Teachers need more time. Here’s how we make it.

This is my 25th year in education, and I spent 20 of those years as a teacher. I loved being a teacher. I loved working with kids. When I decided to pursue school leadership, I promised myself I’d keep students at the heart of every decision. But the more I have learned about principal leadership, the more I’ve come to see that focusing on teachers first is student-centered leadership.

I believe effective school leadership requires us to treat our staff as people first, educators second. For our teachers to fully support students’ needs and to thrive in the profession, we need to give them the space to truly care for themselves. Messages about self-care and mindfulness are great, but only when followed by concrete steps that create conditions allowing teachers to care for themselves. 

My assistant principal and I have worked hard to pinpoint what teachers want most, and we’ve identified two keys: teachers want time and they want trust. Trust is the easy part. My AP and I are committed to stepping aside and allowing teachers to do their jobs and care for students. When that’s happening, we give them space; we’re not micromanaging teachers or tracking what they’re doing each day.

The second need, for time, requires some real creativity. Here’s how we’ve gone about creating time for teachers:

1. We give teachers extra planning time by covering every teacher’s class every month, for 30-60 minutes. My AP and I try to center coverage in the busiest seasons, like the weeks leading up to conferences. There are times that this means asking someone to cover an office duty or handing off the walkie, but it’s worth it to us and our staff.

2. We get creative with the schedule, so specialists and classroom teachers each have the same amount of planning time. This means our music teacher might teach art sometimes, or our P.E. teacher might step in to oversee some social studies group work. Creative assignments mean we can all show up for kids, and it means our teachers have 90 minutes more planning time each week than they would have otherwise.

3. We created a standardized sub plan template. I created a template for sub plans, which just requires teachers to slide in the day’s learning activities. It’s a time saver and, just as importantly, it sends a message to educators that I want them to take time off when they need to.

4. We replaced standing committees with pop-up committees. When I started, I eliminated existing committees. They seemed to be built on compliance, with every staff member assigned to a committee whether or not they felt passionately about the committee’s purpose, and that didn’t feel respectful of teachers’ time and energy. Now, we launch pop-up committees to tackle finite goals like planning the Veterans Day assembly or revising our discipline policy. Interested teachers join, and the committee dissolves once the goal is completed.

5. I reserve my school hours for people and my after hours for paper. As a leader, I try to prioritize people during the school day and leave the paperwork for later. I put people-based tasks – like covering classes – on my calendar to reserve time. Other tasks, like replying to emails or dealing with paperwork, get my attention after students leave for the day – and sometimes even once I’m at home for the night. Taking any work home isn’t ideal, but as an administrator, I know that some work is going to spill beyond the confines of school hours. It’s not atypical in the profession, and it’s just part of the job. Telling myself “People during the day, paper at night,” helps me live my values and prioritize the interactions that matter most and bring meaning to my work.

The bottom line is this: Teachers know their “why.” They know their purpose. They’re in education for students – there’s no doubt about that. But sometimes, barriers and distractions get in the way. As a school leader, I want to be the person on the ground with them, cutting through distractions and freeing up space, so they can maximize their energy to support students and take care of themselves.

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.