Human Resources

How to Engage and Motivate Teachers & Staff During COVID-19

10 min. read

In this article, two colleagues — one with an HR background, one from the world of professional development — consider how to motivate and engage employees through two different lenses.

Cydney Miller, MBA, SPHR
Sr. HCM Solutions Consultant, Frontline Education

  • 18 years of HR and Staffing experience
  • 9 years in HR leadership for a 4500+ FTE district
  • National, state, and regional thought leadership presenter on topics like strategic staffing, next generation retention, and recruitment and employee engagement


Susan Walters
Sr. Solutions Consultant, Frontline Education

  • National Board Certified Teacher and Curriculum Coordinator
  • Former Director of Professional Services assisting public and private school organizations to manage professional learning and evaluation programs
  • 14 years of experience working with school districts to align professional growth programs with educational tools and resources


Back-to-school season is in full swing! Typically, it’s an exciting time of the year: new beginnings. School supplies. Sharpened pencils. Leaves changing colors. Pumpkin spiced everything.

So why is the air a bit colder and excitement a bit harder to come by this fall? That’s 2020 for you: the year a good friend of mine described as “The Great Digital Disruption.”

Human Resources and Professional Development departments have always reviewed and refined current processes and procedures over the summer. This year, they were writing those processes and procedures from scratch. Instead of clearly defined processes, those plans have unknowns that may or may not change overnight.

Are students going back to school in person? Online? Some combination of the two? When can students enter the building? What do we do if they say they are not feeling well?

With all of these stressors, how can you motivate and engage your employees so you can get that back-to-school excitement again?

Engagement vs. Motivation

Multiple factors such as retention and productivity rely on an engaged workforce, men and women who are motivated to excel in their respective positions. But don’t equate motivation and engagement — they aren’t the same thing. Employee engagement is the what, the how, and the commitment to the organization. Motivation, on the other hand, is far more personal. Motivation comes from within and is the deep drive to be successful and produce great work. One can be highly motivated without being engaged, and engaged employees can lose motivation. This is what often results in personal burnout and retention challenges.

Intrinsic Motivators vs. Extrinsic Motivators

Smart leaders recognize that it’s critical to take an active role in driving motivation. That motivation is being challenged at every level right now: pervasive uncertainty, feeling disconnected from other people. Teachers in virtual classrooms may not have the joy of seeing that lightbulb moment when a child learns something, for example, so it takes a very purposeful and strategic effort to remain a powerful driver for individual employee motivation.

While employees have countless intrinsic motivators, those motivators may be weakened or questioned in the unknown environment we find ourselves in. It is the extrinsic motivators offered by employers that are key to balance out those unknowns. Employers who are successful at this will reposition work as a potential refuge from isolation or demotivation and create a lasting culture of engagement and retention.

The Role of Professional Development in Motivation

With so many changes in processes and the ways in which we teach students, school leaders must motivate and engage employees in order for them to feel supported and be encouraged to continue serving students. One great way to do this is through professional development. When employees engage in meaningful, relevant, and timely professional development, they are much more likely to have a positive attitude toward their learning experiences. And when they are, they are much more likely to implement their new learning with fidelity and see the impact that learning has on student achievement and/or their job performance. Feeling successful is a huge motivator!

But “meaningful, relevant, and timely” can look different from person to person. During the past few months, determining “what” to do has been a bit of a challenge. How can we motivate all employees to get on board?


The HR Lens: Communication

Communication might be more critical now than it has ever been. Let’s face it: a virtual world can be very lonely. We often underappreciate how much communication, conversation, and connection happens in an in-person environment. Non-verbal cues like smiles and laughter are themselves extrinsic motivators that don’t typically happen in a quiet home office.

Communicate ALL of the layers of the message you intend to deliver, the “what” and the “why,” whether that’s in a broader school context or the rationale behind why certain professional learning is relevant. Don’t just say, “Hey, this is the new initiative,” or “Okay, here’s what we’re going to work on today.” That completely misses the “why.” If I sent you a gift certificate for an umbrella, you’d wonder why. That’s nice, but why do I need it? But if I hand you my umbrella while we’re standing next to each other in the rain, the why is obvious and the gesture more powerful. Don’t forget the “why” — it may not be obvious.

