I have no scientific proof, but I always felt that the two worst months for morale at school are October and February. Never mind, April, May and June, that is a whole story for another column. October means frying kids’ brains on the MEAP, teachers realizing that they have a class filled with students that need to learn and being reminded once again of how hard it is to meet the needs of every child each and every day. Demanding parents and voice mails, emails, notes home etc. looming. And, did you say that it is one month to progress report time? I won’t even mention Common Core implementation and any other “new” program or system you are attempting to implement. Even if you don’t celebrate, Halloween thoughts have started and the Zombies are taking over! It’s overload time and let’s face it, the teachers tend to take it out on you, the principal! In order to build quality relationships, foster positive morale and maintain relational trust, it is how we respond during these difficult times that every school culture goes through that will define us as leaders.
This summer I had the privilege of attending the NAESP National Principal’s Conference in Baltimore, MD. I was reminded again by Todd Whitaker who helped shape my career as a principal, that great principals take responsibility for their own performance and behavior and one of the hallmarks of effective principals is to treat EVERYONE with respect, EVERY DAY, EVERY TIME! Whitaker reminds us that each of us can remember a time that a leader treated us inappropriately. No matter how long ago, or even if we have forgiven them, we will never forget the moment. How will we respond in the heat of the moment when the demands become too great and we just want to tell someone how we really feel? Our job is to take the high road and be POSITIVE!
In order to counteract the inevitable low morale that is potentially looming, be proactive and build relationships with praise! Whitaker reminds us that in order to praise others, it must be authentic. We cannot use praise in order to manipulate or get others to do things we want them to do.
It is one of the reasons that I liked to use written words of praise to my staff. In this technological world, it is easy to send an email, put some words of praise in our newsletter, and even leave a voicemail. Mind you, these are effective ways to praise, but it seems like the written word, penned in our own hand, has meaning and people treasure these special notes.
Validation builds self-esteem and helps redirect the focus of others on all the negative things happening in their lives and puts the focus on what is right with the world. A validation message in written form does two things. It affirms another person for a quality they have or an action they demonstrated. And, it describes how the writer feels about that action or quality. A validation note has four critical attributes:
§ It’s affirming
§ It’s sincere
§ It’s informative
§ It’s specific
So try it out! What if when you are doing your morning walkthrough you notice a teacher is struggling with a difficult student in class? You observe that they handle the situation well and firmly redirect the student and get him or her back on track. What if you were to write a quick validation note to that teacher that is informative, specific, sincere and affirming and put it in his or her box or even on their desk after school so they open it first thing in the morning? Your teacher will so appreciate it, and think to him or herself that, ”Hey you noticed that I have a tough situation here! I did a good job and he or she noticed!” Whitaker asked his audience this summer, “Have you ever been praised, too much?” “Of course not!” Everyone loves to be acknowledged, validated, and given a pat on the back! No one minds praise when it is authentic!
At the end of each school year, I would take the time to personally write a thank you note to every staff member (all 81! Teachers, paraprofessionals, office staff, custodians, and kitchen staff) It took me the first full week that school was out, but it paid off tremendously. I did my best to personalize each note and acknowledge a particularly trying personal situation or celebratory event or validated an action or special quality. My staff treasured these notes and many informed me of how they felt that I was attuned with them and how it started their summer off right after a long school year. Many vowed that it encouraged them to come back in the fall and work even harder.
When observation tools became more technology focused and I started sending emails with observation notes, my teachers revolted! They liked all the information, pie charts and data, but they missed my hand written note of validation and immediate feedback! No matter what classroom I visited, I could always find something positive to share and write on a note and place it on the teacher’s desk before I left. I noticed when I observed in classrooms that teachers would post the special notes I had written after observations on their bulletin board behind their desk. There is something special about the written word that resonates, validates and affirms!
So let’s meet this October head on and be proactive with praise! Start writing some validation notes! It will make you feel better and it will definitely build your relational trust capital with your staff! As Mr. Roger’s says: “ If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person”
Tip of the week:
One of the exhausting parts of being a principal is always having to plan so far in advance. It is why I am sharing this tip now in October, because you will need to get thinking, organized, and inform your staff about what you are planning to do if you implement this tip. Every year of my principalship I gave me, my students, and my teachers a gift in December of teaching every group of students for a ½ hour. In the beginning of my career, I would do a different holiday craft activity with each class, tailored for each grade level. After we moved away from holiday curriculum, I began focusing on reading a great book and having students write and illustrate a book with me.
I would have my secretary block out all of the important meetings, lunch times, etc, for the three weeks of December and then have my teachers sign up for a ½ hour block. This can be modified according to the size of your school. I visited almost 35 classrooms, so I needed three weeks. One year I was able to schedule my visits into the technology block and get each ½ hour taught in one week! Exhausting, but it was easier on my office staff and assistant not to have to cover emergencies for such a long period of time. My teachers got an extra ½ hour of planning time and I got to be with the kids and keep my teaching skills fresh! It demonstrated that I still knew how to teach and handle the students, but it also reminded me of the hard work that my teachers were facing each and every day.
Every year I did a different lesson with the children, but some of my favorites were: Reading the book A Fine, Fine School by Sharon Creech. It is a great read aloud for a principal and then the students can write about why they think they have a fine, fine school. The book, Shades of People by Shelly Rotner turned into Shades of Mattawan Early Elementary Students. I had the children draw a self-portrait and color it and put the over 800 portraits up on the cafeteria wall for them to see. One year, we made a book for each teacher, written and illustrated by the class titled My teacher is the best because . . . To prove that I was a techie principal, I developed a student survey and delivered it to the students in the computer lab. The students’ favorite gift of all time was a building tour. This one is simple to prepare for and implement. All you are going to do is take the children on a tour of the school, point out when the building was built, (most buildings have a plaque that states when the building was built and who was superintendent and on the school board) and then take them to all of the places they never get to go. Point out the custodial closet and teach them about a floor sink, take them into the kitchen and let them walk into the big refrigerator and/or freezer, take them to the boiler room and show them the “basement” of the school and don’t forget the coup de gras, take them into the staff lounge and show them where their teacher’s bathroom is located! This was one of my students most talked about events! Until we meet again, happy trails to you!
Do you have some thoughts or ideas you would like me to cover in the future? Do you have some validation, affirmation, and/or praise techniques you would like to share with others? I welcome your thoughts, ideas, and feedback! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org