We have to make the schools humane again. It means treating teachers with respect.
The first thing I noticed when we returned to school after distance learning was that my conversations with the teachers got really deep very quickly.
As an educational coach, my most important role is that of auditor. The best part of my job is to witness the deep self-reflection that leads to shifts in perspective and changes in pedagogy. So I listened to teachers reflect on their online teaching time, and in my listening I heard the common desire for authenticity and a reluctance to return to the status quo. As one teacher told me, âI wasn’t really making this work before the pandemic and I certainly don’t want to come back to it. ”
Teaching during the pandemic – online, in person, or hybrid – has taken a toll on teachers. Another teacher, Maria, confessed that she was angry and bitter at 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 there were probably many reasons (which had nothing to do with her) why her students were not showing up to class. But, without seeing faces or hearing voices, his empathy waned. She felt disconnected and demoralized. She said she felt like a machine that only pushed students to do work. This is something that I have heard over and over again. We have all experienced the same phenomenon of dehumanization in our work as educators.
But we’re not just educators, of course. We are mothers of many school-aged children, parents of students with special needs who need a high level of support, people with anxiety disorders exacerbated by global pandemic anxiety. We are human too. As we transform our schools into welcoming spaces for students, we must also make them a caring place for educators. We can’t forget that we saw each other’s humanity – shared a universal human experience – and then get back to business as usual. We have to make the schools humane again.
So how do we do it? In my role as auditor and coach, I have heard the needs of teachers. This is what they ask their colleagues, their administrators and their communities.
Avoid toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how serious a situation is, we should all have a positive mindset about it. Toxic positivity is not optimism. Toxic positivity rejects or refuses to recognize how difficult things can be. This message is intended in particular for administrators.
To humanize schools, listen to and validate the real emotions teachers bring to campus, even the most negative ones. Don’t just talk about âmoving forwardâ as the pandemic is still unfolding in the world and in our minds. Don’t just say we need to have a positive attitude towards our students. On the contrary, give us real support, for example by applying school-wide policies with consistency and fidelity, by creating schedules that allow collaboration and by ensuring that the evaluations are meaningful. Keep your promises and create a work environment based on trust – trust in each other’s competence and confidence in each person’s commitment to our students.
Provide teachers with the professional development they want. Throughout the 2020-21 school year, my school’s pedagogical support team offered regular professional learning sessions twice a week. Sometimes we had an agenda and sometimes it was an open virtual office where teachers could introduce themselves and ask questions.
I listened to what the teachers said they wanted. Even though these sessions were voluntary, we consistently saw the majority of teachers show up to learn. I am not sticking to the essentialist thinking that classifies teachers in the categories of âwill participate in professional developmentâ and âwill not participate in professional developmentâ, but rather, I follow the principle of context as discussed in âThe Endâ. of Average âby Todd Rose. ”
The context principle asserts that âindividual behavior cannot be explained or predicted outside of a particular situation, and the influence of a situation cannot be specified without reference to the individual experiencing itâ. In other words, the question is not “How to involve teachers in professional development?” But rather: “How do 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 that we have choices, and teachers need to feel confident and empowered to make those choices.
Systemic change, not âpersonal careâ. We need to stop telling tired and demoralized teachers to âtake care of themselvesâ when what they are really asking for is systemic change. Yes, teacher appreciation gifts are cool, but I’ll take a good flowchart, clearly articulated process, or problem-solving protocol on a branded water bottle any day. When teachers communicate that they feel âexhausted,â they often express genuine demoralization. Researcher Doris Santoro, author of âDemoralizedâ, explains that demoralization occurs when teachers âface constant and pervasive challenges in implementing the values ââthat motivate their workâ.
When I talk to teachers, I often ask them, âWhat is it that tires you out? Their answers hardly ever concern the students. It’s about bureaucracy: inconsistent communication, meaningless policies or the endless stream of initiatives they are supposed to implement. You may be able to fight burnout with some self-care practices, but you can’t fight demoralization with a gift card or a day at the spa. We need to take a critical look at the systems and practices of our schools and be prepared to change things for the better.
Go beyond the âcheck-inâ to create a culture of relational trust. Teachers cannot be expected to build positive, strong relationships with their students without making the effort to do the same with school staff. In fact, educational leadership experts claim that culture is always at stake in the success or failure of a school. And research indicates that building trust among staff makes them more effective at implementing best practices over time.
If we want teachers to come forward for their students, we need to build collective trust. It can start with getting to know each other, but it has to be a constant and concerted effort.
Last year, I helped coordinate the opportunities for grief counseling sessions led by mental health professionals and spent meeting time reflecting and acknowledging feelings. Then a colleague said to me, âI think we just need to have fun together again. So I took on a new role that I like to think of as my school’s âfun cruise directorâ. A teacher called me Julie McCoy from my school (a reference to the 70’s TV show âThe Love Boat.â I had to research this). I hosted virtual happy hours where we played trivia games and sang karaoke. I really enjoyed watching a team of maintenance staff and coaches come up with the 10 Sexiest Men Alive according to People Magazine to claim a victory for their trivia team. This kind of frivolity can look like this, frivolity. But ultimately, taking the time to have fun together builds trust and creates a more humane workplace.
Finally, for the school to become human again, it is necessary, at the individual level, to commit to being human at work. We have to put ourselves fully to work and be human in front of our colleagues and our students.
The photo at the top of this post is a 1997 group photo of my husband who is now a high school English teacher. In the spring of 2021, students returned to in-person classes once a week for a counseling period, a non-academic class designed to provide a space to build relationships. He thought it might be a good idea to take his ninth grade students on a tour of the school to familiarize them again with the school building. To make things a little more interesting, he hid several copies of this group photo along the way. If the students spotted one, they could keep it. It was his way of communicating with his students: âI was also in third once. It’s going to be fine. âThe students loved it and asked for more copies.
Now he gives them out at random as a reward. This is what it means to be human at work: to recognize the bonds that unite us. There are so many dehumanizing workplaces. We cannot let schools be those spaces.