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How to Keep Good Teachers Motivated

ImageThis week, Education World's "Principal Files" team chats about what they do to keep good teachers motivated. What special things do they do to inspire teachers to keep learning and improving their skills? What do they do to keep up staff morale and make their schools fun places to work? Our principal team shares their best ideas for encouraging teachers to keep on plugging... Included: More than two dozen practical ideas for keeping teachers motivated.

Given the state of school budgets, it is extremely difficult for most principals to do substantial things to motivate and inspire teachers. But sometimes little things can make an even bigger difference! That's why Education World recently asked our Principal Files principals to share with us some of their best ideas for keeping teachers motivated. As usual, our principals responded with dozens of practical ideas.

This month's P-Files question reminded principal Les Potter about Robert Greenleaf, author of Servant Leadership. Greenleaf's idea is that "administrators need to serve the worker," explained Potter. "At our school we try to do that. We work hard at making things less difficult and complicated. We try to cut down the amount of paperwork our faculty must do, limit the number of staff meetings, streamline procedures..."

Administrators at Potter's school try to show teachers every day that they care in many ways. "We have an open-door policy, they see us picking up trash and cleaning cafeteria tables, we arrive on campus before they do and we are here when they leave, and we do not have designated parking or other perks sometimes associated with management," Potter said.

"Administrators always have to put aside their own issues and do what is best for students and staff in a caring and sensitive way. We try not to say no to teachers, and we always treat them as adults."

Principal Tony Pallija agrees. He and the rest of his administrative team try to do lots of special things for the entire staff -- from special little gifts to Cookie Day. "We try to pretend we are at IBM -- we treat everyone as a professional and we celebrate whenever we can," said Pallija. "The material things are nice, but I have a motto that I try to live by each day: My job as principal is to make the teacher's job easier, better, so they can teach and students can learn."

"Developing a positive school climate is critical to an effective school," added Les Potter. "Morale is a very tentative issue. You can do 99 things right and make one mistake that will shoot morale forever."


All teachers yearn for reassurance that they are doing a good job. Most principals recognize teachers' efforts by offering positive feedback -- both publicly and privately. Weekly memos or e-mails, and regular staff meetings, are the perfect forums for recognizing special contributions that teachers or other staff members make.

Principal Jeff Castle includes such recognitions in staff memos and during a special celebration portion of each month's faculty meeting. He also makes a special point of spotlighting efforts teachers make to develop projects that involve students across grade levels or with other schools. Castle hopes those special recognitions encourage others to consider projects that extend learning outside the walls of individual classrooms.

"With all teachers have to do, motivation is the key to keeping them focused and feeling worthy," principal Larry Davis told Education World. Davis reports that at each month's staff meeting at his school two teachers are awarded the "Golden Apple" for their above-and-beyond efforts. The neat thing about the Golden Apple is that the teachers select its recipients! Each of the winners of this month's Golden Apples are responsible for passing on the award to another worthy teacher at next month's meeting.

Many principals try to leave a little extra money in the budget to recognize outstanding efforts with small personal gifts such as prepaid phone cards or store gift certificates. Recently, one principal gave a phone card to a teacher who stepped in without being asked (because the principal was out of the building) and took over an after-school program for a teacher who was stuck in a dentist's chair having a tooth pulled.

Faculty Retreats
Set the Tone

Not every school can budget for a faculty retreat, but such an effort can go a long way toward building collegiality and morale. At The American School in London, lower school principal Julie Ryan has fond memories of a two-day retreat held an hour north of the city two years ago. Parts of the conference center where the retreat took place dated back to the time of Elizabeth I (16th century). "Retreat activities included a mix of socialization and team-building activities; analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the school's culture; and creating essential agreements about how we want to work together," Ryan told Education World.

That retreat was paid for by a parent donation, Ryan noted, "but in other years we have held simpler daytime, off-grounds retreats that have been very effective in setting a tone for the year. Teachers feel treated and they get to know new colleagues -- which is essential in an international school with a fairly transient faculty."


Principal Teri Stokes tries to observe every teacher at least two times a month. Many of those visits are unscheduled, "snapshot" stops. Before heading on to the next class, Stokes takes a moment to scribble a positive comment or two on a sticky note. On the way out of the room, she sticks that note to the door or the teacher's desk.

In addition, Stokes often drops little feel-good cards or inexpensive gifts in teachers' mailboxes or on their desks. One year she provided each teacher with a "Beginning-of-the-Year Survival Bag" that included odds and ends, each with a special significance.

Does this sound like an idea you might want to employ? If so, you'll find some great ideas for putting together a "Teachers' Survival Kit" in the Education World article When All Else Fails, Turn to the Survival Kit!

Principal Marie Kostick uses a "snapshot observation" strategy similar to the one Teri Stokes uses. In addition, she takes advantage of local television stations that reach out into the community to offers awards such as "The Class Act Award" or the "Excellence in Teaching Award." Kostick nominates members of her staff who go beyond the call of duty. Reporters from the television stations come to school to interview the teachers and present them with certificates. Each teacher is then recognized in a TV spot that is broadcast several times in one week.

To build a strong team, principal Phil Shaman held an "Educational Olympics" at this school one year. Teachers were divided into teams and competed in a variety of events. All events required that team members support each other to complete a task. Events, planned with the support of his physical education staff, were both athletic (for example, relay events and a team table tennis match in which team members had to alternate hits) and non-athletic (such as going through a maze blindfolded).

Many states and some local school districts offer reward monies for schools whose students show improvements on standardized tests. In some schools, those monies are divided among contributing staff. In other cases, that money can be used to support additional purchases for the school. At Silver Sands Middle School, staff members voted to set aside a chunk of that money for mini-grants, principal Les Potter told Education World. Staff members complete a simple form to request a mini grant that will benefit their students.


