Episode 411: Leadership Series: Building Leadership Capacity And Improving Staff Retention
How can we get ahead of teacher burnout and retain staff in our schools? Join us in conversation with Principal Jeff Cher of Eastside High School to learn the secrets of building leadership capacity.
How can we get ahead of teacher burnout and retain staff in our schools? Join us in conversation with Principal Jeff Cher of Eastside High School to learn the secrets of building leadership capacity.
Ashley Mengwasser: Good day educators. Welcome to Classroom Conversations, the platform for Georgia's teachers. This series is presented in partnership by the Georgia Department of Education and Georgia Public Broadcasting. I'm Ashley Mengwasser, and today I am sympathetically feeling the burn of teacher burnout. This is a time during which many teachers are leaving the profession, including those who felt called to teaching. Last year, a University of Georgia Task Force put out a teacher burnout report. Oh. Today we're on the trail of teacher tenure, which is much better. Because let it be known burnout is recoverable. And that's the question of this podcast episode. How do we retain staff by building leadership capacity? Our principal guest can show us how to do this from his perspective entering his 12th year as principal of Eastside High School in Newton County. By definition principal can mean several things. One, first in order of importance. I think he'd agree with that. Second, the person with the highest authority in an organization or the leading representative. Also true. Or third, a sum of money on which interest is paid. This guest pays an interest all right, a different kind of interest. And he's the fearless leader of Eastside High School where he began teaching in the '90s, people with a surname spelled like the legendary goddess of pop, Cher. Please welcome Principal Jeff Cher. Hi Jeff. How are you?
Jeff Cher: I'm doing great. Thank you so much for having me.
Ashley Mengwasser: Thank you for being here. Has anybody ever called you Principal Cher?
Jeff Cher: Every day. They do every day. All sorts of different names and different pronunciations of my last name. But I have one economics teacher that calls me Principal Cher every day. And I say, "You can call me Mr. Cher. It's okay." And he wants to put the principal there for some reason.
Ashley Mengwasser: He wants to make you Cher.
Jeff Cher: He's a great teacher, so I'll let him call me whatever he wants to call me.
Ashley Mengwasser: So you're not offended by this.
Jeff Cher: Absolutely.
Ashley Mengwasser: You had a pretty cool background Principal Cher, tell us about some of your maybe unusual jobs or dreams of your younger years.
Jeff Cher: Well, I grew up in middle Georgia and had just different aspirations for what I wanted to do and really felt called to go into education to be a math teacher. And I went to Georgia Southwestern State University and got my undergraduate degree and got my first job at Eastside High School in Newton County. And growing up in middle Georgia, we didn't know where Newton County was, but had three goals, a goal of being a calculus teacher, a goal of being a football coach for an offensive line, and a goal of being a sponsor for a fellowship of Christian athletes. And in my third year of teaching, I accomplished those goals and then took my sights towards some different things in my career path and that led me into administration.
Ashley Mengwasser: You did all of that in your third year?
Jeff Cher: By my third year I'd accomplished those, but it was just a great place. It was a wonderful school when I started in 1998. That was a great small town community that met the needs of students. And so I had amazing leadership and models in terms of the principles, but also colleagues and teachers that were just very supportive of the mistakes I'd make and the triumphs that we'd have to do some good things for kids.
Ashley Mengwasser: Right. Well, so you don't escape, due praise, Jeff, I want to point out to our audience that you were the school teacher of the year in 2006 and also the county teacher of the year. That must have felt very affirming.
Jeff Cher: It was just a blessing. Again, I'm the product of some amazing individuals that have invested in our school and our community and our students. And I'm just at times wise enough to take a look at what good people are doing and try to mimic and follow their lead.
Ashley Mengwasser: A humble leader through and through. Well, what do you perceive as your driving mission as the principal of Eastside High School?
Jeff Cher: Well, we begin each school day and I tell our kids to make the most of each opportunity to learn, grow, develop, and reach your fullest potential because there's no such thing as an unimportant person or an unimportant day.
Ashley Mengwasser: I love that.
