How to ignite your teachers for the new school year

At the beginning of the school year, teachers are naturally excited. My job as a principal is to channel that excitement into collaboration with their colleagues and to create an atmosphere where every one of us is giving as much as we can to our students. Like many schools, Brookwood Elementary starts the year with a big kick-off lunch or breakfast -- but that’s just the beginning. Here are four ways we inspire teachers during the early days of school and set a positive tone for the year to come.

1) Pick a mindset for the year.

We have a mindset for every year, and everything the school does is tied to it. Next year our mindset is “Live to Give,” so before school even starts, we’re doing a huge kick-off and inviting all our families to the school. We’re going to have food trucks, and we're going to invite all the nonprofits here in Forsyth County, Georgia. Each family will be able to select different nonprofits to visit and learn how they can help.

We’ll also do a backpack drive with our staff. We give groups of teachers a list and some cash, then send them out to shop for a kid in need. We donate the backpacks to CASA, which is an organization that supports kids in the foster care program. It's amazing to see what doing something like that does for our teachers’ morale, because when you serve others, it just automatically connects to your heart.

2) Share a “welcome back” video.

We make a back-to-school video every year, which also reinforces our mindset. I send an email to our teachers saying, “Whoever wants to be in the video, come and join us at this time,” and we'll figure out together what the video will look like. This sort of collaboration builds ownership and excitement for teachers.

We share the video with the whole school community via social media and email, so the kids come to open house talking about how funny the video was and how happy they are to be at school. It’s a great way to connect the whole community to the school year that we're about to start.

3) Play together, then work together.

At our kick-off breakfast this year, we’ll do fun, team-building games. For example, we have teachers get into groups by grade level, and we give each team a bag of puzzle pieces. We ask them to put the puzzle together as quickly as they can, but we don’t give them a reference picture and we mix up the puzzle pieces, so each group only has a third of the pieces they need.

This means that all the groups have to learn how to work together to put their puzzle together. I love this game because it’s also a metaphor for the school year: You have all these puzzle pieces in your classroom. You don’t really have a picture of what it's supposed to look like other than doing what's best for kids and meeting your standards, so you have to rely on everyone else in the building to get the results you want.

I can’t express enough the importance of having teachers play together before they work together. The best team-building happens when teachers are laughing and learning about each other. In that puzzle game, they learn who’s competitive, who wants to go find pieces from other teams, who wants to be the mastermind putting together the picture. The skills that help them win the game also help them create an awesome experience for our kids.

4) Behold the Cart of Awesomeness.

Speaking of “awesome,” a while back I found a grocery cart on the side of the road. We spray-painted it and put pom-poms and lights all over it. We got a sign made that says, “The Cart of Awesomeness.” I fill it with silly stuff, like fuzzy socks and hand soaps. To send the message to the kids that their teachers are important to us, I wheel the Cart of Awesomeness around the classrooms and hand out treats to each teacher. The teachers appreciate the little break in the day, and kids get excited to see us loving on their teachers.

We also have a Cooler of Awesomeness that we fill with Cokes in glass bottles and wheel around on hot days. It’s not so much about the things that you give teachers. It’s more about showing them -- in front of their students -- that you thought enough to put something together, wheel it out and hand it to them.

As we begin each new school year, I tell my teachers that on the first day of school their main job is to get their students in, love on them, feed them and get them home. And that first week is just about creating relationships, setting the routines and procedure, and building a classroom community that supports the work of learning. Sometimes teachers need permission to develop those relationships, and as a leader, I model that by building relationships with my teachers first.

Tracey Smith is the principal at Brookwood Elementary School in Forsyth County, Georgia, where they use the 7 Mindsets portal to help choose their mindset for the year. Follow her on Twitter: @tbsmith01.

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