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Uncategorized   |   Jan 24, 2009

How principals can motivate teachers

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

How principals can motivate teachers

By Angela Watson


I regularly receive emails asking for help with various teacher problems, particularly those related to my favorite topic, classroom management. This one comes from a principal, who gave me permission to share his question so that my fabulous readers can offer some advice:

I am the principal of a small rural school. I was an aide for 7 years. I taught for 5. I was an assistant principal for 1. Now I landed “the big job.” How do I motivate my staff? I have always been a “bootstrap” and “hours” kind of guy. Lace ’em up and work as long as it takes! But not everyone I work with shares my values. I feel like some are going about 50%. What aspects of administration motivate you to “go above and beyond”?

Any good suggestions?

I deeply admire any new administrator who cares enough about his staff to pose this question, and I think this guy deserves some sincere responses.

I happen to have worked for The World’s Worst Principal (oh, the stories I could tell if I never wanted to work again) as well as a bunch of eh-schmehs that are basically forgettable. They pretty much did the opposite of everything I’m about to mention, or they flip-flopped back and forth in a schizophrenic way that made me afraid to breathe wrong. At the moment, I have an absolutely amazing principal, so I can share some tips that actually do create a positive school climate and keep teacher morale generally high. (Yes, it’s possible. I never thought so, either.)

  • Smile frequently and genuinely.
  • Ask how your staff is doing, and listen to the answers you get.
  • Share information about your personal life, but don’t overshare.
  • Hold meetings only when absolutely necessary.
  • Create an atmosphere of trust through small gestures, and never make it seem like you’re trying to catch your staff doing something wrong.
  • Compliment your teachers in writing after a classroom walk-through and in public as often as possible.
  • ALWAYS have your teacher’s back when a parent makes a complaint. Reprimand the teacher privately if needed, but create a united front to outsiders.
  • Take on some of the district’s demands yourself, rather than hoisting them all on teachers.
  • Don’t create additional paperwork.
  • Make “a trip to the principal’s office” something to fear for unruly children, and non-threatening for teachers (not the other way around).

The majority of you really dislike your principals and assistant principals. (I know, I read your blogs and comments.) So here’s your chance to sound off: What do you wish administrators knew about motivating teachers? How could a principal entice–or better yet–inspire you to go the extra mile? What does your administration do (or fail to do) in order to create buy-in and give staff ownership over the school?

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Angela, I think you’re right. Most of us are really frustrated with administration right now. There is one school we know where everyone loves the principal and the teachers love teaching. When I asked what his secret was here are some of the things they said: a)he doesn’t require them to read any materials he doesn’t read himself first. b)he trusts them to teach and clears away obstacles so that they can teach. c)he doesn’t automatically assume it’s the teachers’ fault when the parents complain. d)he tries to minimize the impact of all our county’s silly requirements on the teachers. e) he understands that teachers have a life outside of school.

  2. I feel very uneasy in our district because I have worked in three different buildings and all three are different. However, our principal and assistant principal go the extra mile make us feel special. They feed us….yes they LOVE to feed us! They serve breakfast about twice a year and now a block party once a year, so it is so much fun! They also give out treats through the year….nothing huge, but maybe a piece of candy or something small. Those are the things that make us feel like we are doing a great job and we are needed in our building!

    One big no no that is not needed and shocked our staff was when our principal went off the deep end and took something overly personal…Went completely from professional to unprofessional….Always think what the staff would think first before actually doing it!

    Best of luck to the new admin. SMILE! They never know what your thinking!

  3. I wish admin. wasn’t so reactionary. When the state makes a change, our admin. freaks out and lays a whole load of extra on us. Teachers bear the brunt of it all. So, I would say, take it easy on us teachers, especially the ones you see are working really, really hard at making good things happen. The teachers who barely give 50%, well they need to be spoken to, called to task, asked if they think they’re in the right place.

  4. I think one of the biggest things when it comes to administration (or any “boss” for that matter) is to make yourself available and make yourself seen. Even though you’re busy, stressed, yadda, yadda, yadda… nothing is more frustrating than having an admin who always seems too busy or is impossible to get a hold of/ have a conversation with. It may seem simple, but it also seems that a lot of principals, admin, bosses, etc. have forgotten how important it is to make themselves available to their teachers/ employees.

  5. Those really are great suggestions, but I have to say I was smitten with the look on the orange cat’s face. It’s like Stuart Smalley is hugging him and he’s attempting to tolerate it.


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