Teachers Don’t Need To Find Their WHY

find their why

Every couple of years or so, a Big New Idea sweeps across the business world and ends up being adopted by (or forced on) education leaders. Fish! Philosophy, SMART goals, strategic planning, data-driven decision-making, and choosing your One Word have all found their ways into central offices and welcome back PD days. One of the latest of these fads is finding your WHY. This one is brought to us by Simon Sinek, who you probably know from this video:

Finding your WHY (he’s the one who capitalizes it) is about identifying the reason you do what you do. It’s your passion, your reason for existing. Sinek describes it as, “why you get out of bed in the morning and why anyone should care.”

Because we revere business in this country, schools love hopping on the bandwagon when these fads emerge from the ether. When a business management expert sells a few million copies of his new book and racks up a few million views on YouTube, you can bet there will be plenty of school administrators champing at the bit to shoehorn their ideas into their organizations. “How can this apply to teaching?” they’ll ask.

The truth is, sometimes it doesn’t. Unfortunately, that rarely dampens people’s enthusiasm for it.  I’m willing to bet there are thousands of teachers across the country who have been asked to find their WHY in the last few years. Administrators who push this question have good intentions, but they’re focused on the wrong problem.

Teaching is pregnant with meaning. Teachers do not need to find their WHY. I know very few teachers who don’t recognize their purpose. All of us know our work is meaningful. That’s why most of us chose it instead of fields that paid more but offered less meaningful work. Teaching is a mission-driven profession entered into by largely selfless people for noble reasons. Most teachers are idealists at heart. You have to be, considering the challenges of the job and the modest tangible rewards for doing it.  No teacher enters the profession confused about its importance. In fact, one survey of 30,000 teachers found that 100% of them (that’s all 30,000!) were enthusiastic about the profession when they started. That’s because they were 100% sure of their WHY. Even veteran teachers haven’t forgotten why they’re there. Since finding meaning in one’s work is a major contributor to personal happiness, it’s not surprising that teachers rate their lives better than all other occupation groups except doctors. 

But teachers are far less happy when they’re actually at work. 61% say their jobs are always or often stressful, and they rank their work environment lower than farmers, construction workers, and miners do. How can this be? If teaching is so meaningful — if teachers know their WHY — how can they be so unhappy at school?

Simple. Teachers don’t burn out and quit because they lose their sense of purpose; they burn out and quit because they can’t pursue that purpose. 

Teachers don’t burn out and quit because they lose their sense of purpose; they burn out and quit because they can’t pursue that purpose. Click To Tweet

The unanimous enthusiasm young teachers feel when they start quickly wilts under the crushing reality found inside today’s schools. While every teacher starts off believing in the promise of their jobs, just 53% said they were still enthusiastic about teaching at the point they took the above-mentioned survey. Those who “strongly agreed” had dropped from 89% to 15%. The most dangerous year for a teacher is her first. More teachers quit after year one than any other year. The job didn’t suddenly become devoid of meaning for these young idealists. They quit because of the disconnect between what they want to do (their WHY) and what they believe they can do.

Say I start a food pantry because my WHY is to eradicate hunger in my community. My job will certainly not lack meaning. I will be motivated to seek out donations. I’ll research neighborhoods and identify potential clients. I’ll use traditional and digital media to get the word out. I’ll work with schools and businesses to organize food drives. I’ll move heaven and earth to fulfill my mission.

Now say that upon starting my food pantry, the health department tells me I can’t accept certain types of foods. Then I discover that it’s hard to find and keep reliable volunteers. Then I run into capacity problems; I need more space! Then some of my clients start showing up too often and taking more than their fair share. I have to make new rules. Some clients hate my new rules. I regularly run out of popular items and have to purchase them with very limited funds. Some complain about the food I do provide. Then somebody gets sick and sues me. Now I’m paying a lawyer. At some point, I might decide that having a WHY isn’t enough. There are simply too many impediments.

That’s what too many teachers decide.

If a lack of purpose was a real problem for teachers, then we’d expect greater turnover in affluent schools than in high-poverty ones. Teachers might rightly question the meaning of their job if they’re teaching in a wealthy district where kids are going to go to college regardless of their teachers’ efforts. Teachers unquestionably have a better chance at improving the lives of those who come from less. Finding meaning in their work isn’t the issue. The fact that far more teachers leave high-needs schools than affluent ones suggests that it’s not the meaning of the job that makes the difference in whether teachers stick it out, but the likelihood that such meaning can be effectively pursued.