Jeff Cher: I begin that every day to the point where the kids can recite it, but it really is trying to ingrain in them that every individual has importance and significance and that every day is an opportunity to contribute and grow. And it's also a little hidden message for my staff as well, so that they understand the consistency of what our job is to do, which is to turn out graduates that can add to our community as citizens that we're proud of.
Ashley Mengwasser: I want to make sure our listeners have a chance to write that down. There's no such thing as an unimportant person and no such thing as an unimportant day.
Jeff Cher: Correct. Yes ma'am.
Ashley Mengwasser: Attributed to Jeff Cher, spelled like Cher. I'll never forget. What is the multiplier on principal lives? Is it like dog lives? Is it like five to one because of the amount of rigorous work you have to do in a school year?
Jeff Cher: I'm not sure. I'm still going. This is going to be year 12 for me, and there are new things to learn, but also we're real proud of the team that we've assembled at our school to serve our students. So I don't know, I'll let you know at the end of the career what the multiplier was.
Ashley Mengwasser: Please do.
Jeff Cher: But we're still excited about the opportunities that we have for us in this new year coming up. And that's one thing in education world is we get to each year, take a small pause while the kids are on vacation so that we can assess what we're doing and improve and enhance things and get better for the next following school year.
Ashley Mengwasser: Only a focused leader would refer to summer break as a small pause. I really appreciate that about you. Are there any surprising facts about principals? I mean, do you have free time? Do you only hang out with other principals? Tell me everything.
Jeff Cher: Well, like most people, most of my free time consumed with my family, rightfully so as they are the blessing and the motivating factor behind everything is to provide a good opportunity for them in life. But I get an opportunity once in a while to go out to the woods and jog a little bit and walk and hike and just reconnect with nature when the school building gets a little bit tight and a little claustrophobic.
Ashley Mengwasser: So you'll go and hike in the woods?
Jeff Cher: Yes. Yes ma'am.
Ashley Mengwasser: That's very transcendental of you if we're going to look at the literary approach. Well, we've got jokes for you Principal Cher, are you ready for a couple jokes?
Jeff Cher: Go ahead.
Ashley Mengwasser: Okay. What do you get when you cross a middle school principal with a high school principal?
Jeff Cher: I don't know what he gets.
Ashley Mengwasser: Don't do it. Principals don't like to be crossed.
Jeff Cher: That's good.
Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah, what do you think about that one?
Jeff Cher: That's good.
Ashley Mengwasser: One more and then we'll stop this madness. Who is a teacher's best friend in school?
Jeff Cher: I don't know. Who's a teacher's best friend?
Ashley Mengwasser: The princi-pal.
Jeff Cher: Oh.
Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah.
Jeff Cher: My brother's used that one on me in the past.
Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, really?
Jeff Cher: He's a nurse and so he tries to find a good education joke to lend towards me at times.
Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, fantastic. So I'm sure your high schoolers aren't pedaling this low grade humor, are they? But you can take it back and just remind them that your teacher's best friend, the princi-pal.
Jeff Cher: Exactly.
Ashley Mengwasser: In case they forgot. Well, the mission which you have chosen to accept, Jeff, is retaining teachers. I really love the English language because detention, bad, retention, good, retaining water in the body, bad, retaining teachers in the school system, good, high school principals, bad. Just kidding. Just kidding, Jeff. High school principals are good. And we're going to get an elite peek into all that you're doing and all the good you've brought to Eastside. So in terms of our topic, can you first define for us what we mean by building leadership capacity? What does that mean?
Jeff Cher: I think building leadership capacity means that everyone has an opportunity to make an impact where they're at and for people to be cognizant that their actions make an impact on especially our students that are observing them and watching their actions so that they can make a positive impact on our students. For me, especially capacity means the versatility to take our skillset as me, a principal, as well as my assistant principals to meet the amazing vast needs of our school and our students. We are small communities at a high school, especially where we are meeting the physical, emotional, mental and cognitive needs of our students. And I can't do it alone. Our administrative team cannot do it alone. Our teachers in the classroom cannot do it alone, but collectively, if we have a common vision and a good skillset pointed in a good direction, then we can accomplish some good things for kids.
Ashley Mengwasser: So collaboration is big, unity is big. What important traits do you find that administrators need to address those needs that teachers have and why?
