What to do when the school year is off to a rocky start

Whether you’re a new or veteran leader in your building, one of the most disheartening things to happen is that your school loses momentum (or fails to gain it) in the first few weeks of school. You may look around your hallways or office one afternoon and feel defeated, overwhelmed, or unsure of how to fix a couple of major struggles facing your school community.

As former school administrators, here’s what we tell colleagues and clients about steps to take when the school year isn’t off to the best start:

Develop and maintain relationships

More than likely, a low-performing culture will start to become toxic and weigh on many people. One of the best solutions to remedy this battle is constantly focus on developing and maintaining your relationships with your administrative team, teachers and staff.

  • Don’t get caught up in the negative, but be transparent and direct with your colleagues.
  • Celebrate the small wins by creating a bulletin board in the teacher workroom or right off the main office where you and your staff can shout each other out for the great ideas, actions, or attitudes that people notice.
  • Hold mini celebrations such as jeans day, or coverage of their duties.
  • Create office hours after school inviting teachers to come to you.
  • Host staff gratitude circles.
  • Spend time getting buy in from staff and reinvesting them in smaller goals with clear strategies that help meet the rally cry.

Continue to maintain high expectations

Don’t allow a rough start of a school year to subconsciously convince you of mindsets like “this is just how things are around this place.”

  • Continue to maintain a high bar inside of your building with relationships and instructional strategies, as well as a high bar of professionalism from your leadership team and colleagues.
  • Consider meeting with the other staff in your building that also help set the tone for the school community, such as lunchroom staff, school safety officers, and bus drivers. Show them appreciation and share your common vision and what you’re expecting from them.

One way to keep high expectations at the forefront is to actually talk about how things are going currently.

  • Don’t pretend the elephant isn’t in the room! Use a staff meeting to discuss what might be weighing folks down and gauge the mindsets of your staff.
  • If morale is low and mindsets are disempowered, allocate time to review solutions to problems, to look to research and resources for next steps.
  • Sometimes just talking about concerns, with a productive and organized, pre-planned protocol, is a way for everyone to feel like they aren’t alone, and that everyone is committed to excellence together.

Model giving and receiving feedback

This is one of the biggest pieces of advice that we give to our principals. It can be easy in toxic cultures to become isolated, and people drift away from a culture of giving and receiving feedback. As you navigate through conversations, constantly seek feedback and also offer opportunities for growth and coaching using coaching language.

One way to give feedback is through a technique called “AIC” which stands for “Affirm, Impact and Challenge/Continue.”

When giving feedback, relate it to a strength a person has and affirm it.

“You have a strong teacher voice that resonates in the classroom.”

Then tell them the impact that affirmation has on their work.

“Your voice allows students to listen to you and know when you mean business.”

Close it by challenging them to use their strength to improve in a certain area…

“I challenge you to find the right times to use that voice because in certain circumstances, it comes across as yelling at students.”

You may decide that there isn’t any “challenge” per se, and you think they just need to “continue” with what they are doing.

In that case you may say:

“You are never afraid to speak up at staff meetings and share your concerns. (Affirmation). It gives me confidence that I can do that too, which is hard for me (Impact). Please continue to do that so I can use your approach as a positive, effective model. (Continue).”

When leaders give teachers a chance to give them AIC feedback in public, a culture of feedback starts to form! We’ve seen huge improvements in staff efficacy when this type of feedback is consistently practiced during staff meetings, creating a safe space for everyone to contribute.

Use and share data

  • Encourage teachers to post student work on their doors and outside of their classrooms.
  • Create a bulletin board showing the school (or grade-level) progress towards achievement goals, including things like attendance, books read, homework completed, etc.
  • Share exciting data points and progress with parents through school or class-wide newsletters.
  • We encourage school leaders that we work with to establish walkthroughs once or twice a day of the building. These should have clear ‘look fors’ that staff are bought in to with a clear way to follow up with them.
  • Consider providing AIC feedback to the teacher on a post-it before leaving the room.
  • Share baseline or walkthrough data that your team has collected in all staff-facing interactions, such as starting every staff meeting with data and celebrating progress towards goals.
  • Continue to remain visible to the entire school community by setting up ‘office’ in the hallway or common spaces.

If the year is getting off to a rough start, use these strategies to avoid losing hope or confidence in yourself or your team. Consider if what you’re doing models a growth mindset for your school community and take steps each day to get your school year back!


Click the titles below for related reading or contact us to learn what we can do for you: