Leverage Staff Strengths to Boost Job Satisfaction

Topics: Assistant Principals, School Culture and Climate

“Effective educational leaders develop the professional capacity and practice of school personnel to promote each student’s academic success and well-being,” states Standard 6 of the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders.

Not only is this best practice, but it also has become critically important in a time when teachers are leaving the field in increasing numbers. Authors Brandon Rigoni and Jim Asplund reported in the Harvard Business Review that employees who are using their strengths daily have a better quality of life and are “six times more likely to be engaged at work.”

Many new teachers are part of the “Gen Z” generation, and they have their own unique challenges. Gen Zers are very comfortable with technology, but their continual engagement with technology has led to a host of issues such as depression, anxiety, and social challenges such as working in groups, according to Shaun Pichler and Neil Granitz, who have developed a framework to leverage Gen Z’s unique skills.

It is evident that developing the professional capacity of teachers is important work. So what does leveraging educator strengths look like? How can administrators identify and encourage teachers to use their unique strengths? Here are five strategies that have worked for me as an assistant principal (AP).

1. Build Relationships First

My first task as a showroom-new AP was to inventory and distribute seven pallets of new reading curriculum to all teachers. As I unloaded cartloads of boxes in each teacher’s room, the informal conversations we had were priceless. I learned about their interests, what they were excited about for the new school year, and their favorite parts about teaching.

I didn’t realize at the time how meaningful those conversations would prove to be. You have to know your teachers to know their strengths. Connections are important in developing professional relationships and trust, for all parties involved.

2. Ask the Right Questions

Once I knew my people and they became comfortable with me, I initiated conversations with teachers about their perceived strengths. This strategy must come after the relationship-building, as teachers won’t be open and vulnerable with administrators they don’t feel a connection with.

Teachers often had ideas about what their strengths were, but I also had ideas based on my formal and information observations of them. Sometimes, those ideas aligned; other times those ideas were completely different, which led to interesting, productive conversations.

Administrators could also ask teachers via surveys to determine interest in particular committees or other leadership opportunities to determine who might be willing to take on a new role. Simply asking teachers for their thoughts demonstrates interest and investment in teachers as people—personally and professionally.

3. Find the Best Fit for Teacher Leadership Roles

In our school, we select teachers who will serve as team leaders. This is typically a two-year position—a strategic decision that we believe provides stability for the team. To support the team leaders, we hold regular team leader meetings with them to answer questions, give guidance, and help troubleshoot any issues they’ve encountered.

The team leaders also lead the weekly professional learning community (PLC) meetings for their respective grade levels, where the primary focus is on student growth and learning. We use Learning by Doing as our model for our PLC work, which focuses on building high-performing educators by establishing effective teaching methods, curriculum development, and assessment strategies that align with our school’s unique needs.

For other committees—academic, safety, and fun committees, for example—teachers can volunteer. This allows choice and gives them a chance to begin using their strengths in a low-risk environment. Some teachers especially enjoy working with data, others like to organize schoolwide events, and others gravitate toward being a mentor for other teachers. Finding the best fit for teachers means teachers will enjoy the task, and they will feel seen and empowered by their administrators.

4. Get Creative Using Teachers’ Strengths

Both of our academic coaches were teachers in our building prior to their transition to coach. Identifying their strengths led to their current roles. We meet with them regularly to ensure they are supported, whether that means finding additional resources for them or listening to them vent their frustrations.

Teachers also can serve as mentors to new teachers. Mentors go through training and are provided monthly topics of discussion for use with their mentees. Here are other ways we use educator strengths.

  • Peer-to-peer observations.
  • Check In/Check Out, which is a formal program we use to provide extra social-emotional support to individual students.
  • Mentoring students, which is less formal than the Check In/Check Out program. An example of this is when our art teacher recognized artistic talent in one of her third-grade students. She arranged for the student to spend extra time in the art room one day each week, where the student was the teacher’s assistant for younger students. She served as a mentor to this budding artist, and it was amazing to watch the young student blossom.
  • Extended contracts. For example, our media specialist hosts a Chess Club three days a week in the library. One day is for beginners, where she teaches chess strategies, and the other two days are for “experts.” Teachers are free to bring ideas for extracurricular activities, and we fund as many as we can.

5. Address Concerns and Pitfalls

Identifying and leveraging educator strengths can come with potential pitfalls. Often, the same teachers volunteer for all the extra roles. If administrators are not monitoring who is doing what, this can lead to teacher burnout which negatively impacts both students and the teacher.

Another concern is the perception that administrators have favorite teachers that are selected for leadership roles. Obviously, an effective administrator would possess the skills necessary to recognize that this perception would have a negative ripple among the staff and be able to successfully steer teachers in another direction that best suits their strengths.

Leveraging educator strengths does not happen without thought and intentional action by the administrator. In an era where teachers often feel unappreciated by the public and where there are fewer new teachers entering the field, it is more important than ever that administrators work to build connections with teachers, identify their individual strengths, and then find ways to use those strengths. This will lead to job satisfaction for teachers, and, as a result, to a positive culture where staff and students thrive. This investment in our future pays huge dividends for all stakeholders.

Janetta Davenport is assistant principal at Liberty Elementary School in Franklin, Tennessee.