Leaders motivate teachers through trust
It’s June. Another school year is in the books.
Summer brings a much-needed opportunity for teachers to regroup and recharge after months of getting up early, building relationships and advancing student learning, juggling family obligations and late nights, and falling into bed so they can make the next day a successful one.
Teaching requires organization and planning, patience, empathy, communication, and being able to think on your feet. The pressure of testing, with its heartless and narrow emphasis on judgment, doesn’t make it any easier, joyful or rewarding. Teaching is hard work, important work. It can be stressful and exhausting.
“Teachers make the magic,” Shelley Pulling recently observed. Pulling is the principal of Boulevard Elementary School, my neighborhood school and weekly tutoring stop. Her role is to set expectations and put the structures in place, but she recognizes it is the teachers who do the work that helps children with academic achievement and social development.
So much rides on teachers. What keeps them going so they not only show up but make magic everyday for 180 school days?
When I asked Boulevard fourth grade teacher Julie Walker what keeps her going, her response was immediate: “We have an awesome principal.”
Pulling has been a principal for 18 years and the last four have been at Boulevard. “At first I did not understand that, as principal, I [would] have an impact on teacher morale," said Pulling. "Now I know that if the principal sneezes the whole school catches a cold.”
As a college student, Pulling was a business major and managed a movie theater. She discovered that she hated being a boss but really liked teaching people how to do their jobs. She switched to education and became a teacher. Judging by her approach to the principal job, you can see she still resists the idea of being a boss but truly embraces being a leader. She loves being a principal, helping people, and learning new things every day as she and her staff solve problems and move their enterprise forward. Her emphasis on leadership inspires her team.
Through her optimism, gratitude and emphasis on relationships and collaboration, she creates an environment where people want to come to work. Every staff person I spoke with commented on how frequently she thanks them and how great it is to be part of the Boulevard family.
Walker describes the school’s climate as a “we situation.” Everyone is in it together. “It’s easy for me to come to school," said Walker, "because I have a principal who is on our side as teachers. I can trust her and go to her if I need anything. She is flexible, understanding, helpful and caring.”
The feeling of respect is mutual. Pulling raves about her great team. She clearly demonstrates respect for her staff by including them in solving problems. It is time-consuming but something Pulling does as a matter of course; it generates better solutions, makes her job less lonely and gives everyone ownership. For Walker, being included is at the heart of her satisfaction: “We are empowered to problem solve.” Everyone wins.
This is Walker’s fifth year teaching at Boulevard and 15th in the classroom. She is a 1996 graduate of Heights High and attended Oxford Elementary and Monticello Middle schools. She loves teaching in the school district where she grew up and where her children are being educated. She thinks of teachers as the “the steady force in the storm.” They are the constant in a whirlwind of changing laws, leaders, standards, tests, curriculum, emotions and families. Her ability to be that steady force is affected by the school climate that makes her part of a team that is in it together—for each other and for the students.
State-mandated testing is a source of pressure and can be deflating to both teachers and students. The use of unreliable measures of learning and teaching is a reality and it is hard on teacher morale. Walker resists this negative pull: “We can’t let scores dictate how we feel as teachers. Our kids are way more than a score, and they need loving teachers.”
Because Pulling values her teachers, knows them, builds relationships with them, fosters a community of trust, and respects and depends on their professionalism, she doesn’t let the scores define her teachers. They, too, are more than a score.
If teachers provide students the magic for learning, Pulling provides her teachers the magic for teaching.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.