Earlier this week, I attended a webinar where the speaker focused on the importance of the mental wellness of teachers. This topic was part of a larger topic related to teacher burnout. She mentioned the importance of schools and districts allocating resources to support the mental well being of teachers especially those who who are teaching face to face currently. Her point really resonated with me and I have spent time thinking about this much today. I am compelled to write this post to being attention to the mental well being of teachers and all educators who are working to deliver quality instruction to our students during this pandemic.
Earlier this year, the system where I taught opted to bring half of our students back on Monday/Tuesday with the other half being brought back on Thursday/Friday. On Wednesdays, all staff work from home. Days when students are not physically at school, students are expected to be engaged in remote learning. Last spring, there was much focus on supporting the social emotional wellness of students. I experienced and lived this first hand. Our students needed this and they still need it. For students, it was challenging. They are growing up in an uncertain world. Navigating this ever changing landscape is challenging especially for students who may have not yet matured enough to develop the necessary coping skills and resilience to adapt and thrive in our world. Our schools and district with support from the federal and state government has invested in resources and personnel to support students. We need to continue to do this and ensure that we do our absolute best to make sure that all students are supported, encouraged, and included.
As previously stated, supporting students is a nonnegotiable. However, we must also extend our focus on mental wellness to include teachers and all educators who support those same students. We must acknowledge the trauma caused by the pandemic on our educators. As last semester drew to a close, our teachers were concerned and troubled by the high number of students who either failed courses or did not experience high levels of success. Our teachers absorbed much of that stress. Teachers want their students to be successful. When students are not successful, this creates a dilemma for teachers who want their students to be successful. This in turn perpetuates a cycle of additional stress and challenge. We cannot ignore that educators are subject to enormous levels for stress; in fact, we must acknowledge and seek to actively support them in positive and productive ways.
We must actively share strategies and opportunities that help educators focus on their mental wellness. One such strategy involves the use of mindfulness practices. Often providing educators with the opportunity to learn deep breathing techniques where they focus on their self can be extremely useful and liberating. Additionally engaging in regular physical activity such as walking, running, or swimming can great ways to deter stress. Another sometimes overlooked practice is simply listening to educators. Many educators fell ignored and neglected. Coupled with this, often educators are focused on helping others and don’t focus on their own self care and wellness. We need to change the narrative of educators sacrificing their own wellness for their students and profession.
We must also ensure that our schools and districts make teacher wellness a priority in much the same way that they do for student social emotional wellness. We cannot neglect them. For the district where I teach, our community spread is covid is classified as critical. Our local health department ran out of their allotted covid vaccines earlier today. Just a few hours ago, I received an emailed where we told to discontinue any PLCs immediately and no two adults can be in the same room at the same time. Our governor and health secretary share daily reports imploring citizens to stay in their homes and limit their trips outside of their home. With all these indicators, it is easy to understand why educators are stressed. The mental wellness of educators should be a focus of all schools and districts. Many educators feel that they are, in some ways, sacrificial lambs with limited voice and influence. For our school and government leaders, we must step up and ensure that we are fully supporting the mental well being of our teachers. If they do not feel safe or are not at their best, they cannot give their best to support our students. Let us remember the importance of teachers during this pandemic.
May our actions and commitments ensure that our educators see that their mental wellness is valued and a focus as our leaders make future decisions.
As 2020 draws to a close, we can all agree that we won’t quickly forget many of the defining actions and events of this year ranging from a pandemic to the continued grappling of equity for all individuals in the United States to a very polarized America. 2020 will definitely be a year that we will revisit and continue to learn many lessons based on this year’s events. As an educator, I saw the wide scale closing of schools. I saw the quick and abrupt transition of teachers teaching face to face to digital and remote teaching. Over the period of several months, educators grew their technology repertoire and focused on meeting the social and emotional needs of our students. One area in education that has not received nearly enough attention is that of leadership. Over my twenty-one years in education, I have worked with some amazing principals and other school leaders who have been extraordinary. During the pandemic though, I have the seen firsthand the transformative power of effective leadership from three of my either current or past principals. I think that too often we overlook what I dub the “admin effect” where effective leadership transforms the learning conditions of students and the working conditions of educators. We cannot overlook the impact of the admin effect and how empowering and transformative that it can be.