Communicating with groups will look different then when you communicate with an individual. Don’t forget that not everyone has the same perspective — a glaring truth in 2020. Perspectives will vary widely, depending on the issue (remote learning vs. on-site learning, for example), and communicating to a group of people of differing opinions and backgrounds requires a deft touch.

The PD Lens: Provide an Opportunity for Open Dialogue and Communication

Setting goals for professional learning has always been an effective way to help employees understand the intended outcome of learning. We use this strategy with students, and it’s also a best practice when constructing adult learning experiences. But equally important is whether or not they believe the effort and time they are going to devote to this learning will result in a positive impact on students. When employees truly believe that what they are doing will make an impact, they are more willing to pour themselves into the learning experience.

Polling and surveying at the beginning of an activity is a quick and effective way to gather this information in both face-to-face and virtual learning environments. For example, such a survey might collect employees’ thoughts about how likely the strategy may be with their students, how well they understand how to implement that strategy, whether they have tried it before, and if so, whether it was successful. Based on the survey results, you’ll see how you need to position the learning experience so you can pivot and adjust.


The HR Lens: Policies and Procedures

Ah, policies and procedures… the bad words in HR. But don’t forget, policies and procedures give us structure and guidance. Policies help us with the rules of the game. Procedures help us know how to play. Without policies and procedures, we wouldn’t have a path toward success. If you don’t know what winning or success looks like, it’s nearly impossible to be motivated to succeed.

Virtual environments are brand new for many employees. What are the rules for working from home? Am I supposed to be online all day? What are the procedures and policies for my dual role as a home school parent and full-time employee? If you don’t know the rules, you don’t know if you’re abiding by them. You can’t see if you’re succeeding.

The PD Lens: Review and Outline Existing and New Policies and Procedures

Over the past few months, employees have been dealing with constant change. Policies and procedures for professional learning may remain constant, or there may be some uncertainty in the air. Reinforcing the policies and procedures that remain the same as before will provide your employees with a sense of security. For most school organizations, observation processes, Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), and Certification Renewals are all policies and processes that will continue to be implemented. The format may change, but by providing a sense of security, employees will be more apt to be open and engaged within these professional learning activities. As you introduce new policies and procedures, it will be easier for the employees to go with the flow because you have already put them at ease and let them know the sky is not falling.


The HR Lens: Technology

“The way we’ve always done it” flew out the window months ago. But don’t forget that for the people who have always done things the same way, there is a lot to learn! Don’t assume everyone knows the inner workings of Zoom or has the support structure to be effective. Creating new opportunities and repositories of learning will be essential to reduce their frustration and to maintain their motivation and engagement at a high level.

The PD Lens: Provide Professional Development Technical Support

Employees and students have been given a truckload of new hardware devices and software solutions. Learning new operating systems, how to connect to Wi-Fi, Learning Management Solutions, and web-based curriculum tools may be overwhelming. And people across your organization have varying levels of skill and aptitude with technology. You can help them grow and provide the support they need to use all this new technology effectively by building tutorials and providing real-life examples of best practices, as well as a collaboration space where employees can share their successes and challenges.

Additionally, think about where these items will be stored and accessed. If employees have to use multiple tools and solutions, with various permissions, login credentials, and bookmarks, this may deter people from using them. But reducing anxiety and fear with new technology will help them become more proficient as they become acclimated with the new expectations of your district.


As you consider “what” you’ll do and “how” you will increase employee motivation and engagement, remember to always keep the “why” front and center. Explicitly state the value and benefits your students and organization will reap as you move forward. This will help employees stay focused on how they can improve their own work performance, support their colleagues, and of course — the most important thing — improve student learning. Now let’s celebrate with pumpkin spice lattes and celebrate Back to School again!

Frontline Education

Frontline Education provides school administration software partnering with over 12,000 K-12 organizations and millions of educators, administrators and support personnel in their efforts to develop the next generation of learners. With more than 15 years of experience serving the front line of education, Frontline Education is dedicated to providing actionable intelligence that enables informed decisions and drives engagement across school systems. Bringing together the best education software solutions into one unified platform, Frontline makes it possible to efficiently and effectively manage the administrative needs of the education community, including their recruiting and hiring, employee absences and attendance, professional growth and special education and interventions programs. Frontline Education corporate headquarters are in Malvern, Pennsylvania, with offices in Andover, Massachusetts, Rockville Centre, New York and Chicago, Illinois.

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