Much of the work that I do is with various levels of leadership within a school system, focusing mainly on how to train, maintain and sustain the literacy work so that its effects are seen in student achievement results. Oftentimes I encourage leaders to have a more aggressive goal than they currently do, but sometimes I run into a leader who is so aggressive that the staff feels bruised and battered.

I was recently working with a school district where the staff felt like nothing that they did was enough…and they’re actually doing quite a good job! They are left feeling that, despite doing what they have been asked to, that they never get “a break” and that they are constantly under such scrutiny that they are not able to celebrate their successes for even a moment. Now, there are times I work with staff members where they say, “I just need a break!” and this translates to “I don’t want to work this hard!”, but this is not the case for this staff – they work hard, they need a moment to catch their breath in order to power on.

The experience with the staff brought me to think about, as leaders, how do we know when to push and how do we know when to lay back a second to allow for staff to breathe. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Use the trusted advisors around you as a temperature gauge: are they saying “Yep, everyone’s exhausted?” or “No, they’re okay, just keep on pushing.”
  2. Make sure that the staff understands what it looks like when they are “done” in this area – much fatigue and frustration can come from staff thinking that they’re doing the right thing when your right thing is different from their right thing
  3. Provide check-ins along the way – when they are 1/2 way to the finish line with a task or goal, tell them! Say something such as, “I recognize that you have worked greatly on increasing the level of questioning in your classrooms, but I’m looking for us to do xzy in the next couple of weeks to take us further toward our goal.” This helps staff understand that they are on the right track and on their way to accomplishing the goal you have set before them.

Ultimately, staff will follow a trusted leader – one who knows where they’ve been, where they are and where they’re headed. We owe it to our people to read the signs that they’re giving us when they are fatigued and hold off on that “one more thing…” when they’re exhausted so that you can present it at a time when they have the energy and focus to get it done. Our work in education is not measured just on the “did we do it or get it done?” question, but on “How well did we do it?”. It takes energy, focus, knowledge and stick-to-it-iveness to do a job well. So when you dream up an idea that must be done right away ask yourself this simple question: “Does my staff have the momentum and energy to tackle this task head-on right now or would waiting a week gain me more ground in the long run?”