Beyond Donuts in the Staff Room

10 ways schools can improve workplace satisfaction

Maggie, a seventh grade English teacher, was intrigued by one of the items listed in her school auction catalogue. A family had donated a week at their vacation home in Arizona, and she raised her hand to make a bid. The principal was the auctioneer, and he addressed her in front of the crowd. “Maggie, how on earth can you afford that?” he asked. “You’re a teacher!”

“It was total public humiliation,” Maggie recalls. “I wanted to say, ‘if you think that, then maybe you don’t pay me enough.'” The principal’s attitude was off-putting to her colleagues too, which was ironic considering the event was supposed to build community.

Workplace satisfaction is complex, especially at schools. Pay often is determined by pre-set scales rather than performance, and there are few opportunities for promotion. Leaders are challenged to find other ways to keep staff happy, often with few resources and limited time.

The Head of Sheridan School, Jessica Donovan, says she spends considerable time thinking about school climate issues. She spent her first month on the job interviewing every staff member. “It was very clear to me that there had been satisfaction issues in the past, and that the staff was nervous about the changes in leadership,” she says.

Donovan believes strongly that schools should regularly assess staff satisfaction. She notes that school leaders can use many of the same metrics that publications such as Fortune Magazine rely on to determine whether companies should be on “best places to work” lists. These include work-life balance, autonomy, collegiality, opportunities for growth, and compensation. Relying on these variables can be tricky for schools, Donovan points out, because the education setting differs from the business world. “There’s something incredibly fulfilling about working with children that’s different than working in a company,” she explains. “For people who love it, we really love it. There’s something satisfying about helping kids become good people, and I don’t know how you measure that.”

Schools can take a deliberate approach to improving staff satisfaction and morale. Here are ten strategies that Sheridan has adopted:

  • Give everyone a voice. Administer surveys and hold focus groups to come up with a cohesive vision that incorporates everyone’s ideas. At Sheridan, any teacher can join the hiring team. Even if teachers aren’t the decision-makers, they should feel that their voice matters. For this to work, they need to feel that honesty won’t backfire. As eighth grade teacher Eileen Hughes explains, “We say this about kids too; in order to learn and grow, you need to feel like you’re in a safe and supportive environment.” Leaders need to actively solicit and welcome both positive and negative feedback.
  • Make sure staff members feel “seen.” If you get it right at the individual level, the climate will follow. Administrators need to ensure that teachers feel they care. They need to show interest in their projects and passions. Principals should never underestimate the importance of their presence (or the significance of their absence). In a non-evaluative way, they can stop by classrooms. “When I was a teacher,” Donovan recalls, “I was nervous that my principal might not know that I’m a good teacher. He didn’t visit me in the classroom while I was teaching, so how would he know? So I just pop into classrooms frequently.” Administrators also can maintain an open door policy so teachers can stop by with questions or concerns. Staff can further this cause too. At Sheridan, one of our eighth-grade teachers leads a “Critical Friends” group, a program that enables teachers to observe and learn from each other.
  • Don’t ignore the small stuff. Whether administrators serve ice cream sundaes on a grading day, deliver a nice note after observing a lesson or bring in nurses to administer flu shots on site, small gestures hold meaning. I now refer to 2 pm as Diet Coke O’Clock because Sheridan offers free soda. It’s a small perk that never fails to boost my mood.
  • Get everyone on board. Improving school climate can’t just fall on the principal. Donovan notes, “I feel the responsibility is 100% mine, but I can’t improve the climate unless everyone else takes responsibility too.” Workplace satisfaction committees can take a proactive approach to solving brewing problems. Sunshine committees can plan social events and acknowledge milestones such as birthdays. Staff can create a contract that explicitly states school values. Sheridan’s staff contract addresses respect, speaking truth with kindness, valuing strengths and vulnerabilities, and celebrating growth. Along those lines, make it clear that meanness and bullying won’t be tolerated.
  • Offer self-directed, meaningful professional development. Give staff leeway to choose at least some of their continuing education opportunities, and then encourage them to share what they learn with colleagues. Help experienced staff members continue to grow and develop by working with new teachers or formally mentoring graduate students at local universities.
  • Start from a place of trust. Treat staff like professionals, not clock punchers. Maintain an understanding that teachers will need to go to appointments or attend their own children’s plays or conferences. Offer flexibility when it comes to leave time. Sheridan very intentionally has no time cards. “What I appreciate most about my work environment,” says Melanie Auerbach, Sheridan’s director of student support, “is that I know that everyone holds the same belief that family comes first, and as a community we work together to support each other when times are good and in times of need.”
  • Provide opportunities for creativity and autonomy. Have staff write their own curriculum or augment existing lesson plans if possible. Provide regular opportunities to discuss professional goals. Give staff a chance to request a move to a different grade or express other concerns before they have to sign their contracts.
  • Honor and teach about diversity and differences. Don’t assume this will happen on its own—it takes work. Sheridan holds SEED (seeking educational equity and diversity) groups for teachers to foster a more accepting environment, encourage self-discovery and improve interpersonal understanding. This is done in-house by trained teacher-facilitators. All new staff members also receive social justice training, which explores implicit bias and helps teachers be intentional both in and out of the classroom.
  • Give transparent and regular evaluations. It’s motivating when teachers set their own goals and clearly articulate the path they’d like to follow. Sheridan does this using a process called “Lines of Inquiry.” Supervisors can monitor progress with regularly scheduled meetings. They also can provide formal observations at regular intervals. The majority of these visits should be announced, and teachers should know what their supervisors are evaluating.
  • Offer teachers personal and classroom support. This can be done through mentoring or referral for confidential counseling. When teachers don’t meet performance expectations, collaborate on an improvement plan and make sure they know the school wants them to do well. People go through hard times and are not always at their peak. “We’re all in it to support the children,” Auerbach says. “Identifying resources in the building, whether it’s the learning specialist or the counselor, allows teachers to collaborate when they’re feeling stuck or frustrated.”

As for Maggie, her humiliation ended up being the tipping point for her school. A few days after the auction, she told her principal that his comment had hurt and embarrassed her. He immediately apologized and said he would never repeat the mistake. At a staff meeting, he took full responsibility and made it clear that he appreciated the feedback. “Strangely, that one terrible comment ended up opening the lines of communication and improving our school climate,” Maggie says. “It forced us to talk about things more often, and we all ended up feeling better about work.”