Vision and execution is a major factor that I experienced under the leadership of Meredith Williams, principal at North Rowan High School. She took over a historically struggling school and has worked to implement a school that leaves the factory model of education behind and is evolving into a school that prepares students for living and thriving in the 21st century. Mrs. Williams had an initial vision of transforming the school into a health science school. However, that vision hit some roadblocks. As a result of this obstacle, a fantastic opportunity resulted in creating a school that was based on Design Thinking and Challenge Based Learning. I experienced first hand this vision in action. Many of the students at North Rowan High School had endured being victimized by curriculums that did not incorporate their talents, aptitudes, experiences, and interests. Further, many realized that the curriculums that were imposed on them would not serve them well. As a result, these students developed amazing resiliency skills to make it through school until they were able to really succeed in life. Mrs. Williams realized this and recruited passionate and capable educators who worked tirelessly to create and implement a school that prepares students for an ever changing future. The implementation of the vision resulted in a curriculum that emphasized critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creative thinking, problem solving, and student agency. Students found this curriculum to be engaging and exciting. Having connected with the students that I taught during the initial year of implementation, I have heard first hand from these students that this curriculum transformed their lives. They routinely use the skills, knowledge, and experiences to navigate life and solve problems. Many students who had previously been disconnected and disenfranchised from school found school interesting, empowering, and worth attending. They were able to incorporate their past experiences into learning and saw value and purpose. Students no longer were forced to endure a curriculum that was static and stale; instead they were doing, experiencing, and growing. This was achievable due to the combined efforts of educators who united under a common vision that was well developed and executed. Mrs. Williams’s efforts and investment will continue to serve these students for years to come.
Another extraordinary educator, Dr. Amanda Macon, had one of the most interesting leadership styles that I have experienced. During this past school year, she served as the principal of China Grove Middle School. She brought a wicked sense of humor mixed in with an intuitive sense of understanding others. She seemed to innately know and understand others. She was able to pick up on their situations and provide any needed support. She has a strong sense of empathy in working with both students and educators. However, she was mindful to use this empathy in a way that would result in the growth and progress of others. She developed relationships that were authentic and genuine. However, she always kept an eye on supporting the growth of the individual. She stressed the importance of a growth mindset. I saw her on several occasions counsel students on improving their behavior and academic performance while letting them know that she valued them. She humanized her relationships with others. She provided the necessary paths to help others grow but also held them accountable for doing so. She was able to provide accountable while still helping the individual feel valued. Her ability to humanize relationships made a huge difference during the pandemic. She routinely focused on individuals and made sure that they were okay. She also provided the necessary leadership in an uncertain world that reassured us that we could do this. She modeled the actions that she wanted teachers to emulate with students. Her leadership was also very humble as she always deflected personal accolades back to those who she sought to empower. She used her leadership to lift others up and as a result, we all grew and transformed.
A final leader from who I learned much is my current principal, Ben Crawford. I have worked with Mr. Crawford for nearly four years. He served as the principal at China Grove Middle for three years when I was a technology facilitator. He is currently principal at Jesse Carson High School where I serve as an instructional design coach. As a middle school principal, I thought that Mr. Crawford did a great job. But as a high school principal, he has done a phenomenal job. Bringing back a school of over 1200 students and over 100 staff members during a pandemic is a gargantuan challenge for any principal. But doing this along with creating entirely virtual virtual classes for some while others are on a “A/B” schedule and balancing out staff needs would be enough to overwhelm anyone. However, Mr. Crawford’s superpower of developing and executing an effective safety plan met and exceeded this challenge. He spent time thinking, designing, and developing a plan that met the needs and concerns of both staff and students upon returning to schools. He spent time considering all the potential challenges and questions associated with returning to school during a pandemic. He was able to assure staff of safety while providing them with support for handling different situations. He even modeled the type of behavior and practices that teachers needed to utilize in their classroom with cleaning desks, using hand sanitizer, and responding to mask questions. He was open to receiving concerns from staff members who were worried. He listened to them and helped them work through their concerns in a way that empowered them to problem solve. His plan was a model for many other schools in our systems. He spent great efforts to ensure that the plan created the safest environment for all. He was open to modifying the plan as needed. Most of all, he was there to support each person and ensure that they felt as comfortable as possible with returning back to school. His well designed plan has helped to minimize the potential problems that could have resulted at Carson and we are forever indebted to him for his attention and detail to planning for safe and orderly return to school.
Each of these leaders have created learning and working environments that promote student success. Each of these leaders have built genuine relationships that humanize learning. Most importantly these leaders have shared their power, built others up, and empowered others to do what is best for students. We often don’t give our leaders the credit that they deserve. In many ways, being an administrator is a “thankless” job. But we need to recognize the outstanding leaders that each of us work with and let them know how much we appreciate them. It is not an easy job but it is one that makes a difference.
The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.