Think about your school culture. What does it mean to be a teacher at your school? Is it a place of collaboration or a place of competition? Are teachers invested not only in the students but in the school. Are they feeling overworked and overwhelmed? How does the administration build connection and community?
I recently listened to a podcast called Leadership in Early Childhood with Dr. Alesi Garcia and spent some time reflecting on myself as an administrator and on the different work cultures I have been part of. I have been fortunate in my years to work with some amazing administrators. Several strong, compassionate, powerful women have shaped my vision of a leader. No work environment is perfect (we are all flawed human beings that make mistakes!) but I wanted to share my experience and research in hopes to create a list of positive work culture ideas to help others along the way.
As a director, I worked to connect with teachers. I touched base on their personal lives, spent time in their classrooms (although not nearly as much as I wanted), and checked in with them at least once a day just to see how things were going. In hindsight, I do wish I had done more research about being a leader or searched out a mentor on the topic. Now in the reflective stage of that experience I hope to share with others some important responsibilities of a leader and ways to create a collaborative school culture to help you along your journey.
Before I get to the list I wanted to share with you a thought from Dr. Garcia that is the driving importance of this post. She feels strongly that who we are in the presence of children (our engagement, the way we respond to behaviors, etc) helps them develop the neuro pathways and connections in the brain that help them know how to be in the world. That means how we support children matters.
If a teacher is overwhelmed, stressed, unhappy with their position or unengaged that affects children. Children need real connection to feel safe, cared for, and supported. Children who do not feel safe in their environment are not available for learning and they often have behavior challenges. Now think about an adult in the workplace. Do your teachers feel safe, supported, and encouraged? If not, are they able to be totally present for their students?
My philosophy as a director was, if the teachers are happy, the children are happy and if the children are happy, the parents are happy. While that formula is not 100% I promise in most situations happy teachers will make an administrator's job much easier. Happy teachers do not come without a lot of time and nurturing from the administration. So, how do you create a culture where your teachers feel safe, challenged, and encouraged?
Tips for Creating a Positive School Climate
New Employees: When you hire a new teacher, they are typically given a handbook with policies and procedures, orientation around licensing and curriculum expectations, and introduced to the staff. We then expect them to just pick up what they need to know. Each organization has ‘a way’ to do things and unwritten rules. My school had unwritten rules from playground etiquette with tree climbing (under what conditions it was allowed and which trees/bushes) to the dishwasher routines and expectations. Over time we tried to be better about writing these things down for teachers and substitutes so they learned from our experience rather than their own failure. Make a document about the routines and expectations outside of your policies for new staff. Start by asking current staff for help with the list.
Mentorships: Mentor teachers are an invaluable resource for a new teacher. Consider a model where new teachers can meet with someone on staff on a regular bases for questions, feedback, and support. New teachers need a go to person to ask questions instead of just stumbling through the beginning of a new job.
Teachers as Stakeholders: Your teachers are your best source for ideas on organizational improvement. Solicit their feedback and implement their suggested changes. Have your staff give anonymous feedback 1-2 times a year. If you truly want to create a positive, collaborative environment, you have to be open to feedback and change yourself.
Visibility: You need to build a connection with staff and this connection must be nurtured. Dr. Garcia implemented a 60/40 rule. 60% of her time was spent being visible and connecting. This included things such a quick break room check ins and always verbally recognizing someone when you see them to spending time in the classrooms. How can you truly recognize the strengths of your teachers and know the children if you are not regularly present in the classrooms.
Connection: You should be connecting with staff personally and professionally on a regular basis. They need to know that their administrators are interested in them and care about them. Recognizing birthdays, sending a thank you note for a teachers above and beyond work, or an email telling them about a parent’s praise are a quick ways to show you appreciate and value a teacher as a person and professional.
Recognition and Awards: Another important point made by Dr. Garcia is around the subject of accolades and awards. She is against singling people out for an award. She tells us that many people work hard and do the best they can and when their peers receive awards it can have a negative impact on their interest and commitment to the organization. Individuals being singled out for awards can create a competitive or resentful school environment. You do need to recognize your teachers successes and work. Feedback should be individual, specific, and regular. Do not just say things are going well. Describe something you observed and what you think about how they handled the situation. Public celebrations should be about group successes.
Check Your Biases: If we are creating a space for collaboration and not competition administrators should be mindful of their own biases towards certain teachers. Do not compare teachers or regularly point the successes of a certain teacher. Instead share the strengths that each teacher has to offer and how they can use these talents to help others. Consider sitting down and making a list of each teachers strengths. Make sure you are conscious about what each of your team members brings to your organization.
Value your teachers time: Be organized about the content for staff meetings. Have an agenda, follow it, and give the staff time for input. Be respectful of their breaks and guard their planning time. Be mindful about how much time that you require you teachers to participate in events outside of their regular hours.
Teaching Teams: When teachers work closely together there can be conflict and/or competition. Conflict resolution is a skill that needs to be practiced and often supported or mediated by an administrator. If you are a present administrator constantly building connections, your team will talk to you where there are challenges. Also, make a point to sit in on planning from time to time if teachers are planning together. You will be able to see who is speaking up and who is sitting back or you may be able to sense the tension in the room and be able to address potential issues before they rise to an serious level.
Teachers Environment: Your physical space is important. Walk into the break room, teachers workroom, and office. Does is feel cozy and warm? Is it a place where you can relax and take a mental break from children? Little touches can mean a lot. In the book, The Visionary Director by Margie Carter and Deb Curtis they have a chart suggesting way to plan a nurturing environment for adults. They give suggestions such creating a break room or office area with plants, magazines, and games. Staff should have a personal space for their belongings and a soft quiet space to retreat to on breaks. Nature is restorative and relaxing. Put a picnic table outside away from children for teachers to have lunch or sit on their breaks.
A leader is someone who facilitates and collaborates. A leader motivates and inspires. A leader builds bridges and create connections. A leader reflects, learns from their mistakes, and continues to learn and grow. Be a leader that focuses on your school climate and create an environment where your staff feels supported, heard, and valued.
We would love to hear how you or your school creates culture of connection and collaboration!
Web Article: The Cult of Pedagogy What Teachers Want you to Know: A Note to School Administrators