4 Strategies to Stay Motivated in Times of Change

This new year, resolve to implement strategies to boost motivation and promote your school in a positive light during difficult times.

School leaders typically go into a new year with excitement and hopes of finishing the year strong with staff, especially after seeing students come back from the holiday break. But these past two years have been vastly different as principals have taken on new roles of nurse, contact tracer, classroom teacher, technology expert, custodian, and bus driver while still leading a building. All the while, school leaders have to maintain a positive outlook and create a safe environment where teachers want to teach and students want to learn.

How can principals create a positive atmosphere and stay motivated when being faced with the exhausting unknown? This new year, resolve to implement these four strategies as you continue to lead your schools in times of change.

1. Take Care of Yourself

Building leaders preach taking care of themselves to their staff, but it tends to be one of the last things they do for themselves. In the Maine Principals’ Association’s Mentoring Program, one of the things the mentors focus on is the mental, physical, and emotional health of their protégé. Asking them, “What have you done for you this week?” or “What are your plans for you this weekend?”

What does taking care of yourself look like? That’s up to you. It might be taking 30-45 minutes a day to work out or making a point to drink half of your body weight in ounces of water every day. It might be shutting off your computer at 5 p.m. and not taking it home. Maybe it is meditation or a trip to Dunkin Donuts for your favorite hot caramel latte. Whatever “it” is that you need for you, do it.

How can you get started? Write down five things that make your life better, easier, or more enjoyable. Then pick one do every day for a week. Make a promise to yourself and do not break that promise.

2. Control Only What You Can

Principals often feel the need to—and society expects them to—have full control over their school. They’re in charge of everything from discipline issues and attendance protocols to full master and duty schedules, staff evaluations, finding subs, and conducting state assessments to make sure each student has the opportunity to thrive. Add in a global pandemic, angry parents, uncomfortable school board meetings, changing state and federal mandates, and control is easy to lose.

Remember, some things are not on you to solve. So what can you do when faced with something you cannot control? Gather your staff for a “Think Tank” session; bring up a challenge and consider every possible option to solve it. As a group, decide the best possible solution. Trust your staff and show them you don’t have all the answers (because you don’t and that’s OK). Plus, if they’re at the table making decisions with you, they are more likely to buy in to changes.

3. Celebrate Successes

It’s easy to get stuck in the negative, especially these days, when being overwhelmed has become status quo and leaders feel as though they’ve done nothing but tread water for months. But rather than focusing on the negative, school leaders should try to look at the “one more thing” on the to-do list as a challenge—one that they will overcome.

Look for the good in the situation and consider the positive outcome of meeting that challenge. Then celebrate it—no matter how big or small. Share these successes with everyone who’ll listen: staff, the community, and the school board. Now more than ever, school communities—often too focused on negative—need the positives as well.

What’s this look like in action? Walk around your school and take notes of the great things you see. Share this on the school website, on social media, and with staff in a daily affirmation email. Share with your local businesses and see if they would be willing to host a “Virtual Coffee Break.” (What’s that? They give a gift card to a local business that sells coffee and you host a voluntary staff meeting where you all drink your coffee and share fun stories about what is going well in their classroom or in their lives.)

4. Virtual Gratitude or Shout-Out Walls

A continuation of celebrating successes is creating a virtual gratitude wall. A little public recognition goes a long way in building morale and motivation among teachers and students. Principals often share good things in staff meetings, but living in the world of remote learning, this sometimes gets overlooked. Virtual gratitude or shout-out walls help school leaders to easily—and publicly—announce to staff and the community the great things happening in the school. Update the walls as often as possible to show a lot of great things are happening at school—both in the building and virtually.

To get started, turn the bulletin board closest to the front door of the school into a gratitude wall. Place sticky notes and a pen on a table beside the board. Model the expectation for others by writing at least one thing that you saw that was positive or that you are grateful for and put it on the board. Invite everyone—faculty and staff, students, and families—to write things they have witnessed or for which they are grateful. Take a picture of this wall every day and put it on your website and social media.

Show the world the great things going on in your school. By doing this you will be able to focus on the good in your professional world, helping you and your school community stay motivated in difficult times.

Holly Blair is executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association.