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Four Simple Ways School Leaders Can Increase Teacher Wellness     

teacher wellness      

Over a rushed lunch period the other day, my colleague took a much-needed breather as she described a pandemic-era staff meeting. “Everyone had masks on,” she said, “but their eyes were screaming. I honestly don’t know how many people are going to quit before the year is up.” As the conversation continued, we discussed the increasing prevalence not just of teacher retention issues, but also of less visible gratitude from those in upper-level positions. Though administrators, department heads and team leaders are doubtless thankful for all teachers do, it doesn’t hurt to be a little clearer about how much we wish to support and appreciate one another through these difficult times when everyone is beyond overwhelmed. For school leaders who already have so much on their plates, here are four simple ways to increase an overall sense of wellbeing for teachers without becoming burdened with yet another “one more thing” to do.

Make Space           

This week, my front porch is being rebuilt. The project hasn’t gone as smoothly as anticipated, and it has been difficult to resist peering out the front door every few minutes to see how construction is coming along. However, I’ve made it a point to stay out of the contractor’s way, both because I have no idea what a through bolt is and because I have no desire to get in his hair. Even under ideal circumstances, we dread having a constant eye over our shoulders, particularly at work. Where do people tend to veer from management into micromanagement? In our current reality, a pervasive fear of losing track of what is happening in any given school building has been exacerbated by our unavoidable increase in virtual interaction. However, hovering over people doesn’t help. One unobtrusive strategy is to privately monitor class performance data over a period of a couple of months to stay engaged in how students are doing without irritating teachers with constant visits. That way, leaders do not magnify any existent stressors for teachers by being a constant presence in the background. Neglect is never a good idea, but stepping back strategically to assess a situation over time is a necessary part of making sure that nobody becomes overburdened, especially right now.

Challenge Assumptions           

Many excellent teachers are frustrated with how infrequently they interact with leaders. Presumably, when there is an absence of concern about how teachers are performing, those who manage schools are less likely to visit classrooms. However, even if staff members are high-performing, they still appreciate both feedback and validation. We rely on intuition both personally and professionally, which is a natural human instinct. However, the ability to question assumptions about what people need is a key aspect of effective leadership. When it comes to lessening stress levels, not assuming we know or understand how someone is wired makes for more effective leadership. One helpful practice that increases teacher wellness is to have intentional, positive conversations about instruction. Instead of conducting a formal visit, stopping someone in the hallway to chat and bridging into what excites them about an upcoming lesson or idea sends a message of caring without being intimidating. We can learn so much from a seemingly casual conversation and change the expectations around interactions between teachers and leaders by normalizing the practice.

Check In           

I used to work with a principal who would stick her head in my classroom from time to time, just to say hello. With so many leaders who are not visible in any given school day, I always appreciated the ones who took special care to connect. Nobody wants to be pesky, but testing temperature in a consistent, systematic way is a wise move for any leader. Checking in might be as simple as a smile or a brief interchange, depending on the situation. Effective leaders strive to strike a delicate balance between caring and overstepping. If they’re worried about a teacher or staff member, the best course of action can sometimes be the simplest. Ask questions like: “What can I do to help? What do you need?” By posing open-ended questions in a non-threatening space, the responses will give leaders a clear indication of what people need to lighten their emotional loads.

Show Gratitude        

I used to have a department chair who closed out every conversation we had with “thank you.” At first, I found the practice to be a little automatic, especially when I didn’t think I needed to be thanked for anything. After a while, though, I realized that her consistent expression of gratitude was refreshing and helpful. Whether we express our thanks verbally and briefly or take the time to send an appreciative note or email, small gestures go a long way toward reassuring others. Everyone wants to know that they’re doing a good job; why not tell them more? We all express gratitude in a variety of ways, but being intentional about it makes a difference. Making a calendar item as a reminder to express a thankful thought about something specific, setting up a rotation of teachers to be recipients of encouraging emails, or employing any systematic approach to gratitude will help ensure that nobody forgets to be explicitly appreciative.           

Nothing about working in a school is simple, no matter the job title. At all times, supporting one another is necessary, but it is particularly urgent right now. Leading by example with more conscious intention can go a long way to increasing teacher wellness. With just a few simple strategies, it is possible to demonstrate gratitude and give people the space they need (or the support they need) to perform as well as possible. Like everything, it’s all about how we prioritize what matters. When we show people we care and make that a primary goal, we increase their trust and ultimately, that shows endless dividends in both interpersonal relationships and in the overall school climate.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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