To inspire your team’s teaching plans, ask 3 questions

My team and I are working toward big, multi-year learning goals for our elementary students. Last year, our teachers embraced professional growth, elevated our instruction and promoted so much student progress. We’ll keep pushing toward those goals this fall and embark on new professional learning journeys. As a principal, I can’t wait to jump in with my team. But as a former classroom teacher, I remember how daunting it could be to walk into a back-to-school meeting and face a complicated instructional plan. I want my team to start the year feeling excited about our work – and as a fellow leader, I know that’s how you want your team to feel, too. 

To inspire great teaching this year, we leaders must create a culture of purpose, confidence and support. I want to share the three questions I’ll use to inspire my team: “What’s our ‘why’? What’s our ‘how’? What’s our next step?” Here’s my approach:

1. What’s our why? Creating team purpose and passion:

I’ve learned that the key to rolling out successful initiatives with teachers isn’t setting parameters or plans – it’s creating purpose. When I gather my teaching team for our first back-to-school meeting to review our instructional goals, the first thing I’ll do is ask: “Why do our students need us to do this work?” This “why” conversation is my chance to generate shared passion for the work ahead. Last year, prior to our larger gathering, my leadership team and I set two PD goals:

  • Goal #1: Implement new engagement techniques from “Building Thinking Classrooms.”
  • Goal #2: Implement new structured literacy routines.

But in our staff meeting, I didn’t start with the goals – I started with the “why”:

  • Why #1: Our students need us to promote their investment and growth in math.
  • Why #2: Our students need us to promote their proficiency in reading.

When I introduced Goal #1, my admin team had already planned multiple PD sessions on math. We were envisioning a book study and additional sessions across subjects. I knew the PD would provide powerful new tools, but the plan might sound overwhelming. So I focused on Why #1 to create team clarity and purpose.

2. What’s our how? Connecting PD, instructional coaching and PLCs:

As soon as my team is invested in “why,” it’s time to get them excited about “how.” Our Why #2 is tied to an Indiana Department of Education goal: 95% reading proficiency for all students by the end of grade three, by spring 2027. We’re making great progress, but state goals plus new tools can add to teachers’ stress. I want our team to stay confident, so I show them exactly how we will support them:

  • Our K-3 literacy coach, sponsored by the Indiana Literacy Cadre and Department of Education, uses biweekly PD to develop tools for our educators. She leads coaching cycles, evaluates instruction and collaborates with teachers on adjustments. Our coach uses teacher feedback and student data in each PD session to build our next tools. 
  • Our weekly PLCs encourage our teachers and push instruction forward. Each grade-level team reviews their latest strategies and outcomes. For example, an educator might ask another, “Your data shows your kids understand this concept better than our classes – what are you doing differently?” Next, the whole team will try that approach. 

3. What’s our next step? Supporting teacher leadership and success:

We leaders all strive to encourage our teams through the tiring days when long-term goals feel daunting. Every other week, I shout out educator successes in our newsletter, I encourage others to add their own shout outs, and I invite my team to explore new professional growth pathways. But I’ve learned that morale stays highest when I build educator support into my back-to-school plans. Instead of waiting for signs of discouragement, I start celebrating teacher wins and promoting teacher leadership before school even starts.

For example, last year, a teacher loved the way our new tools boosted her students’ literacy skills. She was curious about expanding our strategies, so I suggested: “If you find PD to promote your goals, I’ll use our staff PD budget to support you.” She attended a conference, collaborated with our coach and enhanced her structured literacy practice. The next time we evaluated student progress, we were blown away by the growth in her classroom. That teacher became a go-to resource for her grade-level PLC. In our BTS meeting this year, I’ll encourage our whole team to seek out her co-planning guidance. I’ll also invite her to create a PD session for our school, and hopefully, across our district. By highlighting her work, I can show my team I will value and celebrate all their work, all year long.

Also, even though summer has just started, I’ve already taken a team of teacher leaders to the PLC at Work conference in St. Louis. During collaboration time at the conference and our car-pool drive home, we were bouncing around ideas to bring our learning back to our staff. I look forward to their opportunity to lead our team through PD. As leaders, we all know that the ideas we want to move forward seem to have a greater impact when shared by teacher leaders. That’s why, when building my team, I tried to make sure I had a group that represented our different grade levels, our students of diverse populations and respected staff members because I knew that was what our teachers would listen to.

One of my favorite parts of back-to-school planning is envisioning how I’ll welcome and inspire my team. After a restorative summer, some teachers will feel excited to start the journey with their new students. Others may not feel ready to jump straight into fall instructional goals. And our newest educators may feel anxious about their first fall in our classrooms. As leaders, we know there may be times this year when instructional goals feel overwhelming for teachers. I can’t eliminate every challenge ahead – but by asking these three questions, I can make my team feel invested, equipped and supported at every step.