“Teacher stress may be the biggest crisis facing our schools.”
Yesterday I had the pleasure of learning from Rebekah Schipper from Opportunity Thrive. I was with a group of elementary principals in our area and when Rebekah said the above quote, she spoke right to our hearts. We love our staff, we see the struggle, and we want to fix it. If you know anything about me, you know that I love the Q-Crew (our Quincy Elementary staff) fiercely and serving them well ranks second only to serving my family well.
Teachers go into education not for the pay or the fame, but because they love children and they want to change the world. Their huge hearts make them especially susceptible to stress as they work to balance the needs of every one of their students. Not to mention the demands of their principals, students’ families, the state, and the myriad of other people telling them how to do their job.
I am not going to pretend that I have the answers to solve teacher stress. Ummm…I don’t even have the answers to solve my own stress. But, here I am at 6am on Saturday morning writing about it because writing, for me, is cathartic. As I process my thinking this morning, I came up with five areas of focus to help in my efforts to help alleviate teacher stress.
We cannot help with teacher stress unless we are present. And by present, I don’t mean just physically. Yes, we have to be present in the hallways, in the classrooms, playground, and cafeteria. But there is another place we have to be present that might be most important of all–present in conversations. I need this reminder just as much as you because, like you, I need to get fifty-five things done at the same time at any given moment at school. And, like you, I need reminders to slow down and fully immerse myself in the conversation with the person right in front of me. Only when we truly listen, not just to the words but to the message and the feelings, will we hear enough to be able to help relieve some of the stress.
Laughter and play are an antidote to stress, yet they are often the first things to go during stressful situations. Being able to laugh in between solving hard problems doesn’t mean that we don’t take the problems seriously, it means that we know the problems don’t define us. Our spirit and our hearts define us, and they always deserve to be replenished with laughter. Todd Whitaker said that when the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold. The reverse is also true, when the principal makes time to laugh and play each day, the whole school does too. And Mark Twain said, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” Not even stress.
As Rebekah handed a piece of chart paper with “Vulnerability” written at the top to my group, she said, “This is a good one for you Allyson”. I am hoping that meant that I am good at modeling vulnerability and not that it is an area I need to work on? Either way, I am going to work on it because one of my strengths is being very positive and upbeat but one of the downsides of focusing on positives is that sometimes teachers don’t feel comfortable venting to me–they feel pressure to be positive. I have to actively work to make sure they know that all of the feelings are okay–even the feelings we are ashamed of, like when we are struggling to like a student or get along with a colleague. They are not only okay, they are natural. We are learning and growing and improving every day, together. We will never reach perfection because it doesn’t exist, but that is just fine because our imperfections are beautiful.
In our work with students who are struggling behaviorally in school, it has astonished us to realize the number of positive affirmations they need. That old rule of 10:1, ten positives for every one negative, is true. And, it doesn’t matter who is delivering the negative. For many of our students, they are lashing out at themselves in their heads all day long and recognizing that helps us understand why they need so many positives from us. I don’t know any group of people harder on themselves than teachers–it goes back to their huge servant hearts. Just like students, teachers need consistent affirmations to combat the enemy in their own heads. Leaders must make sure that teachers know they are valued and that we see their strengths–through notes, emails, conversations, phone calls. The more specific the positives are, the more powerful they are. Yet, we are only one person and to come anywhere close to ten positives for every one negative, it has to be a collective effort where staff members regularly expose each other’s strengths and make sure that their colleagues know they are valued. One idea to help this cause is to do a staff “Show and Tell” during a staff collaboration time (we don’t have meetings anymore that don’t involve collaboration) where each of them share something awesome they are doing in their classroom.
Trust is last on this list, but certainly not least important. As Rebekah said, we need to trust that when teachers report feeling stressed, they are feeling stressed. It is not about how we would feel in their situation, it is about how they are feeling. We also need to trust that they know their students and know what they need. I don’t mean that we should throw the curriculum map out the door. I mean that teachers need some freedom, because without it creativity flies out the door. And when creativity in teaching dies, joy in teaching goes with it. One of the great ways to spark creativity is through collaboration, so that “Show and Tell” at your next staff collaboration time will serve as a way to expose strengths and to unleash creativity.
This list is certainly not comprehensive, and I would love to hear what you would add. As a teacher, what is one thing a principal could do to help alleviate your stress? Principals, how do you support teachers to help them manage stress? We are better together!
“Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” -Mark Twain