Helen Amass

How to say a proper thank you to your staff

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Expressions of gratitude risk sounding hollow if they’re too frequent or hackneyed. For a true morale boost, heads are instead striving to make thank yous personal – with some even serving them full English breakfasts, finds Helen Amass

How to say a proper thank you to your staff

When was the last time you thanked your team out loud? Sure, you might express your gratitude in passing or through gestures like keeping the department office stocked with teabags. But how often do you say “thank you” to the people you lead?

For many, this past term has been a long, hard slog. There have been burst bubbles, staff absences and school closures. With so much going on, it would be easy to let explicit expressions of thanks slide. But it’s not just about how often you say thank you – it’s about how you do it. So, as you reflect on a tough term, it’s worth thinking about your “appreciation strategy” for the term ahead.

It has never been more important than now to thank staff properly, suggests Laura May Rowlands, head of English at a secondary school in Hampshire.

“This is a term and a year like no other, and we are all working flat out. Gratitude and understanding are at the heart of keeping our schools functioning,” she says.

So, what can school leaders do to show their gratitude in a meaningful way? Rachel Ball, assistant principal at the Co-op Academy in Walkden, Greater Manchester, believes that the timing of any expression of thanks is key to making your words count.

“I think all staff benefit from explicit thanks, and it’s a really important part of our job as leaders to recognise and celebrate our staff. But I think if done too much, or to the same people, it can seem empty. Save it for the times it really needs to be said,” she says.

Kate Owbridge, executive headteacher at Ashdown Primary School in East Sussex, agrees that if you thank staff too often, the meaning will become diluted.

“When I make cakes for the staff, I do it as a thank you and as a gesture of ‘Come on, we’re on this, we’ve got it, keep going’,” she says. “But I try not to do it every week as I think it will become meaningless. Or certainly it will be noticed the week when I can’t manage it and it has been missed. That’s the last thing you want as a leader: for your staff to feel they’re not appreciated, you can’t be bothered to tell them or you forgot about them.”

How do you know the right time to say thank you, then? According to Joseph Brennan, a subject leader of geography in Liverpool, it all comes down to knowing the individuals in your team, understanding how different people will respond to an explicit expression of thanks and adapting your approach accordingly. “Making it meaningful is about the relationship you have with the staff and making them feel you’re not just saying it for the sake of it,” he says.

“What is important is the leaders knowing their staff well and what makes them tick, as different teams and individuals are very different…some people don’t like a fuss. I have a member of staff who thrives on praise, but another member of staff who will fob it off. I still do it, but in a way whereby I value the work she has done.”

Ball agrees that generic whole-staff gestures often fall flat precisely because they aren’t personalised enough.

“I think that this is why any organised programme of thanks, such as postcards, can seem a bit false,” she says. “It becomes a case of ‘Oh, X hasn’t had a postcard yet this term, we’d better find something to praise her for’, instead of it being genuine.”

So, if postcards aren’t the answer, what is?

1. Serving up breakfast

One method that has worked for Ball is to provide breakfast to staff once a term with the food being served up by senior leaders, she says.

Angus Harrison, deputy head for teaching and learning at Valentines High School in East London, has tried a similar approach and found that his staff also appreciated the gesture. “The leadership group cooking and serving – aprons on, behind the canteen servery – a full English on Inset days and when we perceive staff morale to be in need of a boost (deep into November and December, for instance) has worked really well,” he says.

2. Personalised gestures

While staff are unlikely to turn down the generic box of chocolates at the end of term, if you are going to give a gift, choosing something personal will make the gesture count for more, suggests Harrison.

“I think tailoring gifts to staff shows you know them,” he says. “For instance, I know my head of RE/history’s favourite craft beer (Brewdog Hazy Jane); my head of science loves Liverpool and wants whatever generic lager to drink along with their matches; and my head of DT doesn’t drink, but loves a book on teaching and learning.”

Messages, too, should be as personalised as possible, Harrison adds. “Make it specific to an action, or if it is about a series of actions, describe them. I find my staff are the most receptive when I write a thank you from the heart: things like ‘Line managing you is a real joy’ or ‘I love working with you because…’”

3. The gift of time

For many staff, the most valuable thing that a leader can give them to express their gratitude is a little more free time, says Rowlands. “My gift to staff, as often as I can do it, is the gift of time. I try to organise budgets to ensure I can pay for external markers for mocks. I do a weekly bulletin to ensure meetings can be kept short and focused on CPD, not operational discussions. If there isn’t a reason to meet, I’ll cancel it to give the time back,” she explains.

However leaders choose to thank staff, the important thing is that they do find some way to express their gratitude right now, says Owbridge, because no matter how people feel about current restrictions, the pandemic is taking its toll on everyone.

“Covid is so hard to deal with,” she says. “[We need] to thank all those people for turning up and doing their job, however they are feeling about it: frustrated and upset because of restrictions they think aren’t necessary and are affecting their lives, or having the mental strength to turn up and work when all their anxiety is telling them to run away and hide.

“I am leading these people to provide an education and more for our children. I will be thanking them as much as I can for doing that in these horrible times because I couldn’t do it on my own.”

Helen Amass is Tes’ deputy commissioning editor

This article originally appeared in the 18/25 December 2020 issue under the headline “Help staff to be full of beans at the end of term”

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