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October 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 2
Optimistic Leadership

School Leaders, Bring Joy to the Job

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Leaders can help teachers stay by creating school cultures of joy.

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The past few years have been challenging for teachers and leaders across the country. Many educators have lost their love and passion for the work, with thousands leaving each month—understandably so. Yet a large number of those who have been in the ranks for decades have chosen to stay, despite feeling overwhelmed, underappreciated, and in many cases, underpaid.
I'm one of those educators who made that choice to stay. After 36 years in the field, 24 of those years as a school leader, I still wake up each day with excitement and determination and go to bed every night with satisfaction. I rest well knowing I give my all to the kids, teachers, and parents I serve each day.

I’m able to keep going after decades on the job as a school leader because I choose to focus on creating a culture of joy and learning in my school.

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Here's my secret: I truly believe that I'm able to keep going after decades on the job as a school leader because I choose to focus on creating a culture of joy and learning in my school. If we want to encourage our teachers to stay in the profession and inspire others to join our ranks in these challenging times, we must foster and prioritize learning and joy for all students and staff in our buildings. Four strategies can help leaders do so.

1. Remember Your Why—and Praise and Support Your Teachers

The first step to creating a positive, joyful school culture is remembering why we chose to work with children and the adults who support them. Whenever you have a challenging day, reflect on the positive things that also transpired—and on why you chose to work with kids (who should always be at the center of everything you do). This is one reason being visible in your school is very important. Being present around the school reminds you of your purpose, and daily interactions with students and teachers keep you grounded.
On tough days, I also think about the teachers and administrators who helped me when I was young. Part of creating a joyful culture is communicating to teachers and staff that they are doing an amazing job, offering specific examples of that amazingness. Any experienced leader will tell you that teachers matter, and that they need to feel supported and know they are seen, heard, and valued. Now more than ever, leaders need to give teachers praise and feedback on a regular basis. Teacher appreciation week at our school extends far beyond the first week of May. Right from the start of the school year, we provide "pick me ups" (coffee and snacks delivered to rooms) and employee of the month awards, and we offer teachers 5–10-minute breaks from the classroom when needed.

Whenever you have a challenging day, reflect on the positive things that also transpired—and on why you chose to work with kids.

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Providing such authentic support for teachers builds trust, which is the engine that drives positive relationships. To cultivate those relationships, we have to prioritize support over criticism. We can do that by creating an "I got you" instead of an "I caught you" culture—listening to teachers and staff, learning from them, and showing up for them, not just pointing out problems. A culture of trust and support empowers teachers, improves their performance, and increases job satisfaction.

2. Create a Learning Culture

Fostering trust and relationships helps develop learning cultures, not teaching cultures. In a learning culture, teachers are both nurtured and challenged, and they work and learn together. Teachers who feel supported and appreciated at school are more likely to be creative and curious—and to keep learning, which is the foundation for being a successful educator who stays in the profession.
School leaders should build learning opportunities for educators into the day. At our school, we create scavenger hunts that require teachers to visit other classrooms to learn new strategies and techniques (they can even win prizes like gift cards). We also make sure to protect time in our schedule for professional learning community meetings and other teacher learning opportunities.

3. Encourage Cultural Competence

It's important to foster cultural competence. To truly care about students, teachers need to be curious about who students are and their lives outside of school. A culturally responsive educator is interested in learning about and respecting the culture of the children they teach, and the culture of their families. As we move into a new school year, leaders must continue to focus on improving our outreach to families and the community, as many schools did creatively during the pandemic. For instance, a principal might attend community athletic or cultural events or set up a food pantry or clothes/uniform closet in the school.

4. Support and Celebrate Yourself

This will be another challenging year, for sure. If school leaders are to create joyful school cultures and support teachers and students, they must be supported as well. Leadership can be a tough journey. Principals and assistant principals need to connect with mentors and other leaders, through networks like those offered by ASCD or in personal learning networks they build on social media. Leaders' growth impacts the success of staff and students, and when more principals stay in their positions, we'll see better teacher retention.
So if you're a new school leader—or a veteran—remember to seek support for yourself as you try to build a joyful school culture. And keep remembering why you became an educator, affirming and building relationships with your teachers, and encouraging learning and cultural competence for everyone in school. It also helps to find a work/life balance, reflect on your journey, have fun, focus on the emotional well-being of your students and staff, celebrate others, and celebrate yourself. The joy begins with you.

Salome Thomas-EL is the award-winning principal of Thomas Edison Public Charter School in Wilmington, Delaware, and a nationally recognized speaker on education and leadership
issues, particularly in urban and rural schools. He is the author or coauthor of five books, including I Choose to Stay (Kensington, 2004) and Passionate Leadership (Corwin, 2019).

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