Jeff Cher: Well, the first thing is you need to be motivated, to want to serve and not necessarily motivated to want to command. You need to be a servant that is looking after the needs of your staff and being interested in who they are as individuals and be able to be present, to listen, and then to be responsive because if I can make sure that my teacher is in a good position to provide instruction for our students, then we have a better opportunity of molding our students into graduates that we're proud of.
Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah. Let's say we have some aspiring principals out there listening to this podcast. What should they do and what should they avoid on the path to your profession?
Jeff Cher: Well, we talk in education a lot about being lifelong learners, that we want our teachers to be lifelong learners and our leaders, but there's so much truth in that in that you've got to, as an aspiring principal, you've got to learn all the facets of education, of school and of operations and of students. Because we're in a dynamic environment, technology's changing, our students are changing. And so you never stop learning and acquiring new skills, never stop refining your understanding of what is effective for students. What to avoid and going into leadership is make sure when you commit to go into a leadership, that you're ready to serve because it can take on a variety of different roles. I remember one principal that I began working under as assistant principal, there was water backing up into a pipe in the building that needed to get removed because it was for some reason in an electronic technical area. And he was taking a bucket and removing it out, and he just looked at me, he said, "You got to do whatever it takes. You go take care of the kids. I'm going to take care of this situation." And that left an imprint on me. He's now a superintendent and just an amazing mentor for me.
Ashley Mengwasser: Of course he is. Does he still have the bucket?
Jeff Cher: No, he hasn't kicked the bucket. But he still has the bucket.
Ashley Mengwasser: The first pun of the episode, well done, Jeff. On UGAs teacher burnout report, which is very robust, I know you know it well, for what reasons are we finding teachers walking away from the classroom?
Jeff Cher: So our administrator team looked at that report and our school system looked at that report when it came out, and it really outlined some key factors for burnout assessment. Some people call it high stakes testing. Assessment was one factor, preserving and protecting time for teachers-
Ashley Mengwasser: Interesting.
Jeff Cher: ... pressure and unrealistic expectations of the job, teacher voice and professional growth and finally, just overall mental health and wellness.
Ashley Mengwasser: So that's a multi-prong approach you've got to have to go in there and build capacity around those things. What symptoms do you see when burnout is just beginning? Is it something you can spot just with your experience?
Jeff Cher: For me, I really notice it in almost a communication issue that teachers may start having with colleagues or with students. It's almost like an irritability that you can just tell there's something wrong because most good teachers feel called to go into the profession and want to do a good job for students and want to be able to impact lives in a positive manner. So when issues of communication start arising, that's using early symptom, that there's an underlying stress that needs to be attended to. And frankly, from that UGA report, there is a lot of reason to think that some of those causes are the root reasons why teachers begin to experience that burnout.
Ashley Mengwasser: They have that inner turmoil that they're dealing with and it's going to come out in some way. What do you think teachers need the most right now?
Jeff Cher: Well, the first thing is, and I actually chatted with some of my teachers in our post-planning, talking about what they need the most. And for them, they like stability, stability in leadership, stability and expectations, that they know what is expected of them and that they have just an awareness of their parameters and they want to be treated as professionals. That they want people to understand that they're coming to work every day as trained professionals trying to do their very best. And the commodity that we operate in is children, which is the most prized possession of people is their children.
Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah, that's our future right there. What does burnout look like at Eastside or how have you been able to lead your teachers to build a supportive positive school climate?
Jeff Cher: So burnout, and there's a lot of ways you can see it. That communication issue that I saw I mentioned earlier, also absenteeism. If you start noticing a teacher that's out or late to work, then you realize there's something else that's probably impacting that teacher. We really at our school try to make sure that they have a multilayered approach to supporting one another. Begins with our teachers in our school being a true professional learning community where we're a community of learners that focuses on student learning above anything else, that we focus on collaborating together and taking collective responsibility of student results. And then finally focusing on results. And all of that I wish I could say I came up with, but that is by the solution tree folks, some of the experts in education that allow for teachers being able to collaborate together and be better together. And from that, what we've seen that while that's a professional benefit in the work they provide to students, there's also an emotional and a social benefit in that they're not isolated and they don't feel like they're in it by themselves, right?
