How to give credit when credit is due

Q: I’m the principal of a middle school and am struggling to figure out ways to honor teachers who are doing good work. In the past, I have called attention to their accomplishments at staff meetings. Recently, when I privately complimented a teacher for going above and beyond, she nervously asked me not to mention it publicly. She explained that other teachers would gripe about the recognition behind her back. I respect her feelings, but it’s important to me to give credit where credit is due. Is there a way to do this without backlash?

A: Yes, but not without laying the groundwork. This is a deceptively simple question. It’s easy to emphasize one form of approval while neglecting other types of recognition. If a public mention is your only avenue of praise, it may have taken on too much significance and created ill will.

It’s also possible that morale is low at your school. I spoke to Katy, a teacher in Maryland who says her colleagues complain whenever the principal publicly compliments anyone. The problem isn’t the acknowledgement at meetings, she explains, it’s the lack of feedback the rest of the time. No one knows where they stand, so these well-intentioned gestures make them feel anxious, competitive, and unappreciated.

The solution isn’t to reward everyone equally, or to give up public praise altogether. If you add additional tools to your arsenal, you may find that you not only defuse tension at meetings, you also improve the overall school climate. Here are some possible steps to consider:

  • Pop into classrooms and point out effective or creative practices in real time. If that isn’t feasible, leave notes in teachers’ mailboxes.
  • Be transparent about the types of actions you value, and tie those practices into cooperative behaviors. Perhaps you appreciate that an experienced staff member has been mentoring new teachers, or admire how someone has implemented programming that will benefit students across grade levels.
  • Understand and recognize the contributions of staff who work outside the classroom. Maybe a counselor is able to coax a school-phobic student into the building, or the attendance secretary creates a welcoming front office environment.
  • If parents email notes of praise, forward them to teachers. Never pass up an opportunity to share positive feedback. Similarly, always respond to teachers’ emails, even if you keep it very brief.
  • Put up a gratitude wall in the lounge with dry erase markers so staff can thank one another. Make sure you write notes too. Voluntary acts of appreciation encourage a spirit of generosity.
  • Be visible, genuine, and warm. Engage with colleagues, asking them about their interests beyond work. I worked for one principal who sent everyone a card on their birthday, a small act that made staff feel seen and valued.
  • Establish peer learning groups in which teachers can share good practices, visit one another’s classrooms, cheer each other on, and give feedback on new techniques.
  • When possible, praise teams for working well together. Don’t just single out individuals.
  • Remember the quiet teachers. They may not call attention to themselves, but they often are the first ones to take over someone’s recess or lunch duty.
  • Check in on novice teachers, and give them constructive feedback. They may be the most stressed, yet feel uncomfortable about approaching you for support. Point out their progress. As principal, you are mentor-in-chief.
  • Learn alongside your teachers to encourage a growth mindset and the idea that feedback does not need to be positive to be instructive. Acknowledge when your own efforts fall short.
  • Plan team-building events, and establish traditions that encourage positive interactions among staff. Maybe everyone sings something silly for the students on opening day or wears funny costumes during testing periods.
  • Keep your optimism and sense of humor, especially when others are feeling low about their mistakes. If you are forgiving and even-keeled, your staff will follow suit.

As former administrator Todd Whitaker said, “When a principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold. Our impact is significant; our focus becomes the school’s focus.” The bad news is that these suggestions require time and energy, but the good news is that you can be the agent of change. When you establish a culture of trust, teachers not only will embrace public praise, they also will be more likely to collaborate, innovate, and take risks.

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog.

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