Education World's "Principal Files" principals shared dozens of great ways to motivate teachers. So far, we have mentioned just a handful of those ideas. Following is a list of more than 20 additional ideas presented by principals already mentioned above:

Plan noon-hour lunches for all staff members several times a year. (Don't leave out the paraprofessionals, the school secretaries, or the custodians!) Those lunches can be "roving lunches" in which people eat during their regularly scheduled lunch period, or they can be whole-staff lunches that kick off professional development sessions scheduled for the p.m. part of the day.

Organize small fundraising activities to raise money for an all-staff holiday or end-of-year banquet. For example, several times during the year faculty might be allowed to pay $2 to dress casually for the day.

Contact local restaurants, sports franchises, movie houses, arts centers, and other businesses to arrange for gifts, gift certificates, tickets, or discount coupons that can be used as special prizes for teachers or coaches who volunteer their time or who go above and beyond.

Encourage teachers to seek out professional development courses or workshops. Approve all reasonable requests. Then get extra mileage out of those sessions: Set aside time during each staff meeting, or arrange a special professional development day, so teachers can share with their peers the main ideas they learned from each session they attended.

Encourage teachers to ask for the instructional supplies they require to facilitate teaching and learning. Provide reasonable requests from the budget, or enlist local politicians or businesspeople to sponsor or help you track down other needed supplies.

Organize a trip to the movies.

More Practical Ideas From the Principal Files

Have you seen these articles from the Principal Files Series?

I Wish I Had Taken a Course In...
Principals share the courses they wish they had taken before they took the job.

There's No Sub for a Good Sub Plan!
Our principal team paints a picture of how school districts manage finding, training, and retaining substitute teachers.

Data Is Making a Difference in These Schools
Principals share ways in which they are using data to lead their schools to success.

Great Staff Meetings: Pointers from the Principals Who Lead Them
Stuck for ideas for effective staff meetings? Looking for ways to make sure everybody is present and interested?

Teachers Urged to Consider Principalship
Principals share the joys of the job plus words of encouragement for educators who might be considering the path to the principal's office.

The December holidays can be such a busy time. Instead of adding one more thing to do and one more expense to the month of December, why not spread around the fun? In October, for example, one school held Secret Spook Week. Those teachers who wanted to participate filled out a profile form that asked questions about favorite colors, foods, drinks, hobbies, and so on. Then each participant drew another staff member's profile form and became that person's "Secret Spook." Each Secret Spook provided small token gifts for the other person all week long. The total expenditure for each participant was set at $10.

Include on each weekly staff memo a quick activity idea that might be tried out in the classroom, a quote related to education, or a short school-related joke. (Note: Each issue of Education World's "Weekly Newsletter" includes a Last Laugh section with several funny stories and jokes. Feel free to copy and paste them for use in your own weekly memos or parent newsletters.)

Send cards to teachers to welcome them back after an illness, celebrate a birthday or another important event, or recognize a special achievement... Add a copy of those "special achievements" cards to teachers' personnel files.

Once a semester, or once a quarter, provide all staff members with a come-late-to-work-no-questions-asked form. (Or give that form to staff members who logged one or no absences in the most recent quarter.) That form represents two hours of time that can be taken at the start or end of the school day for any reason -- from sleeping in to getting a head start on the weekend. The only catch is that the form must be "cashed in" in advance so arrangements can be made to free an administrator or somebody else to cover the staff member's responsibilities. Little things like this cost no money and demonstrate that administrators are willing to go the extra mile for the folks who work for them.

Provide free coffee in the teacher's lounge from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every day.

Select a "Teacher of the Month." Set aside a special parking space close to the main faculty entrance that is marked with a "Reserved for the Teacher of the Month" sign.

To motivate professional development, arrange study groups (perhaps organized by grade level) to read a book or discuss and research a current hot topic.

Set up a schedule to ensure that every educator makes at least two visits to other teachers' classrooms or other schools during the year. Arrange coverage for those teachers. You might set up a special arrangement with other schools to open their classrooms to your teachers, but teachers should also be able to make their own arrangements for visitations to classes/schools they have learned about through the grapevine.

Feed the teachers! Celebrate the end of a busy week by arranging to have the cafeteria staff prepare a special continental breakfast -- beverages and muffins, rolls, or coffee cake -- every Friday morning. (Even once a month would be nice!) Don't forget to do something nice for the cafeteria folks a couple times a year.

Appoint a teacher to be "acting principal" when you are out of the building. (This usually convinces them that they love being a teacher!)

Make sure that everyone is on a committee that meets regularly and that they have real tasks and opportunities for real input in school-level decision making.

Arrange to have music played (or piped in) during faculty meetings. Music stimulates the brain.

Be sure to publicly commend staff members who go above and beyond outside of the school day -- by volunteering to be part of district-wide or state-level committees, for example.

Approach the parent-school association, local business partners, Jaycees, or other groups to gather materials and labor to accomplish various fix-it projects that the Board of Education is unable to tackle.

Organize a social committee to plan events just for fun. One such event might be a monthly "Treat-Your-Friends Tuesday." Each month a different group of teachers brings themed food items to share during the day in the teacher's lounge.

During Teacher Appreciation Week hold a daily drawing for a "1/2-day off" certificate. The principal will cover the class when you take that time off.

For more Teacher Appreciation Week ideas, see a previously published Education World article, Ways to Celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week.

Make a spot on your weekly memo for a special thank-you or congratulations to individuals or the entire team. For example: Thank you for organizing Red Ribbon Week! Thanks for the extra effort on parent teacher conferences! Thank you to the "bulletin board fairy" who decorated the board in the workroom!...


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