It’s the barriers that are the problem. The lack of resources needed to do the job. The outside factors that influence students’ motivation and abilities. The insufficient training. The absence of mentors. The lack of parent knowledge or support. These are the things that make it hard to remain passionate about a mission that grows increasingly unlikely to be realized.

Even worse is the bureaucratic buffoonery that tends to be especially egregious in high-poverty districts. It’s exhausting to fight for what should be basic needs and rational policies. Teachers are too often forced to do things that conflict with their sense of purpose. No teacher went into the job to focus on test scores and compliance. They shouldn’t have to give a weekly reading test to a kid they know can’t read the test. They shouldn’t be prohibited from reading a math test to a student who’s excellent at math but can’t decode the words in the problem. They shouldn’t be forced to use this grading scale and enter this many grades by such-and-such a date. The decision to assign homework or not shouldn’t be made for them. They shouldn’t be precluded from taking lethargic students outside for a break or discouraged from providing students time to read whatever they want because they have to teach from a canned program that the kids despise and that doesn’t even work.

Those teachers find their WHY, but the why they find is, “WHY did I become a teacher again?”

Teachers already have a WHY. They don’t need soul-searching and deep introspection. Those who are burned out haven’t mailed it in because they believe teaching lacks meaning. They’re demoralized because the meaning inherent in the job has been stripped away in service to some other less meaningful goals.

Teachers do not need to find their WHY. They simply need to be allowed to pursue it.

Teachers don't need to find their WHY. They need to be allowed to pursue it. Click To Tweet

 

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Their Levers Are Destined to Fail

How do you get educators to do things differently? That is the question anybody with an idea about how to improve any aspect of education must consider.  

Such a question derives from dubious assumptions. First, you have to believe that things need changing, an assumption that probably says more about you than about what’s happening in schools. Second, you have to believe your idea will actually work on a large scale, an assumption that reveals your hubris and something teachers who have been doing the hard work for at least a few years find unlikely.

Their suspicion means that teachers won’t try your idea on their own, so you must force them to. In order to force someone to do something they’d rather not do, you must offer rewards or threaten sanctions  Rewards usually cost money, and you didn’t get to be rich enough to force your ideas on others by giving that away. Punishments must be severe enough to compel action.

It’s no secret that the success of any rollout or implementation is more dependent on teacher buy-in than almost any other factor. When initiatives fail, it’s the reluctance or incompetence of the teachers asked to implement it that’s blamed, not the idea itself. And it doesn’t matter what the reform is. You could be trying to get your teachers to use the textbook you purchased, to stress learning goals to their students, or to develop and use performance scales. You might even be trying to help them. I’m in conversation with someone at the Department of Education who wants to focus on educator empowerment. We’re brainstorming ways to educate teachers on how they can protect their wellbeing and fight for better work cultures. But we face an uphill battle because no matter the initiative, recent history proves it’s hard to get teachers to change and even harder to get true buy-in. 

First, there is the issue of time. When are teachers going to get the training? When will they be given an opportunity to look over the materials? The U.S. requires its teachers spend more time in front of their students than any other developed nation. That leaves very little time for everything else. Because they have too much to do and not enough time to do it, any new idea will meet immediate resistance. 

Second, and more importantly, there’s the issue of motivation. Why should teachers do this new thing? To be as cynical as possible (since any new initiative will have to deal with cynical teachers who have been through this a time or two before), what’s in it for me? I’m offered the opportunity to take an online class, or receive some coaching, or use my PD hours the way I want to and the first thing I’m going to ask (if I’m being cynical) is why should I?

Because it’s not as if this new thing comes without costs. There will be a time commitment and a learning curve. It will take effort. If I’m working with others or receiving some coaching, there’s some risk. There’s usually additional work involved and I’ve already got plenty, thank you. And there’s no evidence that it will work. In fact, based on my considerable experience, the evidence suggests that it will fail and be replaced by something new within a couple of years.

So why do any of it? 

Enter the levers.

Reformers (and I don’t use the term pejoratively here, but just to describe people who are trying to change the way teachers do things) love levers.

Which says something about how they view teachers. As Peter Greene writes,

A lever is a tool that one uses to force movement. There’s nothing collaborative about a lever. And you don’t apply a lever from inside the area you want to affect– you stand outside the box and bear down. If something breaks and snaps loose, it will go flying away from you.

As a metaphor, levers leave a little something to be desired.

But questionable metaphors are not the only problem with levers. The real problem for reformers is that their levers are destined to fail. 

