Would you rather have an engaged and happy teacher leading your child’s class, or one who is depressed, anxious, and hates their job? Although the answer may seem obvious, it is important to note that teaching is a stressful occupation, and research suggests that negative teacher beliefs, attitudes, and emotions can lead to problems with student achievement, motivation, and behaviors. So, how can principals energize the workplace? Research tells us that one way to improve job satisfaction begins with an understanding of human development. Using this framework, here are four questions every principal should ask.

1. Are There Opportunities for Choice and Autonomy?

Adults generally desire and are given more autonomy than children. Many set their own goals for what they would like to accomplish in their lifetime. The research on human development suggests that a certain level of autonomy is a human need and contributes to psychological well-being.

Autonomy is often observed in environments that promote willingness and choice. In these climates, staff are less likely to think about leaving their jobs, less likely to feel emotionally exhausted, and more likely to experience greater job satisfaction, persistence, performance quality, and psychological well-being. In controlling environments, leaders often take charge with commands or directives; use threats, criticisms, and deadlines to motivate people; tamp down contrary opinions; and/or micromanage projects.

What can principals do to encourage autonomy in the workplace? You can start by welcoming perspective, providing staff with a safe forum to express their opinions and feelings. Consider setting aside regular time at staff meetings to ask teachers to share their thoughts on school matters affecting them. This may require the group to establish agreed-upon norms that guide interactions, and be prepared—it may be difficult to hear perspectives that differ from your own. However, the upside is that this feedback may lead to better decision-making through richer discussions and provide an opportunity to solve a problem before it becomes more serious. Listening to your staff with dedicated interest may also lead to greater trust and buy-in, which is often the result of an autonomous workplace.

Another way for principals to motivate staff through autonomy is to provide choices within parameters. For example, you can encourage staff to engage in self-directed goal setting or professional learning, participate in shared decision-making, and take the lead on self-initiated projects as long as these choices align with the school’s goals or strategic plan.

2. Are There Opportunities to Grow Professionally and Develop Expertise?

In addition to autonomy, job satisfaction is also affected by opportunities for professional growth. Feeling competent and developing expertise are important aspects of adult development. Many adults identify the skills that they want to learn and acquire an expertise through continued practice. These learning experiences tend to be more satisfying when they are coupled with just the right amount of challenge. When this occurs, people are more likely to experience deep engagement—as opposed to boredom or apathy (when tasks are too simple) or anxiety or stress (when tasks are too difficult). Promoting the development of expertise through productive challenge can lead to fulfilling learning experiences.

Foster the development of challenge and expertise in schools by supporting your staff’s interests and professional goals. Create tiered or differentiated professional learning opportunities, provide mentor/mentee learning partnerships for teachers at any stage of their careers, and encourage staff to participate in professional book clubs or groups. For instance, a lesson study of a self-directed group activity can help staff develop expertise. Lesson studies involve teachers collaborating on how to improve the elements of a shared lesson plan and then communicating feedback that targets skill development for improving the delivery of that lesson.

3. Are There Opportunities to Build Positive Relationships?

Researchers have also described the importance of relationships in adult development. Building relationships is critical during the novice phase of adulthood, which is a time when people begin to explore the adult world. In addition, building relationships and the sense of belonging are thought to be fundamental human needs and associated with healthy psychological functioning and life satisfaction.

Because adults desire relationships and spend considerable time at work, forming positive relationships is crucial to wellness and job satisfaction. The opportunity to build relationships is especially important in the field of education, which can be characterized by burnout and stress. Research shows that having at least one positive relationship can buffer the effects of stress and relieve psychological distress, depression, and anxiety and that positive administrator-​teacher relationships can help teachers become more resilient to stress. On the other hand, when people do not have access to healthy social networks, they may be more susceptible to stress, loneliness, and anxiety, and they may be at an increased risk for poor health.

How can principals foster positive relationships in schools? At the most basic level, social connectedness occurs when people spend time together and make an effort to get to know one another. In organizations, relationship-building may require setting school norms and expectations that promote pro-social interactions and inclusiveness, such as creating effective and fair conflict resolution and establishing a culture of trust, care, and respect. Additionally, rather than always going out for food or drinks after work, choose social events and ice breakers that will appeal to various interests while accommodating different schedules. For instance, some principals have created a lunchtime walking club for staff, morning yoga classes at school, game night, field trips to team-building courses, chili competitions, etc. You’ll need to learn what interests and motivates your co-workers to determine which activities best fit your staff.

4. Are There Opportunities for Work to Be Generative and Meaningful?

Some researchers believe that as adults mature, they often become more generative, which is when they seek to make social contributions or act as a guide for the next generation. Generative adults tend to be more altruistic, focus on productivity and creativity, and meet their psychological needs through a variety of activities, such as caring for children or volunteering for a worthy cause. Similarly, middle adulthood has been observed as a transformative period when adults begin to grapple with their mortality and search for greater meaning. At this stage of development, they recognize that their time is limited, which prompts them to reassess their lives and desire a more purposeful, satisfying life. This change in priorities and the need for generativity can prompt some adults to seek more meaningful work. As adults age, many become more intrinsically motivated and prefer participation in meaningful activities. Because employment is one way people satisfy the need for generativity, school cultures that promote generative experiences may be better at strengthening job commitment.

Because many educators became teachers to have an impact on students’ lives, continuously remind your staff of the importance of their work and how it helps the students they serve. This can be accomplished by providing regular opportunities for staff to identify and reflect on how their service has benefited students or perhaps sharing successes at the beginning of staff meetings. Or, create a recognition ceremony to help communicate staff successes to the entire school community. Then, encourage staff to identify ways they can make meaningful contributions to the school.

By meeting the psychosocial needs of staff, principals can improve their school climate by increasing job satisfaction. Not only should they reflect on these four questions, but they should also ask staff for input on how the school can create more opportunities for autonomy, the development of expertise, relationship building, and generativity within the workplace. This feedback can then be used to create goals for improving the school climate. In the end, the benefits of a happier workplace will trickle down to students, resulting in a healthier learning environment.

Carol Larson is an educational psychologist and a former teacher, administrator, and human development instructor.

Sidebar: Making It Work

Moves for Motivating Staff

Examine what Assistant Principal Karen Ritter and her administrator colleagues did at East Leyden High School in Franklin Park, IL.

  • Autonomy: Teachers can create programs, courses, or clubs. For instance, a technology teacher created a gURLs Tech club for female students and a school-within-a-school for a freshman cohort.
  • Expertise and Competence: Embrace a variety of learning opportunities for teachers, such as an optional class on mindfulness or a scavenger hunt for new teachers to introduce them to their school community.
  • Relationships: Last year, East Leyden High School started a competition among departments for best team Halloween costumes. Teachers and administrators dressed up as sports trophies, the Scooby Doo gang, the Walking Dead Poets Society, and other creative characters.
  • Generativity and Meaningful Work: East Leyden High engages in teacher-student community service projects, including traveling to Peru to help build houses for people in need.