Welcoming staff back after the summer break is always an important part of the process of renewing relationships and positioning the organization for success in the new year. This year, the process is even more important. Not only is this the start of a new school term, it represents the first time many staff members may have been physically present in school since face-to-face instruction was interrupted in the spring.
Many staff members will likely be returning with “unfinished business” from the spring. For some, the spring was a bewildering, stress-filled experience that undermined their confidence and left them feeling as though no matter how hard they tried, they were unable to find their professional stride. They found themselves unable to reach students in the ways to which they were accustomed. For others, the spring was a time of loneliness and separation that left them longing for connections and mutual support. Still others may have learned new skills and discovered new tools to support learning. Now they want to find ways to integrate what they have learned within the teaching and learning context they will experience as school opens. With this reality in mind, we can employ a three-step process for welcoming staff regardless of the experience they may have had during the final months of the spring term.
First, staff members need to hear that we understand the experience, challenges, and difficulties they faced. They need to know that we appreciate their flexibility, conscientiousness, and commitment despite the circumstances. Further, they want to be reassured of our confidence in their ability to meet the challenges that lie ahead. Of course, they need to hear these sentiments in our words, but they also need to feel it in the tone of our messages. Their assurance of our empathy, confidence in them, and commitment to support their success can have a powerful influence on how they will begin the year.
Second, staff members need to see and feel these messages in our actions. We can start by adopting the phrase “tell me” as we engage with employees. As examples:
- Tell me what you need.
- Tell me how I can help.
- Tell me how you are feeling.
- Tell me what questions you have.
Our willingness to ask and our commitment to listen will make a significant difference to our staff regardless of their experience in the spring. Staff who struggled will be reassured that we are committed to their success even though they may have fallen short of their own expectations. Staff who suffered from separation will be reassured that we understand their need and want to reconnect with them. Staff who learned, grew, and succeeded in the spring will be reassured that we notice and want to support them as they apply their new skills and insights.
Third, we need to follow up and follow through with what we hear. Inviting people to share their thinking and needs is the first step. The credibility of our concern and commitment resides in what people see us do as a result. Following up and following through does not necessarily mean we deliver on everything or that everyone will get what they want. Rather, it means that we take their concerns and wishes seriously and do what we can to improve their experience. When we are able to make an adjustment or grant a request, we reinforce our leadership commitment. Yet, even when we cannot satisfy every need or request, our commitment to loop back with an update or explanation of our efforts and the situation can make a lasting, positive difference.