Their Favorite Levers

 

Teacher evaluation

The thinking, I suppose, went something like this: Our test scores suck, which means our teachers must suck. To improve both, we’ll get rid of the duds. In order to identify the dead weight and make this appear at least a little bit objective, we’ll have to rate them. You know, with checklists and numbers and other sorts of data-y things. We’ll make it complicated so it’s harder to question. Anyway, the ones with the lowest ratings will be shoved out the door. The others, seeing those teachers summarily dismissed, will fall into line. Bill Gates, the champion of stack ranking at Microsoft, led this effort to the tune of a half-billion (with a b) dollars. Gates assumed that a practice that worked (except it didn’t) in the sphere where he had the most familiarity would work elsewhere. His efforts failed. In hindsight, it’s not hard to see why.  

Most teachers quickly figured out that they only needed a good enough evaluation to return next year and that the odds of that happening were very high. With a teacher shortage, they could take their chances and not sign up for extra work just to earn extra points on their evaluations. History has proven that’s almost always a safe bet. If there’s one enduring lesson from the Gates experiment, it’s that billionaires and state governments may bark, but principals who have to do the actual firing won’t bite. Even at the height of the teacher evaluation craze, very few teachers received the lowest possible rating and even fewer were fired. 

Reformers hoped that the fear of losing our jobs would make us easier to control. They hoped to provide administrators with the leverage they needed to force compliance so that if they wanted to implement any of the fine initiatives being fed to them by reformers, they’d be able to raise an eyebrow, point at their tablets, and get teachers to bend the knee. When that didn’t work, merit pay was trotted out. The thinking: If we can’t threaten them into compliance, let’s try bribery!  That didn’t work, either. Most of the bribes weren’t large enough, and they were attempting to bribe people who knowingly sacrificed the opportunity to make more money when they chose education in the first place. If we cared about 500 bucks that much, we wouldn’t be teachers.

Badges (or mini-credentials)

So if teacher evaluations and merit pay won’t work, what will? How can reformers and the administrators who’ve signed on to their reforms get teachers to attend training or choose their own professional development or attend a three-day workshop that they don’t really want to attend? The latest solution seems to be digital badges. 

Digital badges are mini-credentials that teachers can earn when they display competencies with new skills or acquire new knowledge. Proponents point to their personalized nature and gamification as reasons teachers find badges better than traditional professional development. When used this way, teachers may indeed find digital badges more motivating. Used as levers to move teachers to action, however, they suffer from the same problem as other methods.

Digital badges are essentially résumé builders. As such, they only appeal to ambitious social climbers who are always looking for the next rung on the ladder.  As levers to get teachers to change, they’ll work on very few and those who do chase them will soon be out of the classroom, on to bigger and brighter things. Teachers who are content to finish their careers in the classroom have no use for them. These types of Scooby Snacks only motivate the already motivated, who would show up for whatever you’re offering anyway if they think it will help them move closer to their next job.  

Extra pay

Just kidding. This isn’t a favorite lever. Normally, if you want somebody to do disagreeable work, you pay them. Some teachers would likely trade autonomy for money. But as the response to nationwide teacher shortages demonstrates, education reformers, most of whom are right of center and proud supporters of our capitalist system, suddenly forget how the free market works when it comes to education. Few of them suggest paying teachers more as a way to attract them to the field. Instead, they look for alternatives, be they Teach For America temps,  long-term subs, or computer programs. Although many want to model America’s schools after America’s businesses, they don’t want to use the lever nearly all businesses use.

Appeals to Professionalism (Guilt)

When all else fails, reformers and the administrators who do their bidding can call on an old friend, guilt. Of all the levers, this one is most effective, at least in the short-term. “Do what’s best for kids,” teachers are told, and what’s best for kids is almost always what people who don’t teach kids think is best for kids. You’ll be reminded that you’re a professional, with the unspoken implication that professionals would never shirk their responsibilities, one of which is constant improvement. You’ve heard all the lines. They’ve probably even worked on you. And no matter how many times we’ve been burned, some of us keep coming back.

It’s manipulation, pure and simple, and it’s a lever that ultimately fails because it never achieves genuine buy-in. Guilted into doing something, some teachers will do it, but they’ll be resentful and unenthusiastic, hardly the mindset those with the idea had in mind when they imagined their brainchild in an actual classroom. Other teachers will exercise their teacher’s veto: they’ll pledge to do the thing and then go back to their classrooms and do what they know works. Compliance, however achieved, is a poor substitute for buy-in.

 

Those Damn Cynics

The only lever left might be to get rid of the cynics so the levers face less resistance. But this is a fundamental attribution error. Cynics don’t become teachers; cynical teachers are created by the situations they find themselves in. And being poked and prodded with levers is one of the causes of the cynicism reformers continually butt up against.

