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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
First, get it right with your staff
Developing a system where one-on-one collaboration supports staff and students
By Amy Besler | September | October 2021
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Our worlds have been rocked … we feel as though we’ve been tumbled around in a washing machine for over a year, losing all sense of which way is up. Educators throughout our system have dug deep to figure out how to serve students, get them connected and attend to their social-emotional needs. As the fog is now lifting, we know we’ve got herculean work ahead — attending to student and staff safety, setting the right tone, quickly assessing the learning gaps and needs and beginning to rebuild our students’ sense of self and their ability to navigate the world around them. That should be a piece of cake, right?
I submit to you this piece of cautionary advice: If you don’t get it right with your staff first, none of your efforts to attend to the needs of students and families will matter.
So, in amongst all the back-to-school chaos and re-entry plans you and your teams are setting in motion for students, please also attend to these critically important staff-related factors:
Develop a system for regular, one-on-one check-ins with every staff member. This is a daunting task, particularly at larger sites like some of the high schools I supervise, but divide and conquer with your team to make it happen. I recommend separating this effort from your typical departments/areas of supervision; there is nothing evaluative here, just human connection. It is essential that you include all classified staff members in this effort, as well. And, rather than calling anyone to your office for a “meeting,” literally meet them where they are — whether that be a classroom, kitchen, field or parking lot. Showing ongoing care and concern is the simplest way to ensure that employees feel seen and valued — and it also helps you identify any needs or issues early so you can respond promptly.
Build time and structures into your meetings to gauge how people are doing. When things really get rolling, we can all get task-focused, out of necessity. When I was a principal, I would publish the “Stuff You Can Just Read” prior to the meeting, so we could avoid information-dispensing within the meeting to the greatest extent possible. It is imperative that the time together is used to connect, collaborate, calibrate and celebrate. Like students, not all staff members want to be in the spotlight, so make sure you incorporate ways for them to share what they are experiencing that are less “on display” — this could be a quick Google Form or sticky note on the way out. Even just a few minutes for a walk-and-talk with a co-worker to discuss a topic that matters to everyone can go a long way. These moments can also be used to reconnect everyone to the “why” of our shared work. A great walk-and-talk question: Why did you decide to work in education?
People who were new last year are still new. Investing in your new people must always be a top priority, no matter the position of the new person. Anyone who has joined your staff over the past year-and-a-half really has no idea what this place is supposed to be like. Who are we? What do we believe? What is our culture? Connecting new people with “buddies” who are outside of their departments is a great way to informally provide support and a safe place to ask questions, express doubt and seek support. Then you can bring all the buddies together for regular events — root beer floats after school, nacho bar lunch — just to share their experiences and have another avenue for relationship-building. Every employee will figure out your culture (one way or another) and you want to ensure that they’re getting that input from the folks who are on board with your positive, student-centered vision.
Redefine (together!) who you are and where you want to go. What a wonderful moment to hit the reset button and begin again — for the better! What did we learn in the past year that made us better? What do we believe, collectively, is most important? The more you can engage your staff in the ongoing development and refinement of a shared vision, the more you will find that your people are energized and excited to come to work each day, because they know they are an integral part of something powerful and important. Note that this cannot be a one-and-done conversation at your first staff meeting; rather, it’s ingrained in everything always and becomes your shared lens for decision making and celebrating. At the classroom level, teachers were forced to acquire so many new skills in the past year — how can they leverage those now to make their teaching even more dynamic and engaging? If we’re not using this moment as an opportunity to get better, we’re missing the mark.
To the greatest extent humanly possible, be open, honest and vulnerable … with EVERYONE. So often as leaders, it’s difficult to see how “out of the loop” many employees feel. Share your heart, process, struggles and needs with everyone. Don’t just “invite” them to be a part of the problem-solving conversation — structure ways to make that happen. And never lose sight of how difficult change is for most people, including your staff. They’re going to need a lot of conversation, ability to engage and share their perspectives, and explanation of the “why.” If you think you’re overcommunicating, you’re probably getting close to communicating enough. Uncertainty breeds anxiety, and as adept as you’ve become at navigating an endlessly fluid situation, most of your people are simply not there. The more you can do to show them what’s happening behind the curtain and share your goals, ideas and responsibilities with them, the greater sense of comfort they can potentially achieve, which will impact students and their families in significant ways.
This is an overwhelming, exciting time in education. With all you’re tasked to navigate, implement and address, know that attending to the needs of the adults in your schools and offices will pay major dividends in student outcomes. The care, concern and commitment you pour into your staff will then flow all throughout your system — most importantly, into students.
Amy Besler is Director of Secondary Education for Elk Grove Unified School District.
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