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An elementary principal explains how he creates a sense of purpose throughout his school without causing unnecessary anxiety and fear

3 ways to highlight productive urgency while avoiding teacher burnout


An elementary principal explains how he creates a sense of purpose throughout his school without causing unnecessary anxiety and fear

When I came to Union Hill School about seven years ago, we were not performing at the level we wanted to in terms of state assessments. With some hard work and a sense of urgency, we made a lot of progress in those first few years, but then the pandemic struck.

I told my teachers at the beginning, “We’re back at square one,” and today we can still feel the lost ground due to the last couple years. With a renewed sense of urgency, however, we’ve managed to keep our students on track and growing amid the disruptions and setbacks.

Here’s how we create a sense of productive urgency without burning our teachers out.

1. Jump in with your teachers.

During the pandemic, just like other educators around the country, our teachers were struggling to deliver high-quality instruction. A lot of our educators were not great on computers, including me. I had to become very involved to show teachers and students I was learning right along with them. It was a new mode of delivery that we suddenly had to adopt with no training and without adequate technology, so those struggles were no fault of their own, but they were a challenge for the whole community.

Throughout the early period of shutdowns, my administrative team and I were helping parents make sure they had what their children needed to learn and were able to get online. In some cases, we were also making sure their children had enough to eat. I even taught a few classes, but because I was making myself available to everyone, even just students who needed to talk, it was difficult, because there were always people going in and out of the room.

When we were able to return to in-person schooling, my instructional coaches, assistant principal, and I spent time visiting classrooms. The point was not to target teachers or to be in any way punitive, but to see how students were doing with regard to social-emotional learning (SEL), math, and literacy. When I told my teachers that the hard work was just getting started, they knew I was going to be right there with them, ready to jump in and offer support in any way I could.

2. When everything is in crisis, focus on progress.

When we finally had kids in front of us again, everything felt like it needed urgent attention. We were particularly worried about SEL, because the students had been largely cut off from other people–not just in school, but in their lives.

To address this, we really focused on building relationships with students in those first weeks. That’s always important because every student learns best within the context of a safe, supportive relationship. The SEL efforts involved everyone at the school. While the teacher had 20 kids in front of them in every class, my whole team, from myself and my assistant principal to instructional coaches and the folks in charge of wraparound services, worked to support individual students as well as the teachers, who were in turn building those connections with kids.

Math was also a particular area of focus for us. We had a couple of big wins on that front heading into the pandemic, but we still weren’t quite where we were trying to get, so we were worried about the progress lost there as well. To communicate our urgency around math through consistent practice, we asked all our teachers to start their math classes with 20 minutes of ST Math time.

English and language arts are always a focus as well, just because literacy is so fundamental to a student’s broader learning. Our ELA teachers have a read-aloud every morning not just to communicate our sense of urgency with regard to literacy, but to help reinforce those relationships and the community we’re building with shared experiences and daily routines.

We set targets to reach for literacy and math at every grade level, and we worked hard to meet them. We didn’t always get everything we wanted, but by shooting for excellence, we got a lot closer to it than if we never tried. Right now, growth is what’s most important, not whether we can reach some data point.

3. Focus on professional learning and support.

I think we did a good job of inspiring a general sense of urgency without causing a lot of unnecessary anxiety, but we still had to focus some of that urgency on specific areas. It’s just not possible to feel urgent about 30 different things and give them all their due energy.

For us, the area we thought would offer the greatest return on our investment was delivery of instruction. We emphasized our professional learning communities, which comprise teachers across each grade and an instructional coach. Our administrative team continued twice-weekly classroom visits to identify effective practices to share, or to provide support for teachers who needed it.

We also have instructional leadership meetings first thing in the morning twice a month. This creates a rich environment of constant communication and collaboration. Any teacher in this school will tell you that if you have a question, five or six educators are going to give you answers or suggestions before you’re done asking.

For our school, everything came together and lined up when we talked about urgency. It just became clear what we had to do. But urgency is not about driving teachers or learners with fear or anxiety. It’s about focusing on what’s important and keeping it centered through community, collaboration, and communication.

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