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When Cups Runneth Over: 3 Simple Ideas for Creating a Positive Teaching and Learning Environment in Your School During the 2022-23 School Year

By Aaron Butler, Ph.D. - April 13, 2022

It never fails. My kids walk up to the soda machine with an empty cup, press the lever and ice starts dropping in. Despite my warnings, they always seem to be a second too slow to pull their cups away, and those last three ice cubes bounce onto the floor. Next they dump half the ice into the tray and start filling up with soda—only this time, their inability to stop the flow of soda into the cup results in a buildup of foam  and sticky liquid that spills over the cup, their hands, and the floor.

What a mess! Can I get a mop on aisle 1, please?!

The last two years have been hard for everyone, with rapidly changing safety protocols, increasing student and staff mental health needs, learning loss—and the list keeps growing. Attempts to address these new challenges on top of previously existing ones may have you, your leadership teams, and teachers feeling like that soda cup.

Hopefully the summer months will provide an opportunity for things to settle down as you transition to summer professional development and planning for next year. But let’s be honest: Any downtime goes quickly. Soon, you may be facing this type of challenge for the 2022-23 school year:

My school/district has just come out of two of the most challenging years in the history of education. We have several unfilled teaching and support staff positions. My staff needs professional development in several areas. Parents, students, and staff are looking forward to a “normal” school year, but I’m not even sure what that means now. We have an opportunity to use emergency federal funding to address learning loss and support teacher recruitment and retention, but I’m not sure how much room my returning staff will have “in their cups” after two years of working through a pandemic. How can I create an environment where my staff can do their jobs/teach and still get better throughout the year without overflowing their cups?

If you find yourself asking that question or a similar one, I have a simple solution that may seem counterintuitive, but please read on.

Create conditions for your staff to grow and improve by

NOT overfilling them with professional development!

Now you may be thinking, “Hold on. My staff has so much to learn about social and emotional learning, trauma-informed practices, evidence-based instructional strategies, etc. If I don’t provide a lot of professional development throughout the school year, then they won’t learn these important things and won’t be able to improve student achievement.”

Maybe that’s true to an extent, but let’s look at that from a different angle.

Imagine if, in a year, your situation was this: Every teacher in your school has shown some improvement in one or two core instructional strategies and made learning more relevant and enjoyable for students. Every student in your school has shown growth in multiple learning standards or competencies where they did not have proficiency earlier in the year. Students, parents, and staff had the opportunity to engage in activities that promote positive school culture in a way that is meaningful to them, not just convenient for the school. All these things leading to students, teachers, and parents saying, “Our school may not be perfect, but I understand what we have done this year to improve learning conditions and make this school a fun and rewarding place to learn, work, and/or send my kids.”   

If that scenario sounds compelling at all, then consider these three ideas to guide professional development in your school for the 2022-23 school year.

Looking for a way to give great feedback in 1 minute or less? This simple model will get results and change the culture in your school.

  1. Focus on regular feedback for improving core classroom instruction. Consult with your leadership team and/or teacher leaders to identify one or two instructional strategies to prioritize in all classrooms for the year. Communicate clear expectations and provide relevant professional development on these strategies before the beginning of the school year. Once the school year begins, visit classrooms to observe instruction, talk to students, and provide timely, relevant feedback to individual teachers that aligns with and reinforces your priority instructional strategies. Rinse and repeat daily.  Your regular presence in classrooms and hallways may be the most important thing you can do to create a positive culture.

  2. Give your teachers dedicated time to focus on their practice during the school year. This doesn’t mean stop all professional development during the year; just keep it focused and relevant for every teacher. Adult learning theories consistently reinforce the importance of time to practice and reflect in order to improve. Most teachers will continue to learn and improve at their jobs throughout the year if you give them time and trust them to do so. Consider giving your teachers this assignment for every schoolwide professional development day next year and then giving them the day to work on it with a peer or coach: “Share 2-3 questions that you can reflect on and answer today that will help make you a more effective teacher for your students beginning tomorrow. Please share the actions that you will take and how you will monitor your progress.”

  3. Communicate your schoolwide progress on priorities. Every week, at minimum. No exceptions. Remember that effective communication is a two-way street. Talk to students, parents, and teachers and get their feedback, then share what you heard. Leave no doubts with your staff, students, and parents on the status of your focused set of schoolwide priorities. Celebrate successes with specific examples of progress that you experienced as a school each week. If there are areas that need more attention, point them out and share what everyone can do to help get back on track. This commitment to communication will help keep a tight focus on what’s most important without adding more soda to the cup.

These three steps may seem too simplistic for you. However, I encourage you to think back to the soda cup as you plan for, and ultimately work through, the next school year. What do you want to make sure stays in your teachers’ cups? If you try to add one more requirement or training or expectation, what will get pushed out like foam? Hopefully, it’s not empathy for their students’ mental health or the time to work with that student after school to meet a challenging learning standard.

So, where do you start?

First, don’t wait until July or August to start planning and laying the foundation for next school year. Make it a priority to talk to new and diverse groups of students, teachers, and parents over the final 2-3 months of this school year. Ask them to provide their feedback on the current teaching and learning conditions in the school. How full are their cups right now?  If they are overflowing, then what is being pushed out? What do they feel would make up a positive teaching and learning environment next year? How can professional development activities be structured best for them? Share what you hear, and keep asking questions and having conversations.

Next, take time to pause and reflect on the status of your cup and what is most important. This may be hard to do, but don’t rush through it.

Finally, take what you heard and reflected on and use this information, with the help of your leadership team, to plan a school year that allows your teachers and students to prioritize teaching and learning in the classroom.

Good luck, and please tell us how it goes!


Aaron R. Butler, PhD, is a former high school math and science teacher and school administrator. He now serves as the director for the Region 9 Comprehensive Center and a principal technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research. Dr. Butler has more than 20 years of experience supporting school improvement in public education spanning school, district, state, and national levels.