(Originally posted at On Principal.)
By John Falino
It’s hard to believe that the start of another school year is quickly approaching. As school leaders are putting the finishing touches on a summer that was filled with scheduling, staffing, professional development, and a multitude of other tasks that go along with ensuring the successful start of a new school year, teachers and staff are starting to return from a much needed summer break with renewed optimism and a high degree of positive energy as they prepare to meet their new students in only a few short weeks. For school leaders, the first official meeting days for teachers (prior to when students return) are viewed as a critical time to review important school procedures and for professional development that is in-line with the instructional agenda. But what do teachers need? This question is asked far too infrequently and, if unaddressed, can literally sap all of that positive energy in only a few short days. I’ve seen it happen. Last year I wrote a similar post on this topic and am now coming back to it as we prepare to welcome our staff back for another year.
Here’s a short list of some of the things to consider as we prepare to welcome our teachers back. Once again, the narrative has been updated based on the new initiatives and work that we are doing at our school…
1) Collaborate and Plan: Prior to the opening days, it is important to collaborate with leaders in the building to design a practical plan that is both in-line with the vision and mission of the school while giving teachers what they “need” for a smooth opening. This year, I am meeting with our school’s department leaders to not only create a plan for the opening, but also to create departmental and school-wide instructional plans for the upcoming year. In doing so, we will look to the work of @JohnCMaxwell since our department leaders’ ability to lead “from the middle” will play a pivotal role in the overall success of our entire organization.
2) Fulfill Basic Needs: School leaders too often get lost in all that “needs to be covered” and lose sight of the basic needs that teachers have in order to get the year started in a smooth and positive fashion. Think Maslow on this one. “Basic needs” include: supplies, enough desks, working computers and technology, working copiers, paper, textbooks, class rosters, working email, internet access, and of course a clean classroom.
3) Be Available: While this one might seem obvious, there are often a variety of issues and questions that staff members may have as they prepare for the first days of school. Therefore, it is critical that all school leaders (including teacher leaders) are “out and about” and highly visible to both welcome staff and address small concerns before they turn into big ones. While this a fundamental component of effective leadership all year long, it is especially critical on the first days of school.
4) Share the Vision: An opening faculty meeting to reconnect is essential for building a strong community and sense of togetherness among the staff. In doing so, it is important to lead the group in a discussion of past accomplishments while providing a renewed sense of excitement, direction, and purpose. A discussion of the “vision” of the district is also a good way to “connect the dots” for teachers so that they can make better sense of what may at first seem like competing instructional initiatives. At our school, for example, we are doing a great deal of work with the CCSS, are expanding our 1:1 Chromebook program, and are in the second year of the candidacy phase as we we prepare for authorization to the IB Middle Years Program (MYP). In order to avoid what can easily be perceived as a “flavor of the week” situation within the school, it’s important to connect all of the smaller parts to the larger vision of the school (and district) so that they can be viewed interdependent as opposed to exclusive of one another.
5) Allow for Teacher Collaboration: The first days are a critical time for colleagues to collaborate as they prepare to meet their students for the first time. This one falls under the “basic needs” umbrella but goes beyond supplies to what is most important of all: students. During the opening days, teachers need to meet with co-teachers, counselors, and department members to review student IEPs, analyze student data, plan upcoming lessons, design pre-assessments, and a variety of other tasks. All of this “upfront” work is essential and will make a tangible difference for each student if it is done thoughtfully and carefully.
6) Time, Time, and More Time: The idea that teachers need (and want!) as much time as possible was the single most popular response to last year’s Twitter poll. This should not come as a surprise as there is such a high degree of preparation that goes into getting ready for the first days of classes (see above). Given that, it is surprising that school leaders often “miss the boat” on this and instead inundate teachers and staff with meetings that run too long and professional development that would be much better received a week or two into the school year. Think quality over quantity and plan accordingly.