By Rachael and John George
Teachers. Are. Stressed.
Over the past year, teachers have been asked to teach in ways they never have before. The traditional learning model has been flipped on its head, and what was once routine is no longer so. With change comes stress. Although some stress in our lives might be good, when it gets to an untenable level, stress becomes harmful to our physical and mental health. As school leaders, it is our responsibility to support our teachers, to do our part in lightening their load. Below are six ways we can support teachers during these times of high stress and change.
1. Keep It Skinny
In good times and in bad, we need to remember to hold true to our core beliefs and keep it skinny. Focus on what matters most and cut the rest. Because here’s the thing: You can do it all, you just can’t do it all at the same time. It’s likely that over the last year, you have been tempted to do more or add more onto staff to respond to the growing and ever-shifting needs of virtual learning. When it comes to supporting teachers, make sure you keep it skinny with your asks and tasks. When we keep adding and adding onto teachers’ plates, without taking anything off, our teachers are going to crack. And when that happens, we all lose.
2. Focus on Just One Thing
While it would be great to cancel all observations and evaluations this year because we all know educators are working their tails off, some of us still must go through this process. Instead of conducting your observations like normal, noting a laundry list of things for teachers to work on, how about just focusing on one thing, like ensuring closure at the end of a lesson? Sure, we could probably all name off 10 or more things we want to improve in our own practice, but how realistic is it to ask teachers to achieve growth and progress in several areas at once? Also, make sure you are lifting teachers up by recording what’s going well in their classrooms or on Zoom. Take a moment to thank them for all the hard work, risk taking, and learning they’ve been doing as they navigate the pandemic.
3. Cancel Unnecessary Meetings
You don’t need to meet just to meet. In fact, save time and cancel that meeting, especially if the information could easily be presented in an email. Everyone is busy, and teachers don’t need another meeting piled on top of their workload. As you look at your calendar for the coming week, what can you cancel? Go ahead, send the cancelation email. Your teachers will thank you.
4. Rethink Your Professional Dress Code
Years ago, when we implemented some big changes at Sandy Grade School, staff were asked how we could help support them. Their response? More school days where they can wear jeans. My response was a wholehearted yes. This is a small policy change that boosts teachers’ morale. Considering that they are contending with so many stressful changes, adding casual days to the calendar is an easy win. If you have a strict professional dress code in your school or district, rethink how you can modify it for teachers.
5. Stop Watching the Clock
It’s time to start treating teachers like professionals. They put in an incredible number of hours early in the morning, late at night, and during the weekend. Instead of watching the clock and working to squeeze every ounce of time out of them, treat them as professionals. As long as they are getting their work done and are there for students, we should call it even.
In my district, we implemented a professional workday mentality many years ago, leaving licensed staff free to arrive and depart from their school building as they choose, as long as the essential functions of their job have been completed. Grading can happen in a coffee shop and online inservice trainings can be done at home in your pajamas. It is all OK. Having that flexibility means the world to teachers, and we all know that they work way more than their contract requires anyway.
6. Don’t Email on the Weekend
Finally, stop emailing your staff on the weekend. Yes, we know you are using the weekend to get caught up, just like teachers, but you need to realize the impact of your emails: They’re stressing people out. Teachers want to do a good job and want to be in the loop. When these messages come through, they feel like they have to respond immediately. If you find yourself needing to send an email to a staff member, use Boomerang, a Gmail extension that can release your email at a specific time.
Our job as school leaders is to help protect, support, and lift up teachers, regardless of what challenges come our way. We set the tone in our buildings by our actions, words, and expectations. Therefore, we must slow down and think about whether we’re either adding to or reducing teachers’ stress levels during this precarious time.
Rachael George (@DrRachaelGeorge) is principal of Sandy Grade School in Sandy, Oregon, and a 2015 ASCD Emerging Leader. She is the coauthor of Principaled: Navigating the Leadership Learning Curve (Dave Burgess Consulting, 2020). John George (@duckfan66) is principal of Dexter McCarty Middle School in Gresham, Oregon, and the 2014 Oregon Middle School Principal of the Year.