Real Actions School Leaders Can Take to Support Teachers
A district superintendent shares several takeaways from talks with teachers about what they want to see from administration.
Administration is stretched thin and stressed beyond belief.
Teachers are stretched to an even greater extent, and many seem to be at their breaking point.
This isn’t an attempt to admire the problem, but rather to just be frank about where we currently are.
As an administrator working in a district that (I think) has been thoughtful and intentional about trying to be mindful of the current load that teachers are carrying, I was struck by the thought a few weeks ago that I had no idea if anything we were doing was the right thing to do. Said differently, I knew we were trying, but were our efforts worthwhile and making things better, or were they just wasted motion? Could the strategies we were deploying actually be making things worse?
So, I used the advantage I had of having a captive audience. My graduate students are all active teachers working in a variety of districts, and I asked them their thoughts on what they wanted to see from their administration and what it was really like in the trenches.
I learned much from their commentary and thought it worth sharing. What stood out to me among the answers, and has made me think nonstop since posing the question, is that a perceived competition between priorities is helping to create the difficult spot we are in.
Self-Care Is Not the Answer
The resounding sentiment of all the people I spoke with was, Stop talking about self-care. Basically, everyone knows they should be taking care of themselves, and if life has given us a situation where that’s not possible, preaching about it only makes people feel worse.
Takeaway: If you truly care about the self-care of your teachers, quit talking about it and provide the one thing that will help enable it—time.
Behavior Issues vs. Learning Loss
The national narrative is all about learning loss. So, too, are the majority of expenditures in the districts I work with. Most everyone I talked to noted that kids were making incredible progress, and they knew how to close gaps already as concerned, caring teachers. What they were struggling with was the significant increase in behavioral issues and social and emotional needs of students, which is the less-talked-about issue compared with learning loss but is the one presenting more significant real-world, day-to-day concern.
Takeaway: Place the same focus on helping solve the behavioral problems as we’re placing on learning loss—a problem that in many cases is already being solved.
This one blindsided me. I know we’re all struggling through the sub shortage, but I didn’t realize that some of our actions were making our staff feel horrible about taking a day off when they were ill. This was explained to me in this way: Understanding the stress everyone is under and knowing that your (the teacher’s) absence will result in your colleagues’ losing their prep period is overwhelming. This guilt, coupled with the incessant social media vitriol demeaning the profession, has proven to be a jagged pill to swallow for our educators.
Takeaway: Avoid at all costs anything that pits teachers against each other—this includes asking teachers to use their prep period to sub. Do what you can to find another way.
Districts have seemingly gone in one of two directions. Direction one is to plow forward. This includes new initiatives and focusing on attacking learning loss. The other direction is to take as much off the plate as possible. This includes, but is not limited to, some existing or ongoing initiatives’ dying slow deaths. The dilemma here is that everything is based on context. I had teachers bemoan each of these options, but the thing that stuck out to me is the emotional toll it takes on teachers when initiatives they helped introduce or promote just fall by the wayside.
Takeaway: Context matters. Listen to your people and meet them where they are, not where social media is or where you believe they need to be.
What was striking to me was how many teachers mentioned that the little things matter. The email, the thank-you card, the food in the lounge on Friday seemingly matter more this year than ever before. The pitfalls are clear, however. Mood volatility makes everything worse. Stay the course.
Takeaway: Stay realistically optimistic and hopeful, but share the truth and be able to admit that it’s hard. Be real. Be authentic. Lead.
Society Is Politicized
The heading of this section is clearly accurate. To think this doesn’t infiltrate the walls of our faculty lounge is foolhardy. Understanding that some people are legitimately angry and scared that colleagues aren’t masking properly while others feel their rights are being infringed upon every moment they’re in the school is a tricky tightrope to traverse.
From those I spoke with, the reminder I received was that ignoring this is harmful. Acknowledging differences of opinion and perspective is necessary. However, healthy cultures don’t allow their differences of opinion and perspective to define how they treat each other. Healthy cultures persist and maintain that each member roots for and holds some responsibility for the success of each other member.
Takeaway: Address the elephant in the room by reminding people of expectations and norms of our internal relationships. Society may be changing, and we need to understand that, but it doesn’t mean we need to change the norms around how we interact with our colleagues.
In the end, actively seeking feedback from a group of well-intentioned but exhausted teachers was a wonderful experience and exercise for me, as it will help inform my performance and leadership moving forward. My hope is that everyone extends each other a little bit of empathy and a little bit of grace, and we can get through this together.