From the pressure put on first responders to the demands placed on essential workers, COVID-19 upended professional norms across all industries — especially education.

Last spring, teachers had to retrofit in-person curricula for a virtual environment and adopt new approaches for teaching students from afar. Then came fall, with the question of whether buildings would reopen hanging over every district. Concerns about the virus are mixed with worries that students aren’t getting as much through online learning as they did in the classroom. With cases continuing to surge into winter, the light at the end of the tunnel remains distant.

Through it all, principals and other administrators are continuing to serve as cheerleaders and make connections to invaluable resources. We asked four leaders how they’re keeping teachers and staff motivated. Here’s what we learned.

Susan Kessler – Executive Principal, Hunters Lane High School (Tennessee)

While the world is incredibly stressful in a wide variety of ways in 2020, the most successful teachers and administrators have an almost myopic view of what they need to do. When we focus only on our students and meeting their needs right now, this year, then the external stressors — which can be overwhelming — melt away.

This is the way educators have always survived. They make sure what they do with students each day makes a difference. As an administrator, my job is to make the realm of the teacher’s responsibility smaller than the weight they naturally carry.

We don’t have to solve the crisis of the pandemic or the economic or social implications worldwide. We have to connect with kids by caring about them first, and teach them second. When we commit ourselves to doing those two things well, everything else can get worked out by everyone else. We can take comfort in knowing that the children and their education, which we have great influence over, are well taken care of.

Joe Sanfelippo – Superintendent, Fall Creek School District (Wisconsin)

We have been trying to ensure that our staff can start the day and end the day with joy. Whatever it is that brings them joy, start your day that way to put you in the right mindset, and end your day in a way that makes you smile.

Just as important as saying “end your day with joy” is the word “end.” We want people to have joy when their day is complete, but we also want to make sure they put an end to their day. Many of our staff continue to answer emails and work well into the night. That takes time away from the people who give us the most latitude (but shouldn’t have to give us the most latitude): our family.

Sanfelippo recently released this video after a professional development day that allowed teachers to do whatever they needed to get done. “The vast majority of the day was open time,” he said in the video. “The amazing part of the day came at how people filled in that time. … They smiled, they laughed, they talked, they took a deep breath.”

If you trust your staff with time, they will fill in the gaps with whatever makes them better, he said.

Richard Gordon IV – Principal, Paul Robeson High School (Pennsylvania)

To keep teachers motivated and positive, administrators must be mindful of their workload and support them in helping them manage it. Ensure the school’s master schedule, as well as your own professional learning community (PLC) schedule, takes teachers into consideration.

Teacher motivation and buy-in are key to the success of the virtual learning experiences. As administrators, it is imperative that we not only have realistic expectations on what our teachers can handle, but also we must create a learning environment that sets teachers up for success. 

We need to recognize them formally and informally for their efforts with positive affirmations, praise, tangible rewards and public displays of appreciation. Ask teachers what is happening in their online classes. Send out surveys to gather their input on what they need and what their students need. Ask if there are any areas of concern. Be flexible as best you can, and organize online happy hours and other staff social events.  

The master schedule should allow for teachers to teach in reasonable blocks of time, incorporate breaks and facilitate peer-learning/visitation opportunities. It should provide additional time in the schedule, when possible, for teachers to adequately address all the other concerns they have related to their job responsibilities such as grading, student/parent/family contact, and conferencing, planning, and preparation and professional learning opportunities. 

As for the PLC schedule, I believe it is imperative to consistently utilize common planning time to not only cover academic and operational agendas, but to also do “check-ins” with our teachers. We need to give them a voice to freely express how they are doing and how they are feeling. We must tend to the mental, emotional and physical demands and challenges virtual learning places on everyone, including our teachers. 

If we do this, and ensure that our teachers are able to operate at their very best, they will give their very best to meet the standards we set in place and give their very best to students. 

No matter how engaged they may be with students, we must keep our teachers from feeling as if they’re isolated on their own island. They should know we are all in this together and we can all rely on one another for support, even from a distance.  

Marlon Styles – Superintendent, Middletown City School District (Ohio)

First, I tell all the educators and staff that they can’t inspire someone if they aren’t taking care of themselves. Everyone needs to be honest with themselves about when they need to recharge their batteries.

Once they get past taking care of yourself, then they need to do what they’ve always done best when they were face-to-face with their students. That is, they need to have fun. We are all scattered, but you have to have fun with it and find creative ways to connect with your colleagues and students.

My staff came up with great ways to stay connected to their classes. In the spring, they held virtual fire drills for their students. We also had a community-wide fight song sing-along on our front porches. We livestreamed the event and urged everyone to get out on their front porches and rally and have fun. We also have staff members interview each other for the students and then do karaoke. Everyone has fun. Everyone feels good. That’s a culture piece.

You need to rely on the strong culture you had in your building before this pandemic ever showed up, before you even started missing your students. Allow the culture you already had in place to continue, that culture that made sure the work environment and the school environment was fun.

The other thing I suggest is to use technology, not just in the ways we used it before the pandemic, but in new ways that inspire students. Let’s say you want to figure out what a student knows by having them put something on Flipgrid. Teachers can give them personalized video feedback and the kids love it. It’s a personal way to connect with students and help them improve. It’s much different than a worksheet that may have been done in class. It’s much more meaningful for a student to have a personalized response from their teacher on video.

Right now — in the environment we are in because of the global pandemic — we aren’t able to connect with people like we used to when we saw them face-to-face. We have to continue to have fun, be creative and find ways to do the same things as we’ve always done. It’s about relationships, having fun on the job, loving the kids and making sure you are still inspiring people. Focus on service and stay positive.

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