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How to Boost Staff Motivation as a School or District Administrator

Keep Staff Motivated

How do leaders best motivate those they serve—in this instance, building or district leaders and the staff who directly report to them?

If you asked your local librarian to find books on the matter, you would need more than a supermarket cart to carry all that’s been written on how leaders lead. Looking up articles online? There aren’t enough tabs to open all that you would be directed to.

So, what’s a leader to do? First, concentrate on the following three moves that are under your control.

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1. Get to know all your staff on a first-name basis. 

I’ve blogged about this previously, but it’s worth restating. If you want to motivate your staff from a department, central office, or building perspective, you’ve got to know staff both personally and professionally. You can start by making sure you know all staff you evaluate and supervise on a first-name basis.

If your first thought is “how can I do this?”, you may already be lost. You will have to take the time to figure this out, and it likely means one less meeting here or there to make sure you’re walking through classrooms, meeting with leadership teams, and actively listening to focus groups—to start. When you do this, always, always ask or find out who you are meeting with ahead of time or by asking staff to introduce themselves in the moment.

Starting with a first name should lead to deeper conversations about individual likes, ideas for improvement, or even an icebreaker every once in a while. Knowing more about the people under your care will, in turn, help you remember them by name, especially if you’re not seeing them daily. And please do not be afraid to ask for names when you don’t remember them. Staff will understand and tell you their name once, twice, or however many times it takes to remember. 

2. Understand staff needs, then work on filling those needs.

Education leaders are highly educated with multiple degrees and usually hold diverse experiences across multiple levels. This doesn’t mean leaders have all the answers to all challenges. Leadership is usually well intentioned in presenting rationale, research, or reasons when changes and improvements should occur. The oft-forgotten step is asking staff what they need for greater success.

It’s amazing what staff will tell a leader when he or she asks. In my principal experience, I asked every staff member what they needed individually and collectively to improve. In three schools, the evidence was overwhelming and clear what I needed to do.

  • In a school with high poverty and a decade of weak leadership, staff let me know that greater community building and a concerted school discipline approach were necessary.
  • In a well-funded district, staff clearly communicated a need for Writer’s Workshop professional development because it was a district initiative they were held accountable for without sufficient training.
  • In an affluent district, reinforcing school values and how to build upon them for a welcoming and unified school community were initial goals developed in my first year. 

By all means, develop plans, but leaders should do so with staff involvement through asking what’s necessary at the level they are supporting.

3. Protect what’s sacred and let all the rest go.

Discover, promote, and protect what’s important in the community you lead. This means never settling for “doing something” because someone said so. This is a difficult directive to follow, and it can lead to disagreements or even hard feelings.

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Discover the cultural elements of a school, district, and department and honor them, even if you may not agree with them. Staff members will hold on to important symbols and rituals regardless of who is in charge because they define who they are, how they work together, and why they show up to work every day. If you eventually want to refine, add, or change cultural elements, you have to recognize what’s important first.

Let’s say you have a departmental goal to provide more opportunities for children of color to take Advanced Placement math classes. All are in agreement from upper school principals to teaching staff to department heads. The plans to ensure such increases are put in place with some success and some challenges. Unfortunately, some pressure to scrap the initiative arises from the school board. The moment the math department or central office leadership caves to these pressures is the moment credibility is lost and motivation for at least one department fades.

It is not easy for leadership to hold on to what’s important or not rush in with changes aplenty, but if leaders expect motivation from their followers, they better be willing to fight for what is right and recognize what works first because it matters.

Ultimately, it’s not what leaders do to their staff to motivate that matters, but what leaders do for them. Creating cultures for greater participation from voices that are heard and known will help leaders understand what’s important for adult growth that ultimately leads to more children learning.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


You can book a keynote with Anthony Colannino to bring his expertise about instructional excellence and growth mindset to your school or district.

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