Empowering Plate Redesign | Steve Barkley

Empowering Plate Redesign

The need to clear things off teachers’ plates is a pretty common refrain showing up in articles, blogs, and podcasts aimed at school leaders. Justin Baeder from the Principal Center writes that we need to have teachers focus on what he labels as “first-order work:” teaching students (including planning, grading—all the “traditional” stuff teachers have done since time immemorial.) He suggests everything else can wait. Especially, second-order work or meta-work that produces secondary artifacts for audiences other than students, such as:

  • Lesson plans turned in to administrators (not “planning,” which is first-order, but actually having to turn in plans)
  • Administering assessments or collecting data (beyond that involved in teaching the curriculum itself)
  • Meetings of any kind
  • Paperwork of any kind

Dr. PJ Caposey who currently serves as the superintendent of schools for the Meridian CUSD 223 in Northwest Illinois, in an article in Edutopia titled How School Leaders Can Build Realistic Optimism This Year shared, “We must actively seek, at both the organizational and individual levels, to clean the less meaningful and frustrating elements of the job off the plate. As leaders—which all of us are, regardless of title—we must be beacons of hope and joy in our organizations. We receive the behaviors we model and tolerate, and if we’re joyless in our job, that negativity will spread. We must set the tone and start moving ourselves forward.”

Caposey adds to “clearing one’s plate” thinking. “As part of cleaning off my plate, I forced myself to make a list of the five things that bring me the most joy in my job. Then I intentionally rerouted my calendar for two weeks to dump as much joy—those five activities—into my day as possible. It worked. What happened by default was that I spent less time on the distractions that were not only a time sink but also an emotional drain. It turns out the very loud minority of people who were making my job very difficult didn’t deserve the attention and cognitive space I was giving them. The people who really mattered—like my team and my family—deserved that space. As I made this decision, my hope and joy returned.”

This really illustrates for me, that school leaders need to be engaging teachers in conversations where they can identify what brings the most joy in teaching. Then encouraging, supporting, and designing for more teachers to focus time in those areas.
Chelsea Prax, the program’s director of children’s health and well-being at the American Federation of Teachers, identified that some districts are using their federal pandemic relief money to hire more staff and offer more programming, thus taking some responsibilities off teachers’ plates. But she’s heard from educators that they’re concerned that in a few years, the money will run out, and teachers will be back to square one. To make teaching sustainable long-term, administrators must empower teachers by giving them a seat at the table and incorporating their input into any new initiatives. “If we’re going to give them more responsibility, give them a lot more freedom and choice.”

Where do teachers find their moments of greatest satisfaction teaching? What can we as leaders do to generate a greater likelihood of those moments occurring?

I think these are the questions instructional coaches and school leaders need to be asking, then listening and probing to understand, and then supporting teachers to generate more such moments. A form of such an exploration with staff is sometimes being called a “stay interview.”

In an article, Why the ‘stay interview’ is the next big trend of the Great Resignation, the stay interview is described as the opposite of an exit interview: “Instead of asking why an employee is quitting, a stay interview focuses on what motivates the employee to stick around, what could be better about their work experience and how they envision the next stage of their career within the organization.” This article shares the following suggestions from HR consultant Ricklyn Woods:

  • The stay interview should be informal and conversational, staff need to feel a sense of psychological safety, knowing their feedback will be fully accepted.
  • Managers need to be vulnerable; you want to learn what staff enjoy about work, but also want to know what could be better—including some areas where you as a manager can improve.
  • It should be a two-way dialogue rather than an interview. “Don’t come in with a ton of questions asking what your employee thinks needs improvement without providing your own perspective. That’ll be off-putting, and people won’t want to share honestly.”

This two-minute video provides five questions that you could modify to fit with your situation.

Dr. Caposey said it well, “As leaders—which all of us are, regardless of title—we must be beacons of hope and joy in our organizations.” Consider how your efforts as 2022 begins will build joy.

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