Summer is an important time in the life of a school. There is an easy punch line here around how it’s important because teachers aren’t working, though that misses the mark in two distinct and crucial ways. The first is, most teachers I know do work in the summer. It looks different, for sure, but they’re preparing curriculum, readying materials, and recharging their batteries (which they have almost no opportunity to do with any kind of length during the school year). That doesn’t include the great many teachers who work summer jobs to supplement an income that’s usually minimal. But teachers absolutely work during their summer months; it’s just that they’ve been given the autonomy to make many more choices about how, when, and where their work gets done.
The second piece that’s essential to understand about school life in the summer is that administrators are working most every day (they’re usually on a 12-month contract rather than a more standard 10-month contract for a teacher). There is a ton of planning that happens during the months of July and August, and while some of it is kid-focused, much of it is more geared toward the adults in the building. Adult culture can be hard to get right, which is what makes this time critical. A school’s focus on the students in the building is, of course, sensible, but if the adult culture isn’t working, kids aren’t going to reap the same benefits.
So, what aspect of adult culture can administrators focus on during these summer months to help the students they’ll serve in the fall? Caring. It’s both simple and complex, both imprecise and nuanced. We know that students need to feel a sense of belonging and feel cared for in schools, but we don’t often give enough attention to the fact that teachers and staff need this, too. In their article “Caring Leadership in Schools: Findings from Exploratory Analyses,” (2016) Karen Seashore Louis, Joseph Murphy, and Mark Smylie write that caring is critical because of two primary reasons: (1) it tends to both short-term and long-term needs of all people, and (2), it's visible (or not) in every single interaction we’re in. We show whether we care constantly, which means we choose whether to build up or thwart our relationships.
Different schools have different ways of showing the school staff they care, including having teachers pick out a couple of fancy pens they may like to have courtesy of the school, providing some amount of free meals over the course of the year, hiring a masseuse to come in on conference days for brief periods of stress relief, and raffling off gift cards to spots staff might enjoy throughout the year. All of these are good ways to remind the adults that they’re seen and give them a brief reprieve from an otherwise stressful job. As a teacher, I have appreciated several of these moves when I’ve been on the receiving end of these gifts, but there were other measures of caring that I appreciated much more. Here are a few:
Genuinely asking how I was doing, especially when I was having a more difficult time: I say “genuinely” because we often superficially ask how others are, and we allow ourselves to be satisfied with an answer of “Fine.” But when someone asks and then has a follow-up question or better yet, asks one of the questions found here, it allows for a more substantial check-in.
Personalizing when you can: We know that everyone receives affection differently and wants to be shown they’re cared for in different ways (it’s why discussions around love languages can be important in any relationship). Some people really need a hug when they’re down, or they need to be able to vent, or they need a cup of coffee, or they need someone else to make their copies for them. All those responses are good ones, and knowing which to use with which staff member goes a long way in making sure everyone knows they’re valued.
Creating space for an unheard voice: Especially with newer teachers, it can be difficult to figure out how to break into larger staff conversations or raise a new idea. By ensuring that folks who might be quieter in bigger crowds have a chance to share their thinking, you’ll show that you care about every voice and not just the loudest ones.
Listening for an unexpected opportunity: I vividly remember talking with a former principal and letting him know that several of us teachers were going away together for a couple of nights just as summer was starting. His response? Sending an email a few minutes later that I should check my mailbox before I leave for the day. In there, he’d left a handwritten note and some cash, saying the first round was on him (he also clarified that he used his own funds even though the note was on school letterhead). Still now, about nine years later, I think about how much this act meant to me and my colleagues as a tangible way that he showed he cared about us being able to relax and unwind.
The same article tells us, “unless teachers are cared for and supported, they may be unable to provide classroom environments that will contribute to broader goals of youth development (Brissie, Hoover-Dempsey, & Bassler, 1988)” (318). The widest aim of schooling is to help young people develop in myriad ways, and administrators need to ensure the adults have what they need to help their students succeed. With whatever final weeks of summer you have, I implore each administrator reading this to make a concrete plan to identify two to three ways to show how you care for your staff and then figure out the logistics to put those things in place.
Want some help? Leave us a comment, and we’re happy to help brainstorm and talk through a plan!