Cynics don't become teachers; cynical teachers are created by the situations they find themselves in. And being poked and prodded with levers is one of the causes of the cynicism reformers continually butt up against. Click To Tweet

It’s a vicious cycle. Reformers hope for docile acquiescence but are instead faced with skepticism and obstinance. To move the doubters, they pull out their crowbars, none of which work. Teachers, convinced that the reformers’ ideas are bad since they needed to be jabbed by levers in order to even try them and because every previous initiative met the same resistance and inevitably failed, have their cynicism confirmed. They become even less likely to change. It does no good to get rid of the cynics because there aren’t enough idealists to replace them, and if you keep sticking levers into them, those idealists will be cynics soon enough.

The Lever That’s Not a Lever

The only lever that will work is the one no reformer wants to use. If you want me to try your new idea, then offer me more freedom and create something useful. Say to me, “We’d like you to try this. We think it’s pretty nifty, and we want to see if it works. We’re so high on this idea that we’re sure if you try it you’ll never go back to teaching how you did. But we’ll trust you to make that decision because we know you want what’s best for your students. We also know that if you try this new thing and it works, you’ll tell other teachers and they’ll start using it. Everybody will win.”

This is how Flipgrid, Pear Deck, Google Classroom, Prodigy, and countless other products ended up being used in thousands of classrooms. Teachers didn’t need to be coerced into using any of them. None of them needed levers. They spread because they worked. 

Of course, allowing teachers to choose is not really a lever at all. That’s trust and treating teachers like professionals. And if reformers did that, well, teachers might decide the ideas they’re being pitched suck. They might not try them at all. And there’s no possible way that teachers, the people who do this teaching thing for a living, can possibly know more about what works than the people who hold the levers.

 

Peter Greene wrote about the unfortunate use of levers as a metaphor for education policy here and like everything he writes, it’s on the nose and fun to read.

The Best Way to Kill a Good Idea

When I was in middle school I set out to read Stephen King’s complete body of work. I was inspired by my uncle, Pat, who was only five years older than me and owned many of King’s books. I read them throughout high school. Although I hadn’t finished by the time I went off to college, I abruptly stopped reading much of anything a week after setting foot on campus. The reason? I had too much required reading to do.

I rarely read any of it, and of what I did read, I remember almost nothing. Feeling guilty that I wasn’t doing the work my father was paying a fair amount for the opportunity to do, I read nothing at all. How could I read novels for enjoyment when I had neglected hundreds of pages of required text for class?

Reading is good. Requiring it is far less good.

This is the major problem with most education initiatives. Many of them are wonderful ideas that have the potential to positively impact students. But their effectiveness is neutered when legislatures, school boards, and school leaders force teachers to implement them. There’s a very simple reason:

People hate being told to do things.

Time for teachers to collaborate is good.
Requiring teachers to collaborate is not.

Professional development for teachers is good.
Requiring all teachers to attend the same professional development is not.

Having student learning goals is good.
Requiring every teacher to write learning goals on the board every day is not.

Lesson plans are good.
Requiring teachers to submit lesson plans is not.

Reading professional articles about teaching is good.
Requiring teachers to read specific articles is not.

Calling parents with good news is good.
Requiring teachers to call parents with good news is not.

Using humor in the classroom is good.
Putting humor on a checklist that principals use to evaluate teachers is not (and let’s hope such a thing never happens).

Reading books about teaching is good. Book studies are not.

Having a classroom management system is good. Forcing all teachers to use the same system is not.

 

The best way to kill a good idea is to force people to do it.

But that’s just what too many educational leaders do. There’s a tendency in education to take anything with evidence to support its effectiveness and try to force all teachers to do that thing.

Which of course has the effect of teachers not wanting to do that thing and results in it being done less than optimally. Force me to do something and sure, I might do it (unless I think I can get away with not doing it), but I won’t put much effort into it.

Enter the work of Robert Marzano (among others). Like many teachers, I’ve read Marzano’s book, The Highly-Engaged Classroom (and, notably, I read it on my own, not because my school did a book study and required its reading). I read it because it’s really good information for a teacher that I knew could make me better at my job.

However, it’s potentially really bad information for administrators. Leaders, pressured to improve student test scores, look at Marzano’s book as a comprehensive checklist of things great teachers do. But that’s not what it is or was ever meant to me. The book offers guidance. It provides the research to aid in decision making. You’re not supposed to read it and think, “Well, if one of these strategies is good, doing all of them would be even better!”

