It doesn’t take long for the culture of a business or school system to change. It can change for the better or for the worse. When teachers and employees feel supported and respected, they’re more willing to go the extra mile and take on additional responsibilities. When they know they are appreciated and that their expertise and opinion is valued, teachers and employees are willing to “stick it out” when times get difficult.

Peter Drucker, considered by many to be the father of business management, is attributed with saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” If administrators have a vision but don’t create a positive work environment, the vision won’t materialize. Administrators come and go, and often teachers and staff have to ride out a difficult tenure in hopes that the next administrator will bring positive changes.

When administrators are dictatorial and border on bullying to bring about change, teachers don’t trust anyone and are fearful to even express their opinions. When teachers’ ideas are criticized and they are belittled, creativity dies. This paves the way for a mass exodus of experienced and dedicated individuals. Sometimes, I believe, that is the desired effect. It can appear that an administration wants to remove those who have the most years of employment in a system. While it may save on salaries, it requires increased funding for training and professional development. It also creates additional stress on principals to support the new recruits. Having a staff that’s young and inexperienced can lead to serious issues and deficits in the program. They may have energy, but not hands-on experience. A good administrator knows that a balance of experienced and new teachers is needed to provide a path of success for students.

Teachers and staff who remain with a school system through difficult financial times should be compensated. When budgets are tight, an administration and school board can look for ways to reward their loyalty. Sometimes it is an additional day off, an additional day of sick or bereavement leave, or the freedom to work from home on some workdays.

Teachers also need to have the assurance that the administration “has their back.” Teachers need to have their principals support them when difficult discipline situations arise. Teachers need to know that school board policy will be enforced fairly and consistently. If a teacher follows the policy, administrators need to stand firmly with them. Children need to know there are consequences for their actions and they must be held accountable. Certainly, each case must be looked at individually, but there are basic policies that must be enforced consistently across the system.

I don’t know how many times I have heard teachers and principals say that a meeting was a waste of time because administrators had already decided the plan of action. It was simply an act of “going through the motions” to appear to gather input. There was no real desire to hear their opinions and it was merely an exercise. When teachers don’t have “buy in,” the program often isn’t successful. Teachers are intelligent professionals and should be treated as such. When highly educated individuals realize they have no say in what actually occurs, they become frustrated and begin the search for a more welcoming environment.

Great leaders don’t try to control, they empower people. Trust is the basis for any successful relationship. Teachers must know that their expertise is valued and that they are respected by their administrators. The teacher shortage is real and great teachers are extremely difficult to find. Those who are in a toxic environment will easily find employment elsewhere.

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Elizabeth Hutchins is a former educator and Culpeper County School Board member.

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