Teachers need support now. School leaders can give it to them.

December 18, 2021

As we enter the holiday season and prepare for a mid-year break from classrooms, it’s impossible not to reflect on the barrage of stories we’ve seen this year on the waning mental health of our educators. So much of the preparation for this school year focused on students, as it well should, and so it seemed to catch many of us by surprise that educators were likewise suffering the mental and emotional toll of this ongoing pandemic.

As pundits and policymakers begin to recognize the grief, trauma, and exhaustion impacting educators, solutions are also starting to emerge. Unfortunately, those solutions land on two ends of a wide spectrum. Either we hear about structural solutions, which often come with a prohibitive price tag or political barriers, or we hear solutions directed narrowly at teachers themselves, encouraging “self-care” and placing the burden back on those most in need of support. 

But the problems teachers are facing are too immediate to be looking only at these macro or micro solutions. We cannot afford to wait for the slow pace of systemic change, nor should we put the responsibility to solve this problem on educators themselves. Luckily, there is an unexplored middle ground that can be seized by school leaders. Those of us lucky enough to support educators on a daily basis can make some immediate, concrete changes that would provide meaningful relief. 

As we return for the second half of this school year, here’s what I suggest we can do to help nurture and buoy the exceptional educators in our buildings:
 

  • Repurpose staff time: Far too many staff meetings revolve around common, but not necessarily impactful, agenda items: announcements, requirements, and emergencies. If school leaders want to find ways to buoy staff culture and create sustainable environments, they should repurpose staff time to invest in relationship building, provide space for collaboration, and bring tangible examples to improve instruction and student learning. Consider what can be accomplished via email or in smaller groups, and remove those items from collective staff time. Instead, allow teachers to bring challenges to their teammates and seek input and ideas. Identify a schoolwide objective and work to analyze data and brainstorm solutions. And create space for unstructured conversation, allowing educators to share experiences and create authentic bonds that they can rely on once they return to their classrooms.
     
  • Recalibrate school culture: In the months we spent away, it is no surprise that many school cultures shifted. A remote or hybrid culture, especially one grounded in shared trauma, is not necessarily the culture we want to carry through this year. School leaders can intentionally recalibrate culture, recognizing shared history but not living in it. To do this, prioritize authentic celebration through individual conversations, in staff spaces and emails, and even throughout the school on physical markers like bulletin boards. The celebration can be personal (honoring birthdays and life events) but it should also be professional (highlighting innovative strategies, student learning, and collaboration). And, strange as it may sound, school leaders should also go out of their way to celebrate disagreement. Feeling safe enough to share honest opinions and disagree respectfully is critically important to sustainability and mental health. If we celebrate and lift up productive disagreement, then we create a stronger, healthier environment for all.
     
  • Reassess professional learning: A lot of time and attention right now is, rightfully, focused on learning recovery for students. However, we must remember that the best way to accelerate learning for students is to support holistic professional learning for educators. Rather than focusing narrowly on evaluation and assessment, school leaders should emphasize other learning tactics such as observation, feedback, reflection, and innovation. If educators are encouraged to experiment, adjust, and yes, even make mistakes, then instruction and learning ultimately improve. Perhaps more importantly, this freedom will also energize and inspire educators. The return to school buildings has been challenging for all, and we are facing what feels like an almost entirely new reality. If we acknowledge this alongside educators, and focus on empowering them to learn and grow as professionals, we may ease some of the burden they are carrying.
     

The truth is, when we examine the challenges created or exacerbated by this pandemic, it’s clear that systemic, structural change is needed if we are going to protect the teaching profession in the long-term and meet the needs of our students in this rapidly changing world. And yet, in the short-term, school leaders have it within their control to protect and support the professionals in their buildings and retain the educators who are so critical to our nation’s academic recovery. The above strategies will not, on their own, fully fix the mental and emotional strain burdening educators. But they can provide a real opportunity for school leaders to take meaningful action to support and prioritize educator wellbeing. Let’s seize that opportunity now.
 

By Jim Furman