An analogy:

I have, at different times in my life, been overweight (like, for instance, at this particular time in my life). There are many ways to lose weight. Here are some:

Get more sleep
Stop drinking soda
Join a fitness class
Walk
Run on a treadmill
Lift weights
Weight Watchers
Pole dancing
Atkins Diet
South Beach Diet
Keto-something, or whatever the current dieting trend is
Read my book, The Teacher’s Guide to Weight Loss and then do what it says!

Those strategies will all work. If you do even one or two of them with any regularity, you’ll likely have success. But try to do them all and you’ll burn out pretty quickly. You’ll become exhausted. You’ll give up altogether. And if someone else, say, your personal trainer, tried to force you to do all of those things, you’d think she was crazy. But that’s what we do in education.

Instead of forcing teachers to eat their vegetables, let’s treat them like professionals. Inform teachers of the research and allow them to do what works with their students. If you must, require evidence that what they’re doing is working, but stop treating teachers like machines who, if they just did everything you told them to do, would produce better test scores.

That’s not how it works, and trying to force the matter is making it less likely that teachers will do the things you think will work anyway.

Stop jamming even the best ideas down teachers’ throats. They’ll die of suffocation, and the teachers will either reluctantly choke them down or, more likely, barf them out when you’re not looking.

How to Be a Great Principal Without Spending a Dime

I know two excellent mid-career teachers who left their districts this summer to teach in more affluent communities next year.  They weren’t looking for raises, “easier” kids to teach, or newer buildings and flashier technology. They weren’t even especially attracted to their new districts as much as they were repelled by their old ones. Both teachers resigned because administrators in their districts didn’t do the simple things that cost absolutely nothing to keep good teachers happy.

Here’s a colorful and relevant graphic:

The bottom left corner didn’t apply in the instances of the two teachers I know. They were mid-career professionals who were willing to take a pay cut to get out of their current districts. They had also managed a reasonable work-life balance and had taken advantage of opportunities to grow professionally. The work was obviously challenging; I don’t know any teacher who thinks it isn’t.

It’s said that people don’t quit their jobs, they quit their bosses. That was certainly the case for the two teachers I know. Without getting into specifics about what drove each teacher from her job, I can say that had their bosses done a few simple things, these teachers would be returning to their buildings and classrooms next year.

Some administrators who work in schools that serve students of low socioeconomic status like to blame their lack of money or the challenges that come with teaching students in poverty for their trouble in finding and keeping talented educators. And while there are teachers who will avoid working in certain districts because of those factors, those who have already been doing it for a while are unlikely to leave if they’re treated with respect. Leaving mid-career is risky. You lose your tenure. You’ll likely make less money. It’s a pain in the ass to pack up your stuff. You have to meet all new people and learn all new processes, curriculum, and online platforms. You have to rebuild your reputation. You trade in knowns, however unpalatable, for unknowns. Veteran teachers don’t make the decision to change districts lightly. So if you’re losing teachers like this, someone or a small group of someones is screwing up.

Principals do not need to spend a dime to keep their best teachers. They just have to do the following 9 things.

Get to Know Your Teachers

A story I was recently told: A newly hired principal was talking to a local preacher about how he should go about building relationships with his staff. The preacher recommended that the principal get a stack of index cards and give one to each teacher. On the card, each teacher was to write her name, the names of her spouse and children, a few personal interests, and one thing the principal could do that would help the teacher in the coming year. Then, the preacher explained, the principal should study the cards so that when he passed a teacher in the hall he could ask about her kids, or casually use her husband’s name in conversation, or pass on something he saw relating to her hobby. He would also have a list of things he could do that his teachers would value.

It’s is a simple activity that costs nothing but a little bit of time. And the real genius of it is that just asking teachers for this information shows the principal cares. Even if he never looks at the cards, he’s built some goodwill by caring enough to ask.

(Incidentally, the principal didn’t take the preacher’s advice. He never passed out the cards or asked the questions. He came back four months later, frustrated that teachers didn’t seem to like him much. The preacher offered no further advice.)

Differentiate

If you’re treating your best teachers the same as you’re treating your rookies, you’re doing it wrong. If there is one clear lesson to be learned from the failed experiment of teacher evaluation reform it is this: Treating every teacher the same will lead to resentment from your best teachers. We get that the state or district requires you to observe us x amount of times. Fine. But you don’t need to be in a 20-year veteran’s classroom as often as you need to be in a second-year teachers’ classroom. Also, not all of your teachers need an email reminding them about the dress code or what time they are to be in their classrooms in the morning if only two teachers are having a problem meeting those expectations.

Use Their Passions and Expertise

I work with a teacher who does all of the district’s specials scheduling for two elementary schools. Every summer, I get the schedule emailed to me and I can’t imagine the number of hours it takes to put together given all the different things that must be accounted for. The task seems impossible. But this teacher does it for free because she’s really good at it. Her brain just works that way. And somewhere along the way, an administrator noticed how good she was at it and asked her to do this work.

