When we returned to school following remote learning, the first thing I noticed was that my talks with teachers became quite profound very quickly.
The most crucial job I play as an instructional coach is that of a listener. Witnessing profound self-reflection that leads to viewpoint shifts and instructional improvements is the best part of my profession. So I listened as instructors reflected on their online teaching experiences, and what I heard was a consistent yearning for authenticity and a refusal to return to the status quo. "I wasn't really making it work before the epidemic," one instructor told me, "and I definitely don't want to go back to that."
Teachers suffered a toll during the epidemic, whether they were teaching online, in person, or in a hybrid setting. Maria, another teacher, admitted that towards the conclusion of the previous school year, she was angry and resentful. Despite her best attempts to keep them involved, her pupils stopped turning on their cameras and replying. She was well aware that there were likely a variety of reasons (none of which had anything to do with her) why her pupils were absent from class. Her empathy dwindled when she couldn't see people or hear words. She was dissatisfied and despondent. She described herself as a "machine" that churned out tasks for pupils to do.This was something I heard over and over again. We have all experienced the same phenomena of being dehumanized in our work as educators.
Of course, we aren't only educators. We are moms of many school-aged children, parents of special-needs kids who require a high degree of help, and people who suffer from anxiety illnesses that have been aggravated by the pandemic's international worry. We, too, are human. While we seek to make our schools more inviting to children, we must also make them more humane places for educators to work. We can't forget that we recognized one other's humanity—that we shared a universal human experience—and then go back to our routines. We need to bring schools back to life.
So how do we do that? In my role as listener and coach I’ve heard what teachers need. This is what they are asking from their colleagues, their administrators and their communities.
Avoid toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how bad a situation is, we should all have a positive mindset about it. Toxic positivity isn’t optimism. Toxic positivity rejects or refuses to acknowledge how difficult things can be. This message is for administrators in particular.
Listen to and validate the true feelings that instructors bring to campus, even if they are unpleasant, in order to humanize institutions. When the epidemic is still playing out in the world and in our brains, don't merely talk about "moving ahead." Don't only mention it's important to have a good attitude toward our pupils. Rather, provide us with genuine assistance, such as implementing school-wide regulations with consistency and accuracy, developing collaborative schedules, and ensuring that assessments are relevant. Keep your commitments and establish a working atmosphere based on trust—trust in one another's competency and devotion to our pupils.
Give teachers the professional development they want. Throughout the 2020-21 academic year, the instructional support team at my school site offered regular professional learning sessions twice a week. Sometimes we had an agenda and sometimes it was a virtual open office for teachers to show up and ask questions.
I listened to what teachers said they wanted. Even though these sessions were voluntary, we consistently saw the majority of teachers show up to learn. I do not hold to the essentialist thinking that puts teachers into categories of “will participate in professional development” and “will not participate in professional development,” but rather, I follow the context principle as discussed in Todd Rose’s “The End of Average.”
"Individual behavior cannot be described or anticipated apart from a particular circumstance, and the effect of a situation cannot be characterized without reference to the individual experiencing it," according to the context principle. In other words, the issue isn't "How do we get instructors to engage in professional development?" but rather "How do we get teachers to participate in professional development?" “How can we establish a setting in which everyone wants to engage in professional learning?” rather than “How can we create a situation in which everyone wants to engage in professional learning?” We all need to feel like we have options in our employment to feel human, and instructors need to feel trusted and empowered to make those choices.
Systemic Change, not “self care.” We need to stop telling tired and demoralized teachers to “take care of themselves” when what they are really asking for is systemic change. Yes, teacher appreciation gifts are nice, but I’ll take a good flow chart, a clearly articulated process or a problem-solving protocol over a branded water bottle any day. When teachers are communicating that they feel “burnt out,” they are often really expressing demoralization. Researcher Doris Santoro, author of “Demoralized,” explains that demoralization occurs when teachers “encounter consistent and pervasive challenges to enacting the values that motivate their work.”
When I talk to teachers, I often ask, “What makes you tired?” Their answers are almost never about the students. They are about the bureaucracy: inconsistent communication, policies that don’t make sense or the never-ending parade of initiatives they are expected to implement. You may be able to combat burnout with some self care practices, but you cannot fight demoralization with a giftcard or a spa day. We must bring a critical eye to our schools’ systems and practices—and be willing to change things for the better.
Go beyond “checking-in” to building a culture of relational trust. We cannot ask teachers to build strong positive relationships with their students without making the effort to do the same among school staff members. In fact, educational leadership experts say that culture is always at play in a school’s success or failure. And research indicates that building trust among staff makes them more successful when it comes to implementing best practices over time.
If we want teachers to show up for their students, we need to build collective trust. This may begin with getting to know one another, but it must be a constant, concerted effort.
Last year, I helped coordinate opportunities for grief counseling sessions led by mental health professionals and devoted meeting time for reflection and acknowledging feelings. Then a colleague said to me, “I think we just need to have fun together again.” So, I took on a new role I like to think of as my school’s “cruise director of fun.” One teacher called me the Julie McCoy of my school (a reference to the ‘70s TV show “The Love Boat.” I had to look this up). I organized virtual happy hours where we played trivia and sang karaoke. I thoroughly enjoyed watching a team of maintenance staff and coaches come up with the 10 most recent Sexiest Men Alive according to People Magazine to clinch a win for their trivia team. This kind of frivolity may seem like just that, frivolity. But ultimately, making the time to have fun together builds trust and creates a more human workplace.
Lastly, to make schools human again, we must, on an individual level, commit to being human at work. We must bring our whole selves to work and be human in front of our colleagues and our students.
My spouse, who is now a high school English teacher, is shown at the top of this post in a 1997 band shot. Students returned to in-person classrooms only once a week in the spring of 2021 for an advising hour, a non-academic class aimed to foster relationships. He decided that giving his ninth-grade pupils a tour of the school would be a wonderful way to familiarise them with the facility. He stashed many copies of the band photo around the route to make things a bit more interesting. Students could retain one if they found one. It was a means for him to communicate with his students, “I was in ninth grade once too. It will be OK.” The students loved it and asked for more copies.
He now distributes these as incentives at random. Recognizing the relationships between us is what it means to be human at work. There are several workplaces that are demeaning. We cannot allow schools to become such places.