Ashley Mengwasser: They're part of a network. And that support can kind of buoy them up in the tough times. By trade as a principal, by your very character, which we've heard so much about and then just your sheer charisma, Jeff, you're able to flip the script. You have a lot of power in your school system. I'm sure you've kept a couple of teachers from walking away from the profession. Let's consider this the story time piece of our episode today. Can you talk about a time when you were able to support a teacher's decision to actually stay in education?
Jeff Cher: I've got one teacher that new to the profession and came into the profession right at the height of the pandemic. And imagine that. Imagine going through college during the pandemic.
Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, gosh, it gives me so much stress just thinking about that.
Jeff Cher: And then getting your first job in education. And when you talk about a lack of consistency, that was the hardest part of that. It was a lack of consistency in trying to improve things. But for that teacher, we identified early on that this was going to be an issue, that that teacher may have some difficulty staying in the profession and questioning what they wanted to do. So we just decided that as a department of teachers, that we were going to rally together and we were going to collaborate together and make sure everybody was going to make it through each day together. And then as a leadership team of the school, the administrators a commitment to know our teachers beyond just their name and their room number, but to know who they are-
Ashley Mengwasser: As people.
Jeff Cher: ... as people, and so that we can help support them in whatever needs arrive.
Ashley Mengwasser: Did that teacher come to you with those concerns or did you seek this teacher out?
Jeff Cher: Well, and that's what I find with teachers is they'll come to you as a principal, but they're also, that means that they've already gone to some colleagues, they've gone to a department chair and they've gone to an assistant principal. And if the vision's common for all those people, if the idea and the expectation of supporting and collaborating together is common with all those individuals and that message continues to resonate, then it provides the consistency and usually thinks, "Well, maybe today wasn't the best day, but I'll be back tomorrow and tomorrow will be better."
Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah, because the good days are the bridges that keep you going.
Jeff Cher: Absolutely.
Ashley Mengwasser: And when you're able to look around and see your principal and your peers behind you, I'm sure that adds to the stamina. Well, for our teachers who are listening, what strategies do you have that can help them build capacity to grow in this awesome profession?
Jeff Cher: Well, for me, I emphasize three things to our entire staff with every interview and throughout the school year. But we are looking for staff members that are ready for hard work, continual growth, and a deep love of students. And that goes beyond even teachers, that's our secretaries, our counselors, our administrators. It is hard work. Working in a school is not easy. There's work to do. And continual growth means that there's not a single person, principal included, that has all the answers, but that we need to grow and get better each day. But finally, and ultimately, we're motivated by loving our students.
Ashley Mengwasser: I love that third piece.
Jeff Cher: And that we are there to provide a nurturing safe environment for them so they can flourish and reach their self-actualization ideally.
Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah. You run a beautiful ship there, Jeff. I'm very proud. What is your advice to administrators listening, whether they're new or returning leadership and they want to build a climate that is conducive to this teacher tenure to teachers who stay? What is your advice to them?
Jeff Cher: I may have mentioned it earlier, but you've got to be present. As the leader, you have got to be present, your presence, just the mere image shows that there's importance and value in what's happening. You've got to listen. And so many times in education or in other venues, the boss is the one giving dictates and commands, but not necessarily listening to the staff. And so for me, I think you've got to be present. You got to listen. And then finally got to be responsive so that they know that they are valued to not only speak, but that their perspective and that their thoughts have value that is going to transform and make the environment better for students, better for staff, and ultimately better for our community.
Ashley Mengwasser: You've just described how important listening to teachers is. I know that's a big value for you. What about those teachers who aren't as forthcoming to come to you and be vulnerable with what they're going through? How do you engage with them and solicit their feedback?
Jeff Cher: So our school system utilizes a survey feature that it goes out to our staff and all the staff, all the teachers at the different schools. It's an anonymous survey that provides questions that really attend to teacher burnout, as well as ways that school systems can respond to teachers compensation and different climate culture questions. And so we as a school take the results of those surveys in the fall and really as a leadership team look at the results and begin to try to attend to the needs of our teachers that are anonymously provided so that we can be responsive to them and not just say that we're listening, but that we are also actionably responding to their cries for needing more time protection in terms of planning period or other means. And then look at the results of a second follow-up survey in May that allows our teachers to communicate whether we've been successful in attending to their needs.
