As the new school year kicks off, students arrive to newly decorated classrooms and (mostly) refreshed and reenergized educators approaching yet another new year armed with new ideas and the optimism only a new school year can bring!
“It’s going to be a great year, our best year yet!” we all whisper to ourselves believing that the lessons learned from past classes paired with the information we gained from books and seminars over the summer will be the true difference makers we hope they’ll be! And we’re right on many levels.
Things will be different, better, and more student-focused. However, each year, like a mother forgets the pain of childbirth, we, teachers and school staff, forget the physical and mental fatigue that inevitably comes with doing this job well.
Alas, it is my suggestion that part of our strategic plan this year from school boards and superintendents to building administrators, teachers, and paraprofessionals includes a preventative plan to ensure we care for ourselves, for one another, and strive to protect school staff’s mental health and prevent burnout. In this post, we will walk through how education has changed, why support is needed, and how both administrators and educators can help.
Shifts in Education
It is an exciting time in education! Numerous schools across the nation and more locally, the state of Indiana are digging deep and doing the work to create meaningful shifts in education to connect with students through a trauma-informed lens.
This work has meant changes in discipline policies, shifts in classroom management, developing new teaching strategies and creating collaborative multi-tiered systems of supports with meaningful integration of social-emotional learning into the fabric of the school day. This work is important. It is powerful, exciting, and student-focused. It is also hard. It requires teachers and school staff to give even more of themselves emotionally, physically, and cognitively every single day than they have in years past.
None of this work can be done well without keeping our educators mentally healthy and supported. We know that the work of trauma-informed schools requires educators to operate from a space that allows for self-awareness, self-reflection, dedicated mindfulness and a conscious effort to shift school climate to relationship-based rather than fear-based.
We can’t serve the complex social-emotional needs of our students without first caring for the social-emotional needs of our teachers. We are working tirelessly to create emotionally safe school cultures for our students. It is imperative we are doing the same for the staff.
Educator Quality of Work Life
A 2017 nationwide survey created by the American Federation of Teachers and the Badass Teachers Association explored educator quality of work life. You can find the results in their entirety here and the Indiana-specific results here. Below are a few of the findings:
Educators indicated that work is often or always
Educators who do not feel respected by their local
Educators who do not feel respected by state and
Educators who feel they have a moderate or great deal of influence in establishing curriculum
As you can see (and likely already know), educators needs are not being met. Aside from it simply being the right thing to do, studies by psychologist Shawn Achor have shown that employees are 31% more productive when they are happy. We have nothing to lose!
How You can Help- Strategies
1. Practice what we teach!
In our shift to trauma-informed teaching, we are giving our students a plethora of tools that allow them to identify their emotions, regulate in individualized ways, and understand what their brains need to be primed for learning. We must not let this become a do as I say, not as I do scenario. When we integrate self-care into our schedules intentionally, we are demonstrating the importance of this work on whole-person health.
Lead your school or district in focused attention practice. This might be weekly videos encouraging a mindful Monday that begin with a 90-second breathing exercise or a first-of-the-month yoga and meditation class for staff. You might ask parents to volunteer to run these classes if they specialize in fitness or meditation.
Create a relaxation room separate from the lunchroom for staff to take a timeout. Designate a quiet space and fill it with scents of lavender, comfortable seating, guided meditation scripts, greenery, and warm lighting. Encourage its use.
Offer an optional book study that focuses on developing self-awareness or personal development. A favorite of mine is The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown.
Schedule time for yourself. We read it and hear it in every self help article we read and every presentation we attend, “we must put ourselves on the calendar first.” It keeps coming up because it is true! Consider what may be helpful to you – exercise, meditation, journaling, bubble bath, drawing, etc. Take the thing that brings you joy and work to fit it into your schedule. Aim for weekly but be kind to yourself if it is sometimes monthly. You are worth it.
Practice gratitude. The benefits of practicing gratitude are plenty and you can learn more about the science behind it here. This practice refers to intentionally seeking out the things for which we are grateful. It might be in a journal, a piece of created art or a meditation. Find the best practice for you and challenge yourself to consistently practice gratitude for 30 days.
