Pre-pandemic, one in six teachers said they may leave their jobs by the end of the school year. During the pandemic, that number increased to nearly one in four, according to the 2021 State of the U.S. Teacher Survey.
Certainly the stresses of the pandemic can account for some of this malaise, but it’s obvious teacher wellbeing has room to grow. And that should be a big concern to everyone.
How big? While Jane and I were researching Thinkers, Learners, Dreamers, Doers, we decided to do the math. Growing research shows teacher wellbeing has a far-reaching impact on student success, so we presumed students with happy, engaged teachers would be at least as successful as the average American. They would attain the average American salary and work for the average of 40 years. That gave us a gross income-earning potential for each student, which we then multiplied by the average number of students a teacher interacts with during their career. And according to our rough calculations, we concluded teachers oversee the future potential of about $6 billion in earnings.
That’s per teacher.
If you multiply that by the number of teachers in an average U.S. school district, each district is overseeing trillions of dollars in economic potential.
It’s beyond the scope of this blog to address the large, complex challenges surrounding teacher wellbeing. Jane and I have found, however, that conditions that make healthy learning environments for students also make better working environments for teachers (and all work teams, for that matter). Here are a few small but powerful ways to start building a healthier culture that are surprisingly easy to implement.
1. Cultivate the seeds of brilliance in teachers
We all remember that special teacher or adult who told us something about ourselves that we took to heart; they recognized a seed of brilliance within us and encouraged us to cultivate it.
It’s not only children who benefit from these nuggets of insight about ourselves. We so often work alongside someone for years without knowing they love to garden, are gifted orators, play the banjo, have lived experiences we could all learn from, or simply long to learn a new skill or try something different.
Get to know your teachers. In a healthy, innovative learning culture, people are encouraged to bring their whole selves to work, and to share their specialized knowledge and many capabilities they’re passionate about. The result: The entire school benefits from this treasure trove of talent.
2. Enable teachers to personalize how they teach
Once you discover your teachers’ seeds of brilliance, encourage them to think about how they can incorporate their passions into their lesson plans, project-based learning and daily work. A math teacher who enjoys gardening could conduct a project to build raised garden beds, allowing students to apply the math they’re learning in real-life action.
Let teachers have a say in creating their own learning spaces, too, whether it’s personalizing their classroom or teaching outdoors.
Finally, take a strength-based approach. Instead of informing teachers what the budget limitations are, start with what’s available and ask, “How can we do the extraordinary with this?” Remember to include partnerships to expand the resources that you have.
3. Distribute leadership throughout the school
Some working environments see leadership only in terms of positional authority – the organization is led by top-tier executives, and the further down the ranks you go, the less those people are considered to be leaders. Those organizations are wasting 90% of their brain power.
Healthy leadership has less to do with people sitting on the top floor making decisions in a silo, and more to do with individuals at all levels of the organization helping others achieve success.
Mix it up, and invite some people from all levels to each executive meeting. Be sure to include janitors, whom in my experience not only have tremendous insights and ideas, but have changed the lives of students they took under their wing.
That said, do step up and use your own leadership and authority to support your staffs’ efforts and help them to get the resources they need.
4. Give teachers a voice
Research shows barely half (53%) of teachers agreed with the statement, “I have a voice in decision-making at school,” and only 59% felt confident “voicing my honest opinions and concerns.”
Having a voice is just it essential for teacher wellbeing; it ensures you gain the valuable insight and knowledge your staff has to offer.
One way to get this insight is to simply ask for it – either in a private meeting, a group workshop, or through an anonymous survey. Be prepared to ask the tough questions about your school culture and be prepared for honest answers. Then make sure your share the results and collaborate with your teachers to find solutions and new opportunities.
5. Create an attitude of celebration and a lasting legacies
As we mentioned at the beginning of this blog, teachers hold the immense, almost magical power to transform lives and create a positive, long-lasting ripple throughout communities. I recently learned this first-hand, when Jane and I interviewed some of my students from 40 years ago and found out what’s happening in their lives today.
Celebrate and support this powerful influence that teachers and the rest of your staff have to make the world a better place. Give graduating students a stamped postcard addressed to the school and ask them to send it back one day about where they are. Display the postcards in a trophy case.
From small daily interactions to powerful mentoring and grand-scale real-life projects, teachers have lasting influences on students, colleagues and parents. We can’t think of a better way to help our communities than to invest in their wellbeing.