Two weeks ago at One Schoolhouse, we took the community's pulse on a crucial question: "How concerned are you about faculty morale this year?" A sobering 92% of survey respondents reported feeling moderately or extremely concerned about their faculty's morale this year, with good cause. A recent EdWeek poll found that “as teacher morale declines, there’s a likelihood of a rise in resignations.”
Teachers are exhausted, overwhelmed, and isolated. We’re worried about our teachers’ morale because these are some of the tell-tale signs of burnout, and we’re seeing them on campus and in our video calls. What causes job-based burnout? Chronic stress. You might remember that in June 2019, the World Health Organization added burnout to the International Classification of Diseases. Burnout isn’t a buzzword. It’s a real phenomenon that can take a toll on both physical and mental health.
Schools are used to seeing teacher burnout at the end of the year, but October is usually an energized time as school is moving into full swing. This year, burnout is popping up just a few weeks into the school year. That means we need to act now to neutralize the effects of chronic stress. You’ve heard One Schoolhouse—along with dozens of educational and academic leaders—shout “Maslow before Bloom!” over the past six months. Basic needs include safety, love and belonging, and esteem, and we need them in order to grow and learn. That’s not just true for kids; it’s also true for the adults in our community. We need to take care of teachers, and each other, or none of us will be able to take care of our students.
There’s a lot that none of us can change about how this pandemic affects our work, but there are ways we can care for ourselves and our colleagues. I keep coming back to the bedrock of all transformational teaching: building relationships. We thrive in communities of meaningful connection. Before the pandemic, that meaningful connection was reinforced by spontaneous and informal moments, in line at the salad bar or in the faculty workroom: “Need to talk?” “What can I do to help?” In hybrid and online spaces, interactions almost never happen serendipitously. To strengthen our relationships with the adults in our communities, we need to develop systems of connections just like we do for our students.
I know there’s a fear that creating a system makes these interactions remote and inauthentic. I’d argue with that! If we say that strong relationships are the hallmark of our school, we need to prioritize the time it takes to build them. Humans also tend to build connections most easily with the people who are most like them. Creating a system helps us to ensure we’re connecting with everyone and that we don’t allow bias to infiltrate our networks of relationships. And these systems don’t have to be complex—all you need is some time you reserve to nurture connections and a list of your faculty and staff. Short notes—“I love the video you posted,” or “I’ve been thinking about how the news might be affecting you”—can make a difference in opening conversations and affirming the meaning of the work our teachers do each day.
We can’t change the conditions of this academic year, but we can change the way our communities respond and how we take care of each other in the midst of all we face. In schools, we are masterful at building systems that address deficits. Now, we need to turn that skill to supporting our strengths. We’ll survive, thrive, and emerge stronger by taking the time to nurture what matters most: our compassion and our connections.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)