Excitement, anticipation, fear, anxiety, hope, and helplessness are just a few of the feelings educators might face on the Sunday nights before the Mondays with students this year. While many of these feelings are not new to educators, the context in which we are feeling them has changed. Changes in protocols, pedagogy, and building practices have shifted how we go about our positions. Many of us have learned how to teach classes that are remote, hybrid, asynchronous, or synchronous, and can set up Zoom calls in our sleep.
With all of this focus on the work behind the scenes to prepare for the positions, the challenge can be remembering that we are all people behind our titles with concerns that extend outside of school. As leaders, we have to keep this in mind and find ways to show support for the people behind the nameplates on the classroom doors.
3 Ways to Put People First
1. Say it. During the early days of the pandemic, I led with the following mantra for all parent and staff meetings: “I miss you, I hope you are well, I am here to help.” The mantra this year for staff is “I care about you as a person first before what you do in your position.” We need to be intentional about sharing this message and reinforcing it throughout the year.
Keeping this mantra near you during the day will be helpful in reframing tough conversations and decisions. It will also be a key question when deciding how to support staff. By opening up your door to support the whole educator, you may also learn of challenging life circumstances that may impact school work. Knowing that in advance can help both you and the staff member proactively prepare for any challenges ahead.
2. Mean it. Before you move into this mantra, make sure you have resources available for staff when they need them. Check in with school counselors for any resources or possible professional development for the year. Have information ready for mental health resources or support from your district’s health benefits on hand.
One way I work as a leader to show value to people over positions is how I communicate. I do my best to limit emails throughout the week and publish one staff newsletter that comes out on Thursday afternoons. I share with staff that I do not have work email on my phone as a way to set boundaries between school and life and provide them ways to get hold of me outside of the school day. That practice supports all staff as well: If I am not checking email, I am not sending, so they don’t have to feel connected to it at night.
Another way to mean it is to see it. For the first quarter, I set a goal of building meaningful and intentional relationships with students, staff, and families. In order to achieve this goal, I need to be where the students are, every day. I have an assigned spot greeting families and students outside. Committing to this supervision allows staff to have team meetings before the school day starts.
After spending a semester teaching in the classroom last year, I am returning to classroom visits this year, making note of class sizes, participating in the breaks that staff have integrated into our brain-based block schedule, and supporting advisory classes by providing video instructions ahead of time.
3. Reinforce it. What does your professional development plan look like this year? Do you have mental health resources, support, or activities embedded into the year? If we don’t take care of those who take care of our students, how are we ensuring that everyone is ready to learn, ready to teach, and ready to lead? Our professional development days will include “white space,” or time for teachers to finish up work or tasks that are essential, things I might not always see, and activities that if we didn’t have the time would require teachers to take them home at night or on weekends.
Other ideas include partnering with community agencies to share other supports for staff outside of school. Bring in a yoga instructor for after-school stretching or meditation, or schedule a consultation with a nutritionist or dietitian about preparing healthy meals at home during busy seasons. You could also ask a member of your staff with a passion for wellness to prepare activities during stressful times of the year to assist their colleagues.
By leading with a lens of supporting each other and reinforcing this practice throughout the year, you can set a culture of caring that will have ripple effects in the classroom.