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Guiding Principals: How Can We Support Teachers during the School Year?

A great teaching staff isn’t only about recruitment; it’s also about retention. How can we, as principals, support and maintain our teaching staff not just during this school year but for future years as well.
Since day schools sometimes struggle to offer competitive salaries, it is critical that we redouble our efforts to increase job satisfaction. And, all of us who come to the  principal position as former teachers know what satisfaction looks like. 
Research indicates that teachers choose to work in schools where their pay is lower, but their job satisfaction is higher. Many great teachers joined Jewish day schools after working in public schools, where they felt frustrated and unfulfilled.
Developing an amazing staff will make your school succeed and grow. A caring and engaging teacher can often make the difference in getting students to love learning and their time at school. None of the bells and whistles of so-called high-powered education can take the place of excellent teaching.
What do our teachers need?
Teachers must feel that: 
  • They are doing meaningful work, and that they are making a difference in their students’ lives.
  • They are respected, their opinions are listened to, and decisions are not made arbitrarily. Leaving teachers out of important decisions that affect them is the easiest way to lower their motivation. 
  • They are understood, and that their principal is aware of stressful times. Don’t plan a day of professional development during report card writing season. Don’t plan a surprise meeting when exams need grading. If you know your teacher is stressed, pitch in to help.
  • They have opportunities for professional growth. This can include collaboration with veteran teachers within the school or attending outside PD conferences and workshops. Keep an eye out for new opportunities and present them at staff meetings. When teachers attend conferences, they return to school rejuvenated and inspired to try new strategies.
  • They are empowered to teach to their strengths. Every teacher has strengths and  weaknesses, and when they are enabled to play to their strengths, they feel more engaged. If a teacher is artistic or loves music, encourage the use of these talents when teaching the curriculum – whether the subject is math, history, Chumash, or Gemara. Sometimes teachers don’t know their own strengths, and it’s our job to help locate them. Share your observations with your teachers and take this into account when planning for the coming year.  
Respected, understood, inspired, empowered, and knowing they are making a difference. Teachers need to feel all of these things. The question is, how aware are we of whether or not they do?  Inevitably, issues come up, and your teachers' needs fall through the cracks.
So, how can you stay aware of how your staff is feeling? And how can you address any issues in a timely manner? 
Strengthening relationships with your teachers
  • Promote an “open-door” policy - Your door should not be closed unless you’re in a meeting or need privacy. Save tasks that require silent concentration for before or after-school hours. Teachers will constantly come in to speak with the HOS. They appreciate having the time they need to talk and feel heard. Within a few minutes, you will know if there is a simple answer to what is being asked or if there is a problem to be solved.
  • Simple questions could probably be answered by your administrative assistant - Are specials starting next week? How long will the janitor be available today? Did the books I ordered come in? But don’t push the teachers out. Remember, you are building school morale. Answer quickly but encourage the teacher to check with the administrative assistant in the future. 
  • Some principals might advise you to put someone else in place to  “catch” conversations like these, but that is not optimal. The stronger your rapport with your teachers, the better your teachers will be, and the more successful your students will be.  
  • Set up regular meeting times with each teacher. Meetings can be weekly, monthly, or bi-monthly but should be standing events on your calendar, just like any important appointment.
  • Set up a policy of “talk to the teacher first.” If a parent comes to you with a complaint or request, encourage the parent to speak directly to the teacher, and prepare the teacher for the parental meeting. There is nothing more condescending for a teacher than for a supervisor to “apologize” for them or swoop in and intervene. Meet with the teacher after the parent-teacher conversation, offer to be present to mediate difficult conversations, but never forget that the teacher needs to be respected.
  • Allow staff to have opinions and not be afraid to state them. Teachers need to  know that you are not using power whimsically. You are the boss, after all, and you do have the final say in most matters, but that doesn’t mean you should allow your ego into the room.
  • Schedule a weekly all-staff lunch meeting. This is an opportunity for your staff to bond as you go over immediate upcoming weekly changes or highlight long-term plans. Be respectful of teachers’ time and cancel if you have nothing to cover.       
Set an example
  • Perhaps the most important thing you can do to build staff morale is for teachers to see you working as hard as they are, right beside them. So much of a principal’s job happens behind the scenes, in a boardroom, or in a donor’s private office.
  • Teachers don’t know about all the institutional layers that sustain their salaries. They need to know that you know what they’re dealing with in the classrooms; you’ve dealt with it before as a teacher, and you continue to deal with it even now, as the principal.  
  • Keep your hand in some element of teaching. Lead students in a once-a-week book club for enrichment. Teach the advanced seniors’ Gemara shiur. Teaching is your raison d’etre, and the teachers need to see that. Otherwise, you have no credibility.  
  • Treat students the way you want teachers to treat students. Always greet them with a smile, never yell, and say please and thank you. 
  • Spend time in the halls interacting with staff and students each day. 
  • Take on some of the more difficult or chaotic moments. Don’t delegate all of  them. All-school Rosh Chodesh assembly? You should be the one to bring the room to silence. Dismissal time? Sometimes, you should be the one out in the car pick-up line standing in the cold. Your teachers are in the trenches all day long. They need to know you are too.
At the end of the day, remember that you are the principal. We often get so caught up in administering that we forget what it is we are administering. Teachers are the most important connectors to the students. They are the ones interacting with the students all day, every day, and they are the ones making the difference.
It’s your job to remove barriers, make teachers feel supported, and enable them to be the creative and visionary educators they want to be. A motivated, inspired, and cohesive staff will create an environment where students will grow academically, socially, and emotionally.



About the Author: Mrs. Miriam Schiller

Miriam Schiller has been immersed in education for almost 50 years, teaching everything from 2-year-olds to 8th graders. For almost 30 years, she served as Principal of Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL where she tripled the enrollment of the Kindergarten-8th grades and doubled the number of children in the preschool. Under Schiller's tenure, the school became known for its innovative strategies, including multi-age classrooms, a buddy system, and Schiller's one-on-one method of teaching children to read. Schiller holds a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Illinois and a MA in Administration and Supervision from Loyola University. She is passionate about Jewish education and about using her expertise to fuel the next generation of day schools. Currently, Mrs. Schiller works in the Curriculum Department of Walder Education and is available for coaching by appointment.


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