Dear Cooki: Recognizing Teacher Excellence

Cooki Levy

In my school, as I am sure is the case in many (all?) others, a small number of teachers stand out from the group as a whole. They are not only outstanding in the classroom, but they are committed totally to the well-being of their students and to the mission of the school. They put in more time, energy and effort than the others; they are truly excellent staff members. But rarely do they receive the recognition they deserve. How can they be acknowledged in a tangible way for their excellence without compromising staff cohesion or morale?
I am sure you know how fortunate you are to have such outstanding members of your staff; most likely they are not looking for attention or recognition. But that does not mean they should not receive it, or that they would not appreciate it. But as you correctly state, as head of school you must consider seriously the unintended consequences of singling out individuals. In my community many years ago, the central agency decided to devote a year to “Teachers of Excellence,” asking each school to submit names and biographies of two outstanding staff members for inclusion in an album to be published and distributed. The response from teachers was immediate and completely negative; they were outraged—and the project was dropped. Were the 10% or so of outstanding teachers equally negative, or were they responding to peer pressure? It is hard to know. On the other hand, the Grinspoon Foundation offers a yearly award in many communities for excellence in Jewish education, and, to the best of my knowledge, any initial objections to this attempt to identify excellent teachers have disappeared.
The most tangible reward for excellent performance is financial, and the subject of merit pay (salary commensurate with perceived performance) is often raised. But for most schools, this is not a viable option. Either salaries are determined by a union or government standard, or schools cannot budget increased salaries, or the concept is too unacceptable and fraught with negative consequences. On what basis will the decision regarding salary be made? Will favoritism play a part? What impact will this have on staff morale? On staff teamwork?
Let us, then, consider other possibilities. Outstanding teachers are lifelong learners, always seeking to improve their skills and try new strategies. For them, the opportunity to attend national conferences will be a gift. Plan to send two staff members to the North American Jewish Day School Conference, or to ASCD, or other prestigious meetings. Similarly, recommending them to offer workshops for your staff or your parent body, or at your community’s professional development day will provide an opportunity to acknowledge their excellence and inspire others. Encourage staff members to write for your school’s newsletter or submit articles to the local Jewish newspaper. Yes, these are all additional tasks for these hard-working teachers, but ones they likely will welcome and appreciate.
Offer leadership opportunities. Allow excellent staff members to take charge of major school programs or projects. Be clear with them as to goals, budgetary constraints, and time limits, and then stand aside and let them lead. Not only will they feel empowered, but you will be training your leaders of the future.
Seek out their opinions. We all like to feel that others value what we think. These teachers are your classroom experts; consult with them regarding curricular issues, textbooks and the grouping of students for the next year. Use their expertise, and let them know how valuable their contributions to the school’s decision-making are.
Never underestimate the value to teachers of a sincere and timely letter of thanks for a special activity, or a “beyond the call of duty” outreach, or the sensitive handling of a very difficult situation, or the like. A personal note, rather than an email, tells teachers that you took the time to reach out. They appreciate knowing that you noticed and like having such letters in their file.
As head of school, you must balance the recognition of outstanding service with the imperative to promote teamwork and staff cohesion. You must also be sensitive to your individual staff members. Some genuinely do not like to be singled out in front of the group; try to gauge teachers’ feelings about this. Others are proud to be publically acknowledged, and your task is to know when and how to do this so that the staff shares your pride, rather than resents it. Ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, your message to staff should be that the “excellence club” is not an exclusive one, and that all teachers are urged to become part of it.

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HaYidion Excellence Summer 2015
Summer 2015