I know another teacher who will spend hours coming up with creative ideas for March is Reading Month. She’s not paid. She does it becomes she’s a creative person and creativity is a reward in and of itself. Another teacher I work with is a talented artist. She donated hours of her summer one year to repaint the cafeteria because her principal knew she would do an excellent job and gave her the freedom to paint what she wanted. I have a number of times on this blog advocated that teachers not donate hours to their employers. However, if my principal sends me a document, I can’t help but revise it. I like writing, so I’m willing to do it for nothing because it’s fun. Smart principals learn their staff’s talents and passions and they utilize them. They are often rewarded with free labor and excellent work because their teachers appreciate that their bosses know them well enough to use their passions and talents.

Ask Teachers’ Opinions and Then Listen

I know a lot of administrators who will pay lip service to the idea of teachers as experts. When they don’t feel like spending money on PD, they’ll butter teachers up with the old, “We have experts right here in this district” line. When they feel the need to form a curricular committee, their pitch will convey the respect they have for our professionalism and expertise. But when big decisions need to be made, the kinds of decisions that impact large numbers of teachers and students, many administrators don’t ask their teachers’ opinions.

If you’re going to revamp your school’s entire schedule, ask teachers what they think about that. Then listen to what they have to say. It might save you some headaches in the future. If you want to change how your Title I people intervene with at-risk readers, run that by staff first. If you don’t like the behavior system, let teachers tell you what they think of it before making wholesale changes. A lot of teachers have been around for awhile. They have reasons for doing what they’re doing and they may have already tried it your way in the past and can tell you the challenges you can expect. You don’t have to do what your teachers want you to do, but if you ask and listen you’ll at least be aware of some potential pitfalls.

Tell the Truth

We get that you’re a middle manager. You have the sometimes monumental task of keeping both your bosses and your teachers happy (to say nothing of parents and students). We understand that not every decision you make is yours. You are sometimes told to do or say things that go against your beliefs. When this happens, tell us. Respect your teachers enough to explain the complexities and external pressures. Tell them who is actually making the decision.

I had a principal one year who was quite obviously told by a higher-up that he had to focus on student contact time. Admin didn’t want a second wasted. Because this principal was normally pretty laid back and had in the past commented on how impressed he was by teachers teaching right up to the final bell, it was incongruent when he sent a curt email to the whole staff reminding us that recess was 20 minutes and that we had to be faster getting students out and bringing them back in. Some of us suspected he was just passing along the concerns of his boss. Others thought he was becoming a bit of a nitpicking doofus and nobody wants to work for a nitpicking doofus. It’s not that hard to say, “Hey, everyone. Central office has asked me to remind you that recess is 20 minutes inclusive of transition time.” Don’t own stupid policies and decisions unless you made them. You don’t have to throw your boss under a bus to tell teachers where decisions originated.

Trust Your Teachers

I can’t say it any better than Alice Trosclair did in an article published by The Educator’s Room:

“Trust, pure and simple.  Trust that we want the best for our students and society. Trust that 95 percent of us are here for our students and want the best for them, so in turn we give them our best every day. Trust that we study pedagogy and spend our “off hours” searching for fresh perspective or a new way of doing something. Only teachers would spend their meager paycheck on classroom supplies to make a lesson more exciting. Only a teacher would go back for a masters degree (which only increases our pay check by a few hundred dollars a month if we stay in the classroom) to improve our teaching and understanding of content. Most of us will always keep learning because we want the best for our students.”

Give your teachers the benefit of the doubt, and if you want to know why they're doing what they're doing, ask. Click To Tweet

Bonus Read: A Letter to Principals Regarding Walkthroughs

Write Thank-You Notes

Teachers are rarely thanked, so it means a lot when we are. Show some gratitude and acknowledge your teachers’ hard work. Emails are nice, but actual cards can be tucked away in a folder and saved for years. They can be hung on bulletin boards as reminders that the work we do is noticed and appreciated by someone. Although we are surrounded by students, teaching is a solitary job. Hardly anyone knows what it is we do all day and we can go weeks wondering if anyone other than our students is even aware of our hard work. Writing a thank-you note is a two-minute task that can pay big dividends.

Respect Teachers’ Time

Cancel the meeting. Don’t take advantage of your best teachers and their willingness to pitch in by asking the same ones to join committees, attend after-school events, and help you with some silly report the state needs. Be very selective about asking your teachers to do anything extra because doing so pulls them away from their most important job of educating the students in front of them. Leave them alone on weekends. The emails can wait until Monday (or least late Sunday night). Teachers never have enough time. Anything you ask your teachers to do better be more important than the things they would do on their own.

