At the start of the 2021 school year, every educator in America was alerted to focus on closing the learning gaps of our students left by the COVID pandemic. We have been reminded that our students will need tremendous attention to close these gaps, and to intentionally and critically look at data to find the best strategies for managing this incredible task. While we peel back the (many) layers of needs for our students, as a building leader, I am also constantly asking, How do I help our teachers manage this seemingly insurmountable task? How do I guide them to strike a balance between maintaining high expectations, and tending to the social and emotional needs of our students, post 2020 school year? How do I support them with managing all of what is being asked of them each day? The answer is not straightforward, but there are a few strategies that are helping us find our way with what is urgent and important, and what we can let go of.
Shorten the List
Align Academic Goals to the School Improvement Planning
At a time when teacher burnout and morale is a challenge to navigate as a building leader, really listening to the needs of our teams is critical. We cannot let go of high expectations or student needs, but we can zoom in on what exactly how they are defined. For example, if we are focused on two areas of academic concern to move the dial in our school improvement plans, then let that be what every common planning, faculty meeting, and grade-level meeting agenda consists of. Keep the list short for our teachers to have a laser focus, and protect this list as best as possible from other competing priorities or district initiatives. If it is not aligned to the school improvement plan, then it is not a part of the work this year. We do this for our students so well, but we lose focus on how this is needed for our teachers to be successful with the objectives, too.
This also means that no matter how much fun it may be to take on a new student program or initiative, if it is not in the 2021-22 plan, then place it aside for next year’s planning. Keeping a laser focus on what our goals are means there is a purposeful connection that every stakeholder understands. If there are too many items on the list, then there will likely not be a deep dive with tending to that focus, nor will there be buy in, because there is just too much to focus on. Collaboratively planning, and then implementing a plan that is timely and realistic helps everyone to be on the same page, and moving in the same direction; this builds a positive culture of collaboration, which in turn breeds a feeling of accomplishment.
Celebrate Successes - Big and Small
P.S. Every success is big this year
When there is growth in the goals (on that short, but targeted list mentioned above), celebrate them! Publicly find ways to shout out your teachers’ work and efforts with their students. I have a weekly family newsletter that I am intentional in finding moments from the week to highlight for our families to see what is happening all across our school. This may be an outstanding math lesson in your first grade class that had all the students engaged, or even a fundraiser that went above and beyond its goal - celebrate that moment and enjoy that time with your team. This is what builds our culture of teamwork and joy - knowing that we experienced growth, success or a win because we collectively worked for it.
Hold Planning Time Sacred
However your planning time for teachers is scheduled, hold this time sacred
One of the most common responses teachers have for what they need more of is time. While we are facing a national shortage in substitutes and staff, we have school-wide schedules that require creative and innovative ways to give teachers time to plan. How can we ask them to strategize interventions, small group and personalized instructional routines, etc., if they do not have time to plan? This is a “sacred time” that we cannot use for other purposes if we want a return on our investment. One way principals may be able to accomplish this is by teaching once a week in a class at a specific time and/or dividing up your leadership team to do the same, one grade level at a time. If you are at the elementary level, in the “leadership team of one”, you may spread this out across two weeks. Using any open itinerant blocks to assist with one or two classes across the week may help as well. There are many technical adaptations, but the point is, if we want to have our plans for students carried out, we need to give the planning its proper time.
Aside from the planning itself, one of the most important ways to build a culture positively is with collaboration and idea sharing. When we give our teachers time for this, we give them an instant professional resource. I scheduled our teachers to be together on their planning periods at least three to five days a week this year. It took more planning on the front end, but it has resulted in better time across the week for collegial conversations. If they miss each other on one day, they do not have to wait a whole week before they can plan together again. Again, giving over the time to teachers for planning, especially when given intentional objectives and expectations, is a win for our students.
Create Targeted Faculty/Whole Staff Meeting Agendas
Put the rest in an email!
We have the advantage of faculty meetings built into our school schedule monthly. This is an opportunity. While a few nuts and bolts may need to be mentioned for emergencies, this is a time to actually facilitate discussion, collaboration, and work sessions for our team since they do not come together often enough. Teachers want to know that what they are doing during these meeting times will help them in their classrooms. Creating agendas that are aligned to the school improvement goals, and professional development needs of our staff is the first step in making the meeting time meaningful. Using these one-hour sessions for whole school collaboration means we are making sense of data together, updating our goals, progress monitoring our school-wide strategies and just plain having fun. FUN. Make these meetings fun! Bring snacks, use a prize basket throughout the meeting, have holiday themes - whatever it takes - the balance that we are aiming to strike should have joy at its core. Keeping the meeting time to the hour we have set, creating a meaningful agenda, and sprinkling in fun to the list helps our time together as a larger team to be productive, and engaging -- just what we expect our classrooms to feel like.
Remember Your Why
Being a building leader this year may feel on many days like we are health and safety directors more than instructional leaders; that is both draining and empty at times. In continuing to put our students first -- the WHY of our work -- we have to continually hit the restart button for our teachers and staff and get back to our school wide goals, missions, and visions. We owe this to the students and staff we serve, and to ourselves as lead learners. However you find a way to refuel yourself and get back to your why is more needed than ever in order to navigate these trying times; sit with your students at lunch, visit classrooms (as often as you possibly can), play a game with your students at PE class; whatever the method - find your way back to your why so that you may continue to help your staff do the same. Our kids are counting on us.