Since January, Morty Ballen, the founder and CEO of Explore Charter Schools in Brooklyn has hosted a series of “Leadership Roundtables” for NYC school leaders. In Ballen’s words, “I initiated the Leadership Roundtable because I felt an increasing sense of responsibility to work with leaders from traditional district schools and charter schools to focus on that which we have in common: our ongoing quest and investment to improve our effectiveness as school leaders.” These open roundtables drew a wide range of leaders from small charter schools, large networks, district schools, and intermediary organizations.
Each session focused on a different challenge inherent in leading an urban school: managing the creative tension between vision and reality; leading with a growth mindset; and building and maintaining staff morale. In the first roundtable, small groups dove deep into discussions about how to maintain a sense of urgency while confronting the “brutal facts,” sharing personal experiences and strategies. The second session focused on developing a growth mindset in teachers and maintaining one as a leader.
The last roundtable was especially timely as it focused on “leaders as morale-raisers,” a topic that is often relegated to the back burner in a time of assessments and accountability but one which has huge implications for teaching and learning. Moreover, this topic is especially timely around March/April. Teachers get tired of the cold weather and long days; the test prep and looming exams; and are ready for break but also anxious to get everything done in order to truly take a break.
Leaders shared some wonderful strategies to boost morale – in general and in the context of stressors (i.e., student stagnation, staff attrition, test times). Below are some of the many gems shared:
-Teacher appreciation to the next level: Send letters to students’ parents celebrating their successes and thanking them for their child’s dedication.
-Students in staff meetings: Project a picture of a student during staff meetings to remind the team who they’re working for.
-“Student Spotlight”: At mid-year, assign each teacher one student to spotlight. After about a month, have a science fair style session where teachers showcase their student by celebrating his/her growth and outlining effective strategies for working with him/her. This is fun but can also be a great opportunity for authentic teacher development.
-Daily Huddles: Gather together for 5 minutes each morning to pump each other up and get ready for the day (NOT to share announcements). This can be done in smaller teams if the staff is large.
-“Why I Teach”: Each week, have one teacher speak for a few minutes about why s/he teaches. This grounds the community in a common purpose while also helping the team get to know one another better.
-Shout-outs and Share-outs: End staff meetings with a shout-out (for a colleague or student) or a share-out (personal shout-out or coming event).
-Non-academic challenges and activities: Staff yoga or fitness challenges motivate teachers to maintain a healthy lifestyle and work-life balance while also having fun with colleagues.
-Tokens of appreciation: Physical recognition for teachers’ hard work can go a long way. Some examples shared were “appreciation beads” to add to a chain, recognizing teachers’ habits of mind and heart; and t-shirts to highlight embodiment of core values.
-Culture Calendar: (Ideally created at the beginning of the year) Plan in advance when you want to do staff get-togethers, recognition and even breakfast/snacks. Be proactive and not reactive.
-Be present: The single most important thing a leader can do is be with his/her staff. Regular check-ins and informal conversations encourage ongoing communication and can give leaders an accurate assessment of the staff’s morale throughout the year.
-Letters to Self: Have teachers write letters to themselves and deliver them at a pressure point in the year. This works best when done at the beginning of the year but can be done whenever.
-Post-it checklist: Have a checklist with all of the staff’s names to keep track of communication with everyone. Make it a point to leave a positive post-it on each teacher’s desk over the course of a semester and to send a longer handwritten thank you at least once over the year.
These are just some of the many concrete tips shared. We’re sure that you have your own tricks up your sleeve. Share with us in the comments section how you motivate your staff!