Educators are worn out. We feel overwhelmed. We doubt our effectiveness. We question our purpose. And amid our self-doubt and anxiety about the state of education, we are bombarded with admonitions to silence our negative emotions, deny our anguish, and at least pretend that everything is okay. This artificial positivity can erode our self-efficacy, our collegial relationships, and our fitness for doing our jobs. Achieving our purpose demands that we maintain our hopefulness and our expectation of good outcomes. There is no way we can continue effectively guiding young people without the physical and mental stamina it takes to sustain ourselves.
I admit it. I am an educator who has enthusiastically spoken and written about the importance of heroes in in our profession. I have applauded the selfless efforts of teachers and leaders who have put their personal needs on hold to attend first to their students/schools. I have implored teachers to give their jobs every ounce of their creativity, zest, and persistence and have asked leaders to more or less “marry their institutions.” The pandemic and resultant pessimism currently eroding the ethos in our schools has caused me to rethink my encouragement of what Chris Balme calls the unsustainable myth of self-sacrificing superheroes. The time has come to help us mortal educators find realistic ways to reclaim our joy in our work.
Optimism can be cultivated and must be nurtured in a school community. It is grounded in both self- and collective- efficacy. Fostering schoolwide optimism requires a cooperative, proactive approach that is systematic and ongoing. There are countless authentic ways to promote a sense of empowerment and well-being among staff members. Here are three places to start boosting a genuine culture of optimism.
1. Actively model and promote individual well-being.
As the pandemic and its ensuing stress level for educators rose, I was delighted to see a renewed emphasis on the value of promoting teacher and leader well-being. My pleasure was short-lived when I observed in most cases the major focus on self-care was to advise educators they needed to take better care of themselves. Really? Rather than revamping our infrastructures to support self-care, we offered them platitudes of, “Eat well, sleep enough, drink plenty of fluids, practice mindfulness, and get plenty of exercise” with little or no meaningful school and/or district support.
Why not survey the adults at school to ask them what they need to help them with their physical and mental health and then “move mountains” to do what is feasible? Maybe a teacher would rather have
- A standing desk
- Investing in the adults at school in tangible, practical measures communicates more earnestness than relying on motivational posters and daily reminders to “take care of yourself.”
- Yoga classes on premises
- Small classroom refrigerator
- A Relaxation room
- Subsidized gym memberships
- Free health screenings
2. Build the community.
During the growing interest in social-emotional learning (SEL) for students it is time to capitalize on the benefits of SEL training and practice for the entire school community. A positive school culture starts with the adult relationships on campus. Intentional professional development activities that concentrate on active listening, team building, conflict resolution, and mutual support can tremendously advance the joy of working at school. Why not implement adult versions of SEL activities monthly? At staff meetings participants can practice the same SEL activities they have their students do then reflect on what they learned about the activity, themselves, and each other.
Valuable aspects of community building can be provided informally and with great fun when the participants go on retreats together, meet outside the school setting for games or adventures, interact together in social settings, participate in special event days at school (favorite university apparel day, “freaky hair” day, be your favorite fictional character day).
3. Create ways to free up time
A valuable way to restore confidence in a school culture is to honor professional time. We must discern ways to reduce the number of hours teachers spend with students so that they have more time to do their numerous “other jobs” (planning, prep, parent contacts, etc.).
The pandemic and virtual teaching have added a new challenge. More parents are expecting on-demand feedback from teachers at times outside normal working hours. The boundaries between work and home have become blurred and sometimes overwhelming. Together teachers and leaders need to agree on reasonable contact hours and operate together to reinforce them.
Inventive districts and individual leaders can meet with teams to develop schedules that give teachers more planning and prep time during the school day. In her book Where Teachers Thrive, author Susan Moore Johnson outlines major areas that support valuing teacher time. Here are four of them:
- Reduce administrative tasks that have little or nothing to do with teaching or supporting students. Are there places that just need a responsible adult and not necessarily a certified teacher? Could support staff or volunteers do bus duty, lunch monitoring, working at after school games and tournaments, and other “extra” duties?
- Ensure that all teachers have the curriculum and materials they need for the subjects they teach. A professional library and ready access to supplies and materials can save teachers time when they are preparing lessons. Is there a reason teachers can’t just go get the supplies they need from the storeroom without pre-approval or an administrative escort? Gee, we trust them with our kids, can’t we also trust them with tissues, paper, and hand sanitizer?
- Recognize that some teachers will need additional time. New teachers and teachers who work in challenging settings or teach students with special learning needs may need more time to analyze student needs and respond with appropriate supports. We differentiate procedures for students, why not apply that principle to their teachers?
- Encourage teachers to suggest more efficient ways to organize their time and responsibilities. Listen to teacher ideas for maximizing their time. Explore the potential of flexible schedules that permit different arrival or departure times for teachers with family responsibilities. Value getting an effective job done over signed-in clock hours.
Of course, there are countless other ideas being successfully implemented daily in schools across the country, but maybe it is time for a fundamental change in how we treat our educators. In my heart I still believe that teachers and leaders are everyday heroes. But even heroes have their limits. The culture of optimism is perpetuated by those who believe we truly make a difference, who are willing to go the extra mile when necessary, and who respect ourselves enough to demand a reasonable chance at success.