What Teachers Really Want From Their Leaders

By Tim Elmore


Last month, I had the privilege again to speak to the “Teachers As Leaders” in Gwinnett County Public School District, just north of Atlanta. What an energizing, curious, and smart community of educational leaders they are! I’m energized every time I’m with them. Thank you, Derrick Berchette, for the invitation. 


To kick off the day, Dr. Chandra Walker asked the teachers several questions. She inquired: “How do you prefer to receive recognition from your administrators?” One by one, the teachers gave various responses, each personal to them. Then, Dr. Walker asked, “Has your principal or department head ever asked you how you like to be affirmed?” The room remained silent. Apparently, this wasn’t a conversation they’ve had yet.


This got me thinking—how do we know how to compliment or affirm our teachers?


Teachers May Surprise You

In recent surveys, teachers were asked to weigh in on how they prefer to be encouraged or recognized. While none of them were begging for attention, they did say that administrators often don’t know how to do it. Free snacks in the teacher’s lounge or general compliments that are scheduled feel cliché and even artificial. They can feel like words administrators are supposed to say—rather than a genuine recognition of a teacher’s work. For educators, specific feedback is more valuable than general praise. Public shoutouts can even be polarizing.


EdWeek Research Center recently surveyed 239 district leaders, 161 school leaders and 553 teachers from across the nation. Among other items, the survey asked educators to select the kind of affirmation or acknowledgment from their supervisor that would be meaningful to them. The results provide some context as administrators try to boost low teacher morale and keep their staff from leaving. Interestingly, verbal feedback that was specific in nature was the highest-ranked type of praise, with 58 percent of all educators (teachers and administrators) saying it was very meaningful. Specific written feedback was a close second. “A past EdWeek Research Center survey found that 54 percent of teachers said more acknowledgment of their good and hard work would go a long way toward supporting their mental well-being,” according to journalist Madeline Will.


So, let me try to make the affirmation educators want very memorable. 


Making Them Feel Special

Below is an acronym that helps me remember how to encourage and acknowledge teachers. Perhaps it can be a reminder for you as well. The acronym spells: SPECIAL. 


To Make Your Teachers Feel SPECIAL Try to Be:


Your words should cite precise or particular contributions your teachers have made. The more exact, the better. Cite details if you can, letting them know what you noticed. 



Your words should feel like you know them as unique individuals. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not, but lean in and mention the personal connection you feel to them. 



Your words should feel inspiring and provide energy to them. Find out if they prefer notes, tangible gifts, quality time or spoken words. Choose the best way to energize them. 



Your words should match their preference, either public affirmation or private. It may surprise you who enjoys public praise and who likes the words spoken to them privately. 



Your words should be timely and expressed quickly after their extra effort. The closer your recognition is to the act you want to affirm, the better. Try to respond within 24-48 hours. 



Your words should tie their effort to future hopes of repeated effort as well. In other words, be clear you’d like them to continue doing what they did to go the “second mile.” 



This is most important—you should find a way to demonstrate you cherish them. People are never too old or too experienced to still need words of care and genuine love for them. 


Don has been a school principal for eleven years. Earlier this spring, he practiced this list above. He walked into a classroom to see one of his teachers, Liz, leading a discussion with her junior class. After it was over, Don raised his hand as if he were a student and got permission to speak. When Liz smiled and called on her boss, he looked at the class and said, “Do you students know how lucky you are to have a teacher like this? I listened to her today and after earning three post-secondary degrees, I learned something that was both fun and helpful.” Then, he paused and turned to Liz. “Thank you, Liz, for the incredible job you do on our campus.” 


Liz tried to hide it, but tears filled her eyes as the bell rang and students filed out of class.


Later, she thanked her principal for the affirmation but explained, “I think I got emotional because I’ve never been recognized like that before.”


Let’s see if we can change that. 

What Teachers Really Want From Their Leaders