5 ways to create a culture of joy – for teachers and yourself

As a principal, I have come to strongly believe that the most valuable thing I can do to support students is to care for the teachers on my team. The times I feel most successful occur when I see the people I lead feeling good about their own work. Seeing others feel cared for feeds my soul. I do my best to say “yes” only to things that really bring me joy as a leader, and I also strive to build a school culture in which my staff can feel joy, too. 

The idea of “creating joy” can feel abstract – or even inauthentic – when it’s not approached through concrete structures that are visible to our team members.

Here are 5 strategies that help create a culture of joy and care in a visible way:

1. Ask teachers how they want to be appreciated. 

At the start of the year, I invite teachers to share their favorite treats and candy. I also ask them about what actions make them feel most appreciated and recognized. That way, when I see a teacher struggling, or when I just want to uplift someone, I have the information on hand to tailor their support to their individual needs.

2. Send a Sunday check-in form every week.

Each Sunday, at about 6 p.m., I email out a Google form inviting teachers to answer a few simple questions: How are you doing right now? What does support look like for you this week? Not everyone fills out the form every week, but they tend to fill it out when they do have a support need, and their answers give me an opportunity to be proactive with my caretaking, whether by offering extra class coverage or simply checking in. 

This form also creates a space in which teachers bring things I may have missed to my attention – like, “Hey, this week looks really busy; maybe we shouldn’t have a fire drill?” I’m not the one doing the job in the classrooms, so as much as I try to see their perspectives, there’s nothing like hearing directly from teachers. 

3. Make more time for teachers. 

My AP and I have found creative ways to give our teachers extra planning time, including covering their classes once a month, getting creative with our schedule design, creating sub plan templates and doing away with unnecessary committees. Click here to learn more about each of these strategies in my previous blog post.

4. Model a caretaking culture.

When a teacher takes a personal day, I send a message saying, “Have a great day. Everything is taken care of at school.” If they’re taking a sick day – to care for themselves, their child or their dog – I’ll follow up later to learn how they’re doing. I truly want to know – I want to know them as people. I might send a message letting them know they’re missed but that everything is taken care of. 

I can tell this outreach feels authentic to my staff. I had to take a few sick days last school year, and I received text messages from about 50 people, saying, “Take care of yourself.” I loved getting a message from our custodian saying, “It’s not the same without you around here.” It made me realize we’d built fellowship around caring for ourselves and each other.

5. Rewire your own brain for joy.

I always start the day with six Post-it notes on my desk, and throughout the day, I write six notes recognizing amazing things I’ve noticed in my school community. Because I have these notes on hand and need to find homes for them, I’m constantly on the lookout for bright spots. I’m endlessly discovering new answers to the question, “What are the things that are really making our school culture better?” This way, when I go home at night, I’ve spent the work day concentrating on what’s going well. If we’re looking for the good, we’re going to see the good, and we’re going to feel the good.

Being a school leader isn’t easy. If I’m going to create a culture of joy and care for my staff, it has to spring from a place of authenticity. This strategy helps me rewire my brain, even in tough times, to avoid getting bogged down in challenges and remain connected to joy.

When we genuinely think of our teachers as people first and educators second, they can feel it – and often, that care gets passed onto our students, too.

Looking for more ways to support teachers? Learn more from Erika in her book, Hacking School Leadership: What Makes Teachers Happy, and Why It Matters to Students.