Anything you ask your teachers to do better be more important than the things they would do on their own. Click To Tweet

Don’t Forget What It’s Like to Teach

Part of respecting teachers’ time is remembering what it’s like to be one. I know you think you’ll never forget the challenges of the classroom. You did it for years. You’ll remember.

No, you won’t. I know you won’t because after two months of summer vacation, I forget what it’s like every single year. Our memories are faulty. They pick and choose. They highlight. When you’re not stressed out, it’s hard to recall the actual feeling of being stressed out. When you’re not constantly pressed for time, you can’t recreate the feeling of being constantly pressed for time. When you aren’t incessantly needed by your students, you don’t remember how it feels to be pulled in six directions.

There is only one way to remember what it's like to teach and it is to teach. Click To Tweet

There is only one way to remember what it’s like to teach and it is to teach. Observing teachers won’t cut it. Sitting in your office won’t work. Only teaching is teaching. Fortunately, there is a simple way for you to do this: substitute in your teachers’ classrooms. The sub shortage provides ample opportunity and even if you’re in a district without that infuriating problem, every teacher I know would be happy to check papers in the staff lounge for 45 minutes while you refresh your memory on just what teachers experience day in and day out.

You’ll be a better principal and your teachers will love you for it. With a leader like you, the best ones will come back year after year and keep giving their all for their students. You don’t need to spend a dime to keep your best teachers. You don’t really need to spend all that much time, either. But you do need to treat them like the professionals they are.

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6 Ways Principals Can Show Teachers They Care

care

In March of 2017, Education Post published an article by teacher Tom Rademacher titled, “Hey, Principals, When You Lose Good Teachers, That’s On You.” The whole thing is worth a read, but this paragraph sums it up well:

“Principals (and just like I use “teachers’ to mean everyone who works with kids, I’ll use “principals’ here to mean everyone who is supposed to be supporting teachers), the number of teachers you keep year to year says something about you. I know you’d like not to believe that, I know your job is easier if you ignore it, but teachers matter, and keeping them around is your job. When you lose good teachers, it’s on you.”

Well, it’s that time of year again. Teachers are right now deciding whether to polish up their résumés in search of greener pastures or to return to their buildings and, maybe more accurately, their bosses. Because for many of them, it’s not the pay, the kids, the parents, the curricular materials, their colleagues, the amount of technology, or the physical condition of the schools in which they work that will drive this decision. It’s their principal.

There are a number of reasons why principals should want to keep their teachers (or at least, the vast majority of them):

  • Teachers who leave take with them all their expertise and the training their districts have paid for and provided.
  • The search for replacements is time-consuming.
  • New teachers need to be trained.
  • There’s no guarantee (especially in these days of teacher shortages and lower enrollment in teacher education programs) that you will find anyone better.
  • Frequent turnover is unattractive and can harm the reputation of a school.
  • A lack of stability is a continuation of the fragmented lives our neediest students already experience outside of school.
  • New relationships must be built.
  • Staff morale may suffer as teachers lose valued colleagues and friends.

Nothing good comes from losing good teachers.

So it’s odd when some principals act as though they could not care less if their teachers return. Some don’t even take the simple step of saying, “Hey, I really hope you’ll come back next year. We need you. You’re important.”

Perhaps that’s because, as Rademacher suggests, they don’t believe teacher attrition is their fault. When you’re the boss, it’s easier to blame other factors than it is to accept that most people quit because of you.

But if we’re going to give principals the benefit of the doubt — and I’m inclined to, if for no other reason than they have a REALLY difficult job — maybe it’s because they just don’t know how to show teachers they care.

So here are six easy ways principals can show their teachers that they care about them.

1. Focus on Their Happiness

Most people believe that to be happy you must first find success. They have it backward. Research from the field of positive psychology clearly shows that happiness comes first. Success doesn’t lead to happiness (just ask Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Heath Ledger, Robin Williams, or any number of other successful people whom you can’t actually ask). Happiness makes success more likely.

Richard Branson, who knows a few things about running successful organizations, puts it this way:

If you focus on your teachers’ happiness, you’ll not only get happier teachers who will treat students the way you want them treated and will come back year after year, but you’ll also get more effective teaching. Don’t give your teachers more PD, or hand them another program, or offer instructional advice. None of that will help if they’re miserable. Focus instead on creating an environment where your teachers are happy.