Ashley Mengwasser: You are relentlessly dedicated to the educators in your school, Jeff, I can just tell based on everything you've told us and you show them that they have support in you, you've taught all teachers to rally around each other as you've told us, so that they have peer support. Does that support for educators come from only within the four walls of the school, or does it ever come from a outside?
Jeff Cher: Well, as a high school, we benefit from having a community, a community of parents and business individuals that are there and they want to see schools successful. They want to see their schools as safe. They want to see their schools as effectively producing graduates. So for me, as a principal, I feel it's incumbent upon me to make sure I'm communicating often through a variety of means with our parents and our community members to provide them information about what is happening at the school and what will happen. For one, it is so positive to spotlight our students and spotlight our teachers. Number two, it gives parents an opportunity to trust that there is activity going-
Ashley Mengwasser: Something is actually happening.
Jeff Cher: ... at the school that's a benefit and worthwhile. And then finally, three, it also just builds trust that the individual classroom teachers are in a location that is committed to the welfare of their children. So if they're ever concerns or difficulties in a specific classroom, there's an overarching trust that the school's vision and mission is active and it is for the benefit of the students.
Ashley Mengwasser: I bet some recognition goes a long way for educators who do so much. How do you recognize your teacher leaders in the school?
Jeff Cher: Well, we do so intentionally and we do so in a manner that crosses, again, a variety of different ways. Public recognition is one thing we celebrate, the work of our professional learning community, that as teacher collaborative teams work together and we publicly recognize them very specifically for their development of a common assessment, their results of student learning that has improved, their identification of essential standards. And we do that corporately. And I give out a little trinket that has an eagle on it, and my guiding coalition said, "Don't just give out the trinket little medallion with the eagle, but also put it in a nice box." So we put it in a nice little box and present it to those individuals. But then also, we're one-on-one with our recognition and appreciation of our teachers where it's a text message, it's a small note on a desk. Maybe it's their favorite soft drink or candy that just commends them for a job well done. All of that if it is intentional and consistent leads to opportunities for leadership for them in the future because they know that going out and being a leader requires a degree of risk and degree of responsibility over and above their basic paycheck. And good people are not going to do that unless they feel that they will be supported. And I feel that there's an opportunity for success. And if we're celebrating the normal activities that they're doing as teachers, then they know that we're going to support their leadership where they're taking responsibility and ownership of the results of whatever program or student activity that's going.
Ashley Mengwasser: This just popped in my head, Jeff. Do teachers bring their principals offerings? Do you have a drawer with your favorite candies that your teachers bring you?
Jeff Cher: There are many, many times, and the teachers know the combination of Mountain Dew and or Kit Kat that will appear on my desk. And it is just small little things that gestures like that, that mean a lot for me as a principal, and also motivate me to keep going and to reciprocate and make sure our staff feels like they are themselves loved and appreciated each and every day.
Ashley Mengwasser: Well, Mountain Dew and Kit Kat, that'll give you just all the good energy in the world. So now I know you're a secret. I wish I knew that before, Jeff. I could have put it in your writer for this episode so we can have it for you. Thank you so much for being here. And I think Cher should consider paying royalties on your name because she may be the goddess of pop, but you are the God of principals, Jeff.
Jeff Cher: Oh, I don't know about that, but we are-
Ashley Mengwasser: Well, I'm calling it, so we'll pass that one on. Thank you for being here.
Jeff Cher: Thank you
Ashley Mengwasser: To our educator listening who just can't even right now, think of Principal Cher's principles, and do all the things that begin with re, reset, recenter, relax, rejuvenate, and remember you're a great teacher and a great leader. Education in Georgia students' lives just wouldn't be the same without you. Keep tuning in classroom conversations as your place to share and learn. We've got your back, and we'll be just that, back next week with another fabulous episode of Teacher Talk. I'm Ashley. Goodbye for now. Funding for Classroom Conversations is made possible through the School Climate Transformation Grant.