The first thing I noticed when we returned to school after remote learning was that my conversations with teachers got real deep real fast.
As an instructional coach, the most important role I have is as a listener. The best part of my job is bearing witness to the deep self-reflection that leads to perspective shifts and instructional changes. So I listened as teachers reflected on their time teaching online and, in my listening, I heard the common desire for authenticity and an unwillingness to return to the status quo. As one teacher told me, “I wasn’t really making it work before the pandemic and I definitely don’t want to go back to that.”
Teaching through the pandemic—online, in person or hybrid—took a toll on teachers. Another teacher, Maria, confessed she was angry and bitter by the end of last school year. Her students stopped turning on their cameras and stopped responding despite her best efforts to keep them engaged. She knew that there were probably many reasons (that had nothing to do with her) for why her students weren’t showing up to class. But, without seeing faces or hearing voices, her empathy diminished. She felt disconnected and demoralized. She said she felt like a machine just pushing out work for students 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.
But we are not just educators, of course. We are mothers of multiple school-aged children, parents of special needs students who need a high level of support, individuals with anxiety disorders exacerbated by the worldwide anxiety of the pandemic. We are human too. While we transform our schools into welcoming spaces for students, we must also make them a human place to work for educators as well. We can’t forget that we saw each other’s humanity—shared a universal human experience—and then return to business as usual. We must make schools human again.
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.
To humanize schools, listen to and validate the real emotions teachers are bringing to campus, even the negative ones. Don’t just talk about “moving forward” when the pandemic is still playing out in the world and in our minds. Do not just say that we must have a positive attitude for our students. Rather, give us real support, such as applying school wide policies with consistency and fidelity, creating schedules that allow for collaboration and ensuring that evaluations are meaningful. Follow-through on your promises and create a working environment built on trust—trust in each other’s competence and trust in one another’s commitment to our students.
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.”
The context principle asserts that “individual behavior cannot be explained or predicted apart from a particular situation, and the influence of a situation cannot be specified without reference to the individual experiencing it.” In other words, the question is not “How do we get teachers to participate in professional development?” but rather, “How can we create a context in which everyone will want to engage in professional learning?” To feel human in our workplace, we all need to feel like we have choices and teachers 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.
The picture at the top of this article is a 1997 band photo of my husband who is now a high school English teacher. During the spring of 2021, students returned to in-person classes just once a week for an advisory period, a non-academic class designed to provide a space for building relationships. He thought it might be a good idea to take his ninth grade students on a tour of the school to reacquaint them with the school building. To make things a little more interesting, he hid several copies of that band photo along the route. If students spotted one, they could keep it. It was his way of communicating to his students, “I was in ninth grade once too. It will be OK.” The students loved it and asked for more copies. Now, he gives these out randomly as rewards.
This is what it means to be human at work—acknowledging the connections between us. There are so many dehumanizing workplaces. We cannot let schools be those spaces.