As educators, we often find ourselves acting as coaches. Teaching isn’t only about the content, it’s about developing people and constantly encouraging others to reach their potential. Of course, it’s hard to do that if we’re not OK ourselves. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly is wrong, and if we can’t do that, how can we be expected to help others?
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy for others to recognize our needs either. A survey conducted last year by the EdWeek Research Center asked both teachers and school leaders how they prioritized the emotional and physical well-being of teachers. Seven in 10 school leaders marked it as a high priority for their districts, while less than a quarter of teachers marked it as such. But while leaders were aware of the importance of well-being, did they know what signs and symptoms to look for to support staff?
In a trying period when discussions about mental health, burnout, and demoralization abound, my colleagues at the Educators’ Lab—an organization that supports teacher changemakers—and I noticed that while sometimes people know they’re not OK, it might be hard for them to articulate what they’re feeling. Through our work we saw there were certain attributes that, when neglected, caused people to feel disengaged. By defining some of these areas, teachers were more likely to identify what was wrong, facilitating dialogue and a path forward. The following are our top five areas to consider.
1. Heart: You Care About What You’re Doing
When neglected, people stop caring. They get caught up in initiatives or activities they don’t believe have value. This can lead to demoralization.
When nurtured, people feel a sense of joy and purpose. They feel their worth because they’re able to make a difference. Nurture this by tapping into every educator’s why—their reason for teaching. Make sure that initiatives are student-first and teachers have the creative freedom to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.
Simple ideas to nurture heart:
- Remind people that they’re incredible. Teachers love getting notes from their students telling them the difference they’ve made. Imagine getting one from the administrator. If possible, take time to write a note or an email so that staff know you see them and all that they do.
- Have a ditch meeting. During this meeting, discuss what you can get rid of. If we want to prioritize what matters most, we need to have time to focus our efforts. Provide a space for teachers to talk about what matters to them—and what doesn’t—so that you can figure out how to spend time accordingly.
2. Optimism: You Believe That Change Is Possible and See Opportunity in Challenges
When neglected, people become disempowered and frustrated. They may put up walls or get defensive because they don’t feel their efforts will lead to anything. They might not have the motivation to go beyond the bare minimum.
When nurtured, people can handle adversity and are empowered to do more. They find the possibility in tough situations and are able to push through setbacks. Nurture this by saying, “Yes.” Give people the permission to act on new ideas and solve problems. Just support them.
Simple ideas to nurture optimism:
- Recharging station. It takes energy to create change and work through challenges. Attempt to set up a wellness challenge where teachers can get recertification hours for engaging in activities that refuel (if possible in your state). This might include points for activities like exercising, getting enough sleep, choosing slow food, reading for pleasure, or spending time outside or with family. Make real self-care normal.
- Catch-up days. Time is one of the biggest stressors for teachers. There’s too much to do and not enough hours in the day, lending itself to a sense of failure. If possible, don’t plan anything extra on staff days; carve out time to let teachers finish what they need to do so that they can come up for air.
3. Curiosity: You Remain Open and Continue to Learn and Grow
When neglected, people can become stuck in a rut. They might become closed off and unapproachable. They may not be open to new ideas or initiatives.
When nurtured, people seek out new skills, ideas, experiences, and opportunities. People want to continually improve and grow. Nurture this by providing outlets for teachers to develop themselves and their interests.
Simple ideas to nurture curiosity:
- Personalize professional learning. Whenever possible, let teachers choose their professional learning so that they can explore areas of interest. This gives them the opportunity to tinker with new ideas they think will benefit their students.
- Encourage questions. Instead of asking for traditional feedback, have teachers send their questions after a meeting via email. Questions heighten mental activity and engagement while giving people a voice.
4. Confidence: You Believe in Yourself and Your Abilities
When neglected, people lose their voice. They may feel ignored. Self-doubt might prevent them from growing or cause them to think negatively about themselves and their abilities.
When nurtured, people are comfortable pushing themselves. They’re not afraid to speak up, and they feel good about taking the lead. Nurture this by noticing the strengths and skills of others. Recognize good work and other people’s achievements.
Simple ideas to nurture confidence:
- Keep communication open. Set positive and achievable expectations, and then make sure you’re available. Use as many outlets as possible so that teachers can reach you to express their needs and concerns.
- Be a teacher champion. The same way students need a champion, teachers need to feel like they matter. Little things make a difference—like monitoring reactions. Good leaders know how to handle feedback or criticism without getting personal or holding a grudge. If there’s an issue with one person, address only the one person. When we don’t handle situations accordingly, it can spark fears and doubts and make people feel as if they’re not being treated as adults.
5. Vulnerability: You’re True to Yourself in the Face of Societal Pressure
When ignored, people become afraid to take risks. They place too much emphasis on what others will think of them. Aiming for perfection or to please others leads to unhappiness.
When nurtured, people live and teach by their own standards. There’s no need to aim for perfection; just let them be the best they can be. Nurture this by focusing on people and not test scores. Look for growth, and trust that you’ve hired the best.
Simple ideas to nurture vulnerability:
- Redefine success. That word gets thrown around a lot in education. What does it mean? Work with staff to craft a definition of success that they feel works best for your school and students. Create standards that you—as a team—define.
- Ditch drama. Leaders help set the tone for school culture. Making conscious efforts to self-reflect and reduce stressors that cause drama helps everyone to be their best selves. Here is a simple activity board, taken from our book The Startup Teacher Playbook, with actions that can help us reduce drama.
By discussing some of these traits, teachers are able to more easily pinpoint what they’re feeling and why. At the same time, if a sizable percentage of staff are feeling neglected in the same area, it might be a telling sign of how to improve school culture.
While well-being is a vast area, a good starting point is to understand how teachers are feeling. This will open up opportunities for conversations about how you as an administrator can better support teachers’ needs, because as the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup.