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.)


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.


I write books, too. They’re like really long blog posts.


I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort starts in July, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to join!

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