Relationships, Recognition, Shared Vision: Principals Can Ease Teacher Stress

Gallagher & O'Brien: A supportive school culture is essential as educators shoulder additional responsibility for reversing learning loss

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As schools attempt to return to a version of their pre-pandemic normal, many principals are wondering what the additional responsibility for reversing learning loss will do to their already stressed-out teachers. 

Even before COVID, school leaders had to address the causes of burnout that have led many educators to leave the profession. While pay, workload and policies are clearly important, teachers often say a major factor in their decision to quit — or not — was the presence and effectiveness of their principal.

The stripped-down survival mode that took hold during the pandemic is not best practice, nor does it serve students. As schools reimplement pre-COVID practices, such as a return to professional development days and learning communities, strategic initiatives that were put on pause when buildings were closed, analysis of student data and so on, how can leaders recalibrate educators’ expectations and overcome resistance?

They can start by checking in with themselves, the people in their community and their priorities.

The best place to start is with self, making sure you are no longer operating from a survival state. Leaders in survival states find themselves focusing the bulk of their time on immediate or day-to-day situations, and often feel wired and tired. One strategy is to take an inventory of your calendar for the last two weeks. What have you been spending your time on? What has not been done, and why? Making intentional decisions about how time is spent moves a leader from being reactive to responsive. Try filtering requests of your time through a matrix to determine how you want to handle each item. Those that are urgent get done immediately. Items that are important but not urgent get scheduled and completed in a timely manner. Items that are not important can be delegated. The rest can be deleted. Using a filter can help prioritize not only the work, but the demands principals make on their teachers’ time. 

Next, focus on other people. Many are still healing from the impacts of the pandemic, and as a result, school cultures feel fragile. Rebuilding a healthy school begins with people and rests on a foundation of relationships, a shared vision and recognition. Little things can matter a lot. 

When you think about your school vision, does it still resonate? How are you sharing it with the community and aligning all work to the vision and values of the school? One thing school leaders can easily focus on is recognition. There is a general rule of thumb that people need to hear six pieces of positive feedback for every piece of criticism. Noticing both the big and small things teachers and staff do helps them feel appreciated and fuels a positive working environment. An easy way to do this is to have small slips of paper or sticky notes with you all the time. When you see something positive, acknowledge it — verbally, with a quick note or with a short email. 

Lastly, think about priorities. The pandemic caused one of the greatest course corrections in recent history. Has returning to school been an equally intense zag to the pandemic’s zig? Before attempting to return to “normal,” take the opportunity to re-evaluate past practices and priorities. What really matters now? Were all the practices in place before the pandemic essential? This is an opportunity to revisit and redesign how school personnel are going to spend their valuable time and resources.

Principals have an opportunity, perhaps an obligation, to recalibrate the expectations of their teachers. Too many are leaving the profession, citing high levels of stress, lack of respect and burnout. Larger systemic solutions will be required to solve many of the problems, but school leaders can buffer some of what teachers are feeling. Above all else, it’s time to prioritize people over practices and processes. It’s tempting to fall back into old patterns, but the tension in schools means it’s time to lean into something new.

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