The benefits of managerial practices are touted throughout business and industry. In fact, the development of management and leadership has become a billion-dollar movement in and of itself. But one area that is underserved, in so many ways, the education system, is ripe to receive these benefits as well. One educator in California, Jody Johnston, is ready to use proven practices to the advantage of her staff and students.
What is Teacher Engagement?
Even the best teachers sometimes get a bad reputation in our society today, often being labeled as burned out or too invested, neither of which is usually the case. In reality, teachers are behaving much like other professionals, in seeking support, resources, and feedback from those who manage them.
One Middle School Principal, Jody Johnston, sought out ways to improve her ability to provide for these needs and found the tools she needed from popular business practices: Employee Engagement and Strengths-Based Development.
Strengths-Based Development: When she first experienced the Strengths assessment and the descriptions given to each domain, the words felt so valid. By digging deeper into these strengths and looking at the teachers she has on staff, she is able to structure teaching teams which complement and support one another. These teams become active participants in planning, collaboration, and assessing data to improve ways of reaching and teaching their students.
Employee Engagement: But for Jody, her leadership goes beyond building teams to building overall site-level engagement. At Egling Middle School, Jody utilizes an employee engagement measurement tool, action planning efforts, and broader engagement concepts to help her staff thrive because she knows that when we take care of our school employees, they are better able to focus on their customers… the students. Jody takes action planning a step further. Each year she sits down with multiple groups on campus to assess their needs. This activity is time-consuming, but effective, because by the second meeting with each group, Jody says they begin to “take ownership of how to fix their unique challenges. This gives them a voice, input, and ownership.”
“My manager makes me feel that my job is important” is one of the engagement survey items Mrs. Johnston’s teachers scored very well on (89% answered this item with “Agree” or “Strongly Agree”). That’s no surprise considering one of her priorities as a manager is knowing her staff and understanding who they are professionally. The difference between the messages: “you’re important” and “your role at this school is important” are minimal. Staff feel supported, understood, and valued.
Another strong area, according to teachers, was the item “The leaders in this organization always treat me with respect.” (93% answered this item with “Agree” or “Strongly Agree”.) The only way this can be accomplished is with her presence; in the halls, in staff and committee meetings, and in classrooms. Jody enjoys observing students and staff accomplishments and growth while noting areas where improvement is possible in the classroom.
The benefits are numerous – collaboration, retention, and morale. Jody’s educators report feeling that collaboration levels are high between staff members to help students be successful and high levels of agreement on their intent to continue working at the school site; an especially critical metric considering nationwide teacher shortages.
Challenges of Engagement
The challenges of engagement in education look very similar to the challenges of education. Time is always in short supply when the goal is utilizing every minute from bell to bell. By being diligent with scheduling and finding blocks of time for planning within grade level teams, prep time becomes collaborative time and teachers can utilize one another’s strengths and expertise.
Jody also firmly believes in making time through mobilizing paraprofessional help, administrative hours, and, when possible, extra teachers to allow for her educators to observe one another. Observation becomes a valuable tool, especially when modeling teaching strategies, but needs structure for best efficacy.
There is also the obstacle of the individual, each person hired comes with their own self-assurances that need to be calibrated or broken down, but Jody sees this as her responsibility as their leader. Her goal is to guide the educators she has on staff to be reflective and honest, ranking those characteristics as highly sought after. Jody laughs, claiming that “people don’t start golden, you have to get them there.” She is committed to developing and polishing each employee to a golden shine.
What does it really look like?
Again and again, Jody used the word “adjust”, which makes perfect sense when you understand her meaning. Once staff understands the rules and schedules of a school or district, once they learn the campus and structure of their building, and once physical resources are in place, they can begin to adjust to fit the needs of their students. Jody wants administrators to become managers and leaders from the beginning, helping first and second year teachers see the light at the end of the tunnel and how they might adjust to get there. She pays attention to struggling teachers and gets into the classroom with them, noting classroom dynamic, transitions, teaching styles, and anything else of worth for reflective and collaborative thinking, helping guide the educator to adjust.
She is conscious of rebuilding and shuffling new teams, providing support and training as adjustments are made. Her support and approach of flexibility to the school she leads is paying off. Jody specifically discusses a teacher who she challenged to work at a new grade level, despite their resistance. Jody felt strongly that her strengths and experience were well suited for a different position than she initially sought. A few years into this challenge and Jody describes her as one of her best educators, but that accomplishment came with support, discussion, and assistance from the campus leadership team.
All to often, leadership models within business are not applied comprehensively enough to other professions. Employee engagement can be measured in many contexts and used to assist in building your team. For our help in doing so, contact Activate Human Capital Group at 530-713-6359. These benefits can be achieved in your organization as well.