could use my voice to show appreciation for them and create a culture of recognition.
I introduced my staff to Ritz-Carlton's "gold standards for excellent customer service (Michelli, 2008). With these service standards in mind, we created our own standards for how to engage with parents, students, and one another. Additionally, we all committed to adopting ta model of "lateral service," where meeting internal needs among colleagues is integral to meeting the needs of the community we serve. Staff were encouraged to identify when one of their colleagues had exhibited a gold standard, by writing a letter to me describing the event. We would share the letter at our next faculty meeting and the recognized staffer would be entered into a raffle. Our culture of recognition wasn't just top-down—my staff was recognizing each other. Because of this, working long hours went from being something we had to do to keep our jobs to something we did collectively, with joy, to give students the best possible education and each other the best possible community.

Help Teachers Get Better at Managing Their Classrooms

I have found that one of the most effective ways to help stressed teachers is to assist them in better managing their classroom environments. Teachers usually lack the formal training or professional development to understand how to best manage their classrooms. Without this support, they feel lost and do not have a mechanism to request the help and support they need to change. Many teachers tell me they feel like silos in their schools: Their administrators visit them only a couple of times per year, and when the teachers do receive feedback, it is inconsistent or given through email without any direct, hands-on support.
A suggestion for principals and school leaders is to first implement a common language and culture of high expectations across classrooms in the building. Leaders must give teachers the opportunity (and accountability) to receive training and support on how to deliver precise directions to students and how to hold students accountable to these expectations so that no minute of learning time is wasted. This kind of consistent language is not only a tool to better manage the classroom, but a way to create a culturally relevant, positive classroom community built on high expectations and strong relationships.

Make Two-Way Coaching and Feedback a Priority

How do we, as educators, implement best practices beyond simply "telling" and "presenting"? Coaches must deliver in-the-moment feedback during class. Teachers tell me every day that this changes their practice more than receiving feedback hours or days later. This way, teachers can change course immediately and see the results in their students' engagement. I tell my principals and coaches to also specifically ask teachers for their real-time feedback, whether it's during a post-coaching conference or a staff meeting.

Create Procedures That Promote Self-Care and Work–Life Balance

Consider closing your building early to all staff one day a week or month to encourage them to go home rather than work in their classrooms. This idea actually came to me from looking at the business model of Chick-fil-A, which closes one day each week so that employees can have a day to spend time with their families. The idea that you don't have to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to value your people and be a prosperous school community had been foreign to me. Once I received coaching on this, I realized that if my staff came to work at 10 percent, it was detrimental to our culture. If I didn't take care of them, they wouldn't have the capacity or know what it was like to then take care of their students.

Lead with Compassion

Schedule one-on-one check-ins with teachers to celebrate, reflect, inspire, or simply listen. Teachers often sacrifice their personal selves for their professional selves. Ensuring that teachers have what they need and feel supported is vital to decreasing burnout and increasing joy in the overall school community. Knowing their leader puts them first helps them put students first.
When intuitive school leaders prioritize people, everything they do reflects the needs of those they serve far beyond Teacher Appreciation Week. When staff feel supported, when their practice is developed, and when they are motivated to come to work every day, this trickles down to their students. Students know that their teachers are invested in their success, and in turn students are given the learning space and support they need to reach their academic potential. Regardless of the political pressures that often envelop our profession, school leaders must lead with their staff in mind. The future stability of our profession depends upon it!

Michelli, J. A. (2008). The new gold standard: 5 leadership principles for creating a legendary customer experience courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services