How can school leaders tell if they’re at risk of alienating or losing buy-in from teachers? In “Five Signs Your Staff Has Tuned Out” from the February issue of Education Update, experts suggest looking for these indicators.
They’re not showing up.
The most obvious sign that teachers are disengaged is when they’re regularly calling in sick, says Baruti Kafele, former principal and author of The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence (ASCD, 2015). “Of course, folks are going to get ill from time to time, but when you see patterns of having to cover classes throughout the year, there’s something going on.”
And when teachers do come to work, he adds, they’re putting forth minimal effort. They “don’t want to participate in anything outside of what they do in the classroom,” like attend events or take part in extracurricular activities.
They may also be less likely to volunteer for leadership roles, observes Shane Safir, author of The Listening Leader. It can become increasingly tough to recruit teacher leaders for key positions—grade-level teams, department chairs, and committee work—when no one is willing to “step up to the plate.”
They’re disengaged from students.
An even more concerning sign than attendance is when teachers aren’t meaningfully connecting with students, says Todd Whitaker, author of School Culture Recharged (ASCD, 2017). When you visit classrooms, scan the room to see whether students and teachers seem enthusiastic, he advises. Are teachers trying creative things to drum up interest? Are they going the extra mile to reach students who aren’t engaged? Additionally, “are they still contacting parents,” asks Whitaker, and “being proactive instead of just reactive?”
They’re not speaking up.
Another indicator of staff disengagement, says Safir, is when authentic conversations are taking place among staff at the “watercooler, parking lot, or during happy hour” but few people are speaking up during staff meetings.
Safir refers to Roland Barth’s term “nondiscussables”—subjects that are important to talk about but only
get discussed in private spaces. The more nondiscussables, she asserts, the less healthy the staff culture.
When teachers stop seeking you out or sharing their concerns with you, it could allude to a lack of trust, explains Whitaker. Teamann admits she was almost “oblivious” to the fact that her teachers felt comfortable approaching the assistant principal and counselor but “they weren’t coming to me with concerns or issues.”
“There was a lot of compliance but not a lot of engagement” in that first year, she adds. “They were still trying to figure me out.”
They’re showing nonverbal cues.
Principals can also watch for more subtle evidence, such as teachers’ facial expressions and body language during staff meetings, says Safir. “Do people appear to be engaged or checked out? Are they doing other work? Are they disgruntled or frustrated?” Observe whether staff exchange glances, whether they are sitting back instead of leaning in, or even their seating arrangements. One sign of disengagement or “self-protection behavior,” Safir notes, is if teachers congregate in small subgroups, exchange a lot of nonverbal cues, and don’t take part in the full community.
They feel defeated.
Finally, school leaders should take an honest assessment of the overall climate: “Is there a negative vibe in the building?” asks Kafele. Are staff members complaining? Are they isolating themselves from one another? The clearest indicator that staff has checked out is that “there’s no spirit,” Kafele avows, “no real pride in being at the [school].”
Do you recognize any of these signs around your school? If your staff engagement seems muted, read the full article for tips to get back on the same frequency.