2. Create Connections
Our brains are wired to connect. We have a need to belong and to form meaningful relationships. It is imperative to our overall health. Schools are a great place to find and nurture these connections.
Lead with a servants heart. Get out there, show up, and do the work alongside your staff. Not only is it a great way for the school community to see your strengths, it allows you to connect with the unique needs of your district. Start with one hour a month. Help in the cafeteria, do recess or bus duty, offer to work in classrooms. If you see a need, fill it! More than anything, people appreciate being seen and heard. Show up. See them. Hear them. Act on their behalf.
Allow time for professional development that might include a meal or coffee break so that educators may connect with colleagues in different buildings who are navigating the same obstacles.
Ensure a solid mentoring program is in place for all new teachers. Pair seasoned teachers with new staff so that guidance and inclusivity are available. Research shows relationships like these are mutually beneficial creating stronger teachers throughout the school.
Some of my best days in schools started with a surprise coffee from a colleague. If you’re in a position to occasionally bring a treat for a coworker – do it! Not only will it make their day, you will feel pretty great too. Random acts of kindness are another way to boost our happy hormones!
At the end of the day or week, it is easy (and understandable) to want to rush home to be with family; however, there are benefits to carving out time to socialize with colleagues. The people we work beside understand our highs and lows more than anyone else. Start a monthly dinner or coffee with staff. Laugh together, play together. Connect in meaningful ways. You’ll be more relaxed when you arrive home allowing you to be more present in those precious moments.
Mix it up! So often, habits are created in which we see the same people and have the same conversations day in and day out. Make the effort to eat lunch with someone new or to sit at a different table during the next staff meeting. Branch outside of your comfort zone and create new connections.
Everyone likes to be noticed for the positive work they are doing. Being seen makes us feel valued. When someone takes the time to sincerely recognize our effort, our brain releases serotonin, creating a sense of accomplishment and pride. Additionally, reliving these moments can reproduce that same happy reaction! These will be more effective if you’ve taken the time to nurture the connection between employees as suggested above.
Write a note. A handwritten note that outlines strengths you’ve observed is a great way to let an employee or colleague know you’ve noticed their contribution. Take a look at these encouragement cards with cute inspirational quotes.
Recognize personal goals. While it might be easy to recognize meeting goals that have been established school wide, it is also important to recognize individualized goals that educators have for their practice. In addition to feeling seen, it demonstrates an interest in the person as an individual.
Be silly. At semester’s end or the end of the year – have some fun! Awards such as: Fashionista, Biggest Cheerleader, Cleanest Bookshelves, Most Creative Bulletin Boards, Helping Hands, etc. can create some good laughs and a feeling of appreciation. Of course, it is important to keep them positive and understand they work better when positive relationships have been established.
Create opportunities for staff to give each other shout outs. Utilize a bulletin board in the break room, leave a stack of sticky notes and watch the praises come in! Ask someone to remove and distribute the notes monthly so recipients can hold on to them for tough days.
Watch out for one another. If you notice signs of distress or burnout, ask how you can help. Alternatively, offer specific help such as running copies or watching a class so a colleague can use the bathroom or the newly created quiet space. Feelings of camaraderie are critical to the success of educators who may be having a tough day or week.
Let your administrators know when you have noticed a coworker really excelling. Take the time to share that information so recognition might come from additional sources.
It is no secret that while striving to provide quality education for our youth, many teachers are sacrificing their mental health. It is important to note that much of that stress comes from low pay, legislative pressures, evaluation methods and more. That being said, in addition to the above, I strongly encourage school staff, community members, and parents to advocate for changes in all these areas.
While that advocacy is occurring, it is my hope that we will begin building in measures to support our educators’ mental health from a preventative perspective. It starts from the top – down and can be instrumental in the retention of employees as well as success on the job. There is no downside here! While the forward movement in relationship-based teaching has been a thrill to observe, I especially look forward to the inclusion of building healthy teachers in schools’ strategic plans.