Sometimes in sports you hear coaches refer to a “rebuilding year.” Of course, this is typically a euphemism for “don’t expect us to win much … we’ll be lucky to just make it through the season.” I would argue that this year in schools and districts has been an actual rebuilding year. Since the year-that-shall-not-be-named, we’ve been kicked in the teeth, dragged through the mud, and spun in every direction to such a dizzying degree that we very nearly lost our way altogether. And, finally, there has been enough light and space and calm that we can begin to rebuild, particularly when it comes to staff morale and culture.

I don’t have to beat you over the head with the statistics about employee morale; you don’t need to read a single article or even log into Twitter to know we’re faced with an all-time low in employee engagement and job satisfaction. For that matter, just finding and retaining employees of any kind, satisfied or not, has become an all-consuming obsession of Herculean proportions. As I travel between schools and districts of all kinds coaching and supporting school leaders, I find the same question hanging in the air: “How do I bring my staff together and get people connected and happy to be here again?” There’s no quick fix for this dilemma, but concerted efforts related to connection, coaching, and celebration will get you back on the path to a staff culture that feels right.

1. C Is for Connection

One of your greatest leverage points as a school leader is the built-in, face-to-face time you have with staff. It is imperative that this time is utilized in a way that is purposeful, meaningful, and engaging. Additionally, you want to be intentional about creating opportunities for your staff to connect with one another outside of the usual settings. Here are some ideas to consider:

Flip the script on your staff meetings. The built-in meeting time you have with your staff is one of your greatest resources for connection—and one that is often underutilized. As a high school principal, I would send out a document titled, “The Stuff You Can Just Read” prior to each staff meeting so that our time together would not be used for information dispensing but rather discussion, collaboration, and real connection. You want to get others doing and saying as much as possible, serving more as a guide and facilitator than a presenter. Your goal should be that, at the end of each staff meeting, your employees leave feeling inspired and more connected to colleagues. It takes time to plan meetings that are meaningful, but the payoff makes it so worthwhile.

Invest in your new people. New employees often have an underestimated impact on your culture. Out of sheer survival instinct, they will quickly figure out how to fit in and, if left to their own devices, can end up learning from the wrong people. It is imperative that principals make a concerted effort to bring new staff members into the fold in the right way. One helpful strategy is a buddy system, whereby new employees are matched up with staff members outside of their department or job classification. The veteran buddies need to be people who are on board with your positive culture and open to serving as a touchstone for informal check-ins and connection-building. You can then host casual monthly gatherings of all the buddies (nacho bar, root beer floats after school—that sort of thing). Investing in your new people will pay off long term in ways you can’t imagine.

Bring out the lawn chairs. As principal, I encouraged all staff members to join us in the quad at lunch—even if just for a few minutes—for “Lawn Chair Fridays.” Folks simply bring their own lawn chairs and gather to socialize with their colleagues. It’s simple and fun and sets a great example for students.

2. C Is for Coaching

School administrators are taught, typically through a painstaking process, how to evaluate employees. But when are we taught how to coach? We see examples all around us of great coaching bringing out the highest level of performance in people. As you interact with your employees, no matter their roles, it is important that you are always thinking like a coach, even in the most informal of moments.

Take a Socratic approach. Early in my teaching career, I was blessed to have a principal who interacted with me like Socrates would. Rather than applying his vast experience to delivering constructive feedback to me, he simply asked me thought-provoking questions. In a nonthreatening way and with a spirit of curiosity, he guided me to reflect on my practice and arrive at my own conclusions. I have carried this strategy with me throughout my career and it has served me well.

Focus on your leaders. You are only one person. I repeat … You are only ONE person. You’ve got leaders on your site (fellow administrators, teacher leaders) who are hungry for coaching. You need to invest time and attention in assessing the strengths, weaknesses, and needs of your team. If your district can bring in someone to help, that is ideal. Build in time throughout the year when—together—you can invest the time and energy necessary to fine-tune your practices, help one another grow, and ensure that your shared vision is moving forward. This time needs to be sacred and not attached to the nuts-and-bolts operational discussions that are occurring on a daily or weekly basis.

Meet one-on-one weekly with each member of your team with the goal of assessing their development, hearing their struggles, and providing support. The time invested in this will pay off tenfold.

You need coaching, too. Ask if your district has a way to provide a coach or mentor for you. Even if you’re a veteran principal, the complexities of the work require such a heightened level of support that is simply not tenable in most traditional district structures. Additionally, find colleagues both inside and outside your organization that you can have on speed dial for questions and support. In the absence of district-created structures, help create your own grassroots structure for collegial support among administrators, like a monthly gathering where you can share war stories, laugh, and encourage one another. The adage that “it’s lonely at the top” is certainly true, but there are people who understand, and your leadership bucket will be filled by making efforts to connect with those folks.

3. C Is for Celebration

Celebration is a core component of positive culture, but it can also be fraught with peril. When it comes to celebration, it is crucial as a leader that you celebrate that which you wish to see expand. A mentor of mine once said, “Don’t give valentines when it comes to celebration,” referencing the elementary school practice of giving a valentine card to every classmate, whether you like or appreciate them or not. Often, school leaders can be viewed as playing favorites when it comes to celebrating staff, so bear that in mind, as well.

Staff-to-staff celebration is key. To address the “playing favorites” issue, create structures whereby staff members celebrate one another. A simple way to do this is to incorporate into all of your staff meeting agendas a time for “staff shout-outs.” To get this rolling, you’ll need to tap a few staff members in advance and ask them to think of a colleague they can shout out for something positive. This modeling will make it safe for others to do the same the next time around.

Be on the hunt. As a school leader, you should be constantly searching every nook and cranny of your campus for that which you can celebrate. This requires being out of your office as much as possible, not just in classrooms but everywhere. When you have clearly defined the culture that you’re trying to create and sustain, it becomes easy to identify people and actions that match it. Bear in mind that people don’t always like to be celebrated publicly; it can go a long way to write a quick hand-written note to an employee or stop by with their favorite treat to say thank you for what they do. When people feel seen and appreciated, you invariably get more of their best.

Don’t forget about your unsung heroes. Nonteaching staff typically equates to about half of the workforce on a school campus, yet these staff members often feel out of the loop, unseen, and unappreciated. These folks are the face of your school in many ways—interacting with parents in the office, serving in maintenance, custodial, or campus supervision roles with the public in the evenings—you need them on board with your culture. One of my favorite moments as a high school principal was a surprise celebration of our maintenance and custodial staff during an all-school rally. This was followed by a catered lunch for them in the quad, complete with linens and china. Not only did they feel valued, but the message sent to students further bolstered the culture we were trying to build.

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, an amazing school culture takes time and careful attention to cultivate. Small actions each day, especially when it comes to connection, coaching, and celebration, make a bigger difference than you may realize in the moment. When you’re focused on these actions, you find that this mindset spreads around you like wildfire. Your greatest resource will always be your people. The time, love, and attention you invest in them will create a connected culture where everyone thrives.

Amy L. Besler, EdD, is the founder of Beverly Leadership Group ([email protected]), an organization that provides leadership coaching and training for school administrators. She is the 2019 Journalism Education Association National Administrator of the Year for her work in promoting student voice through journalism.