Motivating Teachers

Leader 2 Leader Blog, Industry,

By: Todd Whitaker  

To be honest, motivating teachers during difficult times is eerily similar to motivating teachers during all times. The reason is teaching is always difficult. There is no easy in education. That is what makes it challenging and that is what makes it rewarding. However, it is easier to be self-motivated when things are going well. During more difficult times of the year—or more difficult years—it is essential that school leaders are at their best in supporting their faculty and staff. We all have had a Tuesday that felt like the longest month of the year. Every teacher has that one class that can be very challenging and draining. So, what can leaders do so staff are able to be effective during good times as well as less than good times? Here are a few ideas that the very best school leaders rely on to motivate their employees.

1. Teach Rather Than Tell.

Have you ever been told or know anyone who has been told to raise their test scores? Directly or indirectly we all are aware of situations where this occurs. Being told to do something can become so common that we might even start to become numb to it. However, ask yourself this, “Do you know anyone who holds back on raising their test scores? Do any educators keep a little slack in the line and not try to achieve the best scores possible?” Of course not. We do the best we know how to when it comes to testing because it benefits the students. However, another reason we all do it is because it benefits us as well. Teachers that see scores increase walk a little taller and feel better about their efforts. Principals outwardly and inwardly have a deserved sense of pride. Superintendents know that their district is making progress.

So, then how come we can’t just issue that command and positive results automatically follow? One of the core reasons is we are telling someone to improve at something that they are already doing their best at. It reminds me of a track coach in one of my schools. Every day she used to yell at her athletes, “Run faster!” I had to share with her they are running as fast as they know how. The way to get them to run faster is to teach them how to run faster. The same thing applies to teachers, bus drivers, lunchroom monitors, etc., when we think about student management. If any of us could get the students to behave better, we would get the students to behave better.

Often, learning something new that will help improve student behavior in class is the best motivation for teachers.

One of the best ways to motivate your teachers is to help them become better at managing students. Every teacher would like their job better if they were better at managing their classroom. And a large percentage of teachers would significantly like their job better if they were better at managing their classrooms. It would impact their morale daily. The same approaches make teachers effective every day, but they really need them when they are in a difficult time, such as teaching a challenging class, perhaps their last class of the day. If the teacher is not effective during the best times, they have no chance when situations are difficult.

Leaders must realize that when we tell someone to do something they don’t know how to do—raise their test scores, get their class under control, etc.—the recipients learn something about you. They learn that you don’t know how to do it either. If you knew how, you would teach them. If the track coach knows a technique to get their runners a quicker start, they would demonstrate how and help their runners do it properly.

2. Have Valued Faculty Meetings.

Great principals, without exception, have faculty meetings teachers look forward to and value. Effective principals’ meetings can vary in their structure, but they are all of value. Ineffective principals either do not have regular meetings or they are not perceived as valuable. Some effective principals lead the meetings, while others have teachers or instructional coaches provide ideas. Large schools may have a faculty meeting each hour for a day to provide a more intimate setting for the teachers during their plan times to reduce before- and after-school conflicts. The structure is not the variable, it is the quality.

The minimum goal of every faculty meeting should be to help teachers become more excited about teaching tomorrow than today. This does not mean a faculty pep rally is required. There is nothing wrong with a quality YouTube clip or serving frosted cupcakes at the meeting. However, what really makes a teacher motivated is when they learn something that they can immediately apply to their classroom—something that can make their teacher life better. Often, learning something new that will help improve student behavior in class is the best motivation for teachers. It needs to be specific and applicable for all. One of the reasons Annette Breaux and I wrote The Ten-Minute Inservice: 40 Quick Training Sessions that Build Teacher Effectiveness was to help build an understanding of this concept.

Be honest. Have you ever attended a meeting at central office that you couldn’t wait to conclude. Did it seem of little benefit or actually add to the burdens you already feel? What would you think if, on a regular basis, you left your central office meeting with better ideas on improving lunchroom supervision, better questions when checking references or in interviews, or actual techniques you could use to teach your teachers to improve test scores? Your view of these meetings would be dramatically different. You would not want to spend time on YouTube clips or ice breakers. You’d want to get straight to the content. This is the same vision you need to help teachers be more enthusiastic about teaching after a faculty meeting.

3. Don’t Wait for the Difficult Times.

Todd Whitaker says effective school leaders know how to motivate their teachers at all times. PHOTO COURTESY OF TODD WHITAKER

Be in classrooms daily. Be friendly and greet every teacher and student whenever you see them anywhere in the school. Schedule a 20–30 minute slot in your calendar at least once a week where you specifically visit classrooms and leave positive feedback—a Post-it note, a memo, or an email sharing something you saw on that drop-in that you liked. Sometimes I call it look for the good parts, even if you must squint. Maybe today, just because you walked in the teacher’s room the staff member got out from behind their desk and was more physically active. Write a very kind note about how you noticed a particular student seemed more engaged when the teacher stood near them. Compliment their bulletin board, wait time, or questioning strategy. By doing this, not only do they feel better but so do you.

If you’d like your teachers to consistently greet their students, talk about it at the first faculty meeting of the year. Talking about an idea at the initial faculty meeting when there is an abundance of positive energy, can increase the likelihood of people doing something like greeting students. But what do we do to maintain this positivity as the time of year becomes more difficult and we get more fatigued? Make sure you have a weekly staff memo that is your drumbeat about your school. It should set a tone of how lucky we are, how blessed we are, how thankful we are, and how fortunate we are. I called mine “the Friday Focus,” which I discuss in Motivating & Inspiring Teachers: The Educational Leader’s Guide for Building Staff Morale. If you don’t set that tone for your entire faculty and staff, there are other people sharing their tone in the teachers’ lounge of how unlucky we are, how cursed we are, how underappreciated we are, etc. If you don’t have a consistently positive drumbeat, the negative ones start to become louder. If your staff does not regularly hear your voice, they start to believe the negative voices. So, if in a few weeks fewer teachers are greeting their students, write this in your Friday Focus:

Earlier this week I was walking down a hallway and I saw teacher after teacher smiling, greeting the students and making them feel so warm and welcome. You all are amazing. I’ll let you in on a secret. You are the reason students love coming to school so much. You are also the reason I love coming to school so much. Thanks for what you do.

4. Brag on Your Teachers and Students.

If you compliment someone often enough, they start to think you have incredibly good taste. Brag on your teachers, brag on your students. Every school has many more good things going on than bad. Great schools don’t necessarily have fewer challenges, but they definitely have more successes. And the leaders find a way to share these, highlight them, and make everyone feel good about their job, their school, and themselves. A school leader I greatly admire once told me, “I don’t know if being positive helps solve a problem, but I do know being negative doesn’t.” Be the guiding light for your students, staff, and school. That is why you are there. That’s why you are called a leader.

Todd Whitaker is a professor of educational leadership at the University of Missouri. A former principal, math teacher, and basketball coach, he is the author of more than 60 books, including What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most. He will speak at UNITED in July.