2. Show Appreciation

79% of employees who quit their jobs cite a lack of appreciation as a key reason for leaving. According to a recent survey, 82 percent of employed Americans don’t feel that their supervisors recognize them enough for their contributions. 65% of North Americans report that they weren’t recognized even once last year.

Appreciation is the number one thing employees say their boss could do that would inspire them to produce great work. O.C Tanner, a recognition and rewards company, surveyed 2,363 office workers and found that 89% of those who felt appreciated by their supervisors were satisfied with their jobs.

Principals who show gratitude experience a win-win because their teachers will feel more appreciated and the principals themselves will be happier at work.  Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the “father of positive psychology,” tested the impact of different interventions on 411 people, each compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories. When their week’s assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked, participants immediately reported a huge increase in happiness. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.

Principals who want to make everyone in their schools happier should take the simple step of showing appreciation for others’ efforts. Take 30 seconds to write a thank-you card.  One survey found that 76 percent of people save them.

3. Tell Them To Have a Life

Most teachers are agreeable and conscientious. The job attracts these personality types. As a principal, you can use those traits for good or evil. If you ask teachers to stay after school to help out with family math night, or to attend the PTO meeting, or to chaperone a dance, most of them will because they won’t want to disappoint you and because they will worry about the success of the event if they don’t show up.

Asking too often is a good way to burn out your teachers, but you can also use teachers’ agreeableness for good. Tell them to go home. Direct them to not check their email over the weekend. Order them to not even think about school over Christmas break. Tell them to do things that will help them be happier, better rested, and ultimately more effective. Most teachers, if you tell them what to do, will do it. Telling them to take care of themselves and detach from work will be a refreshing message because teachers are rarely told to put themselves first, and it will show you care about their well-being.

4. Take Things Off Their Plates

School districts love to load teachers with an ever-growing heap of responsibilities without removing anything. Just last week, teachers in my school were told that next year we will be implementing a new social skills program. We are to teach these lessons once per week. But guess what we weren’t told? What not to teach.

Keep teaching everything you’ve always taught, just add this one more thing on top of it. Sound familiar?

I can count on a whole lot of hands how many teachers complain that their principals, mostly former teachers, have forgotten what the job is like. Ensconced in their offices with the freedom to choose what to work on and how much time to devote to it, they seem amnesic about how overwhelming and hectic teachers’ days are. A principal who explicitly takes things off teachers’ plates shows understanding and empathy. Give your teachers less to do. They’ll be grateful for it, and they’ll be more likely to do the most important things well.

5. Encourage Socializing

Some principals see off-task chatting as a problem, a deviation from their meeting agendas. But social connectedness is a major cause of happiness and good health. Don’t merely abide teachers’ socializing, encourage it. Instead of promptly starting your staff meeting at 7:30, require attendance at that time but don’t actually start on the agenda until 7:40. Send the message that you value your teachers enough to know that they need time to just talk to each other. Teachers spend most of their work hours isolated from other adults. They crave connectedness. Give it to them.

6. Spend Money on Their Well-Being

We spend money on things that are important to us. I buy expensive beer because I like to drink it. I don’t spend money on new clothes because I don’t care about clothes. A district that spends thousands on a reading program but provides their librarians (if they still have them) with a $100 annual budget for books sends a clear message about what matters.

Most principals have a discretionary budget. How they spend that money matters.

A cottage industry has grown up around teacher stress and burnout. You can now find many resources that aim to improve teachers’ well-being. I’ve written three books on the topic: Exhausted, Happy Teacher, and Leave School At School.

The master class for teacher well-being is Angela Watson’s 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Teachers get weekly materials for an entire calendar year on topics such as Grading and Assessment, Sustainable Systems, Maximizing Your Summer, and Work/Life Balance. They get weekly emails, audio files, printables, planning forms, and an abundance of great advice on how to optimize their classroom practices so they can still have a life when they get home at night. If you want your teachers to know you care about them, consider signing a few up for the club.

Read reviews from club members here.

Instead of spending money on PD, which, according to research, doesn’t help your teachers, spend it on something that will show you care and will be of practical use to them. Order them some books on managing stress. Purchase a few subscriptions to the 40-Hour Workweek Club for those teachers who seem overwhelmed, or go all in and get a school license so all of your teachers can benefit.

Good principals take care of their teachers. They know that teachers impact student achievement more than any other in-school factor. Smart principals focus more on their teachers’ well-being than they do on student discipline, instructional practices, or meeting agendas. Take some simple steps to show your teachers that you care, and they will return year after year, contribute to a more positive environment, and be more effective in the classroom.

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Links to the 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club are of the affiliate variety.