Filling Teachers with Love So They Can Share Love

By SEL in Action Community

This chat is part of a community chat series led by Innovation in SEL grantees from across the country. Community chats invite educators to come together to exchange promising SEL practices, co-create solutions to challenges, and tap into peer support. This summary reflects key themes and takeaways that emerged from the conversation.

 

As the 2019 SEL in Action convening came to a close in Albuquerque, teacher care was on everyone’s minds.

  • “Everyone carries some kind of baggage with us. As educators, we need to be taken care of as well. My intention is to nurture you.”
  • “At first I was feeling some guilt for being here at this convening. My colleagues deserve this too.”
  • “Our staff need space to reflect on self-care together, to connect, and to gain new ideas.”

Students are always the first priority, but teachers can only fully show up for students if they themselves feel loved and supported. Given these reflections and charge, several educators from the community came together to discuss ways of nurturing and taking care of teachers. 

We considered the questions: How might you take better care of yourself and your colleagues? What might you do to spread the love in your school and fill teachers’ hearts? 

This is a summary of our conversation.

 

Teachers Deserve Love

Teachers are caregivers. Everyday, they give love to students in so many ways. They share their passion for learning. They comfort and console students when they are angry, sad, or stressed. They do everything in their power to create a caring and welcoming learning environment. Being the caregivers they are, so often they put the needs of their students above all else. 

But teaching is seriously hard work, and everyone knows you cannot pour from an empty cup. Teachers also need and deserve love. 

As participants shared why they were drawn to a conversation about teacher self-care and peer support, several themes emerged.

  • There’s always too much to do, and too little time. Teachers are running so fast and doing so much from bell to bell, not to mention putting in hours before and after school. As one participant shared, “We’re all in survival mode rather than pushing each other forward positively.” How can we give teachers some space and time to take a breath?
  • Students have very real, essential needs for SEL that are often exacerbated by trauma and systems of oppression. Teachers have rarely been trained in how to meet the SEL needs of students. Further, teachers may experience secondary or vicarious trauma as a result of supporting students and families who have experienced trauma. Stress-induced spikes in blood pressure, headaches, and avoidance behaviors are among the ways teachers can be impacted.
  • Advocating for SEL and anti-racist pedagogy when others—especially the school leader—don’t get it is emotionally exhausting. A toxic school culture will drain every last drop of love and energy from teachers. Teacher burn-out, isolation, and lack of support contribute to the fact that more than 40% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years. How can we help teachers persist in these environments?
  • Celebrating staff takes a back-seat to celebrating students. One person shared that her colleagues submit dozens of “Student of the Month” nominations, but it’s difficult to get even a few nominations for staff. Why is that? Becoming an adult and professional does not reduced our human need to be seen and celebrated.
  • Teachers leaders find themselves in the tricky position of peer and administrator. Inherent to the job is caring for their colleagues and supporting them in their professional learning. As teachers themselves, they know all-too-well the kind of love and support their colleagues need. And yet, the leadership position can feel isolating. For others, politics add another layer of stress and pressure to show up in a certain way. How can teacher leaders connect and create a supportive peer culture? 
  • Teachers need SEL, just as students do. If teachers are not well, they cannot nourish others. What SEL practices are good for educators? How can schools fill teachers with love and support their well-being.

 

Strategies—Big and Small—for Filling Teachers with Love

So what to do? First, let’s acknowledge that there are a million ways to fill teachers with love and these run along a spectrum from simple to complex. In some cases, a small step can go a long way for shifting the school culture and bringing love to staff. On the other hand, it’s important to recognize that a much more intensive and transformational approach is needed in other cases. Following are some strategies that were discussed during the chat.

Spread Love and Appreciation

The impact of telling teachers how much they are appreciated, with sincerity, should not be underestimated. Create a space and forum for exchanging shout-outs, and find some way to make the practice easy and habitual. You might set up a bulletin board where teachers can place notes for their colleagues, dedicate five minutes at the end of every staff meeting for shout-outs, leave cards in teachers’ mailboxes, or spread gratitude with students’ help. Change up the theme every month to keep things fresh and provide inspiration for genuine notes of appreciation.

Build Community

Research from Gallup shows year after year that having a best friend at work significantly impacts employee engagement and productivity. The importance of peer connection and support is something we all know from personal experience, as well. Nearly anything is possible when there’s a team standing beside you. Fill teachers with love by building community. Infuse fun into staff celebrations and school traditions. Invite teachers’ families into the building for recreational activities, such as game or movie night. Use virtual chat tools like Voxer or Marco Polo to stay connected with friends in and out of the building. Encourage mentor/mentee or buddy type relationships to ensure every teacher has someone they can turn to for coaching and support. Lastly, intentionally integrate opportunities for productive teacher collaboration both within and across disciplines. 

Establish Structures for Reflection, Peer Support, and Feedback

When the days and weeks are hard, teachers can benefit from opportunities to honestly share the good, bad, and ugly, reflect, and get feedback from peers. One individual shared, “The reason that I get through my days at my work is because I have a team whom I can trust. We’re able to connect to each other and that’s what keeps me going.” A recent article by Lory Peroff echoes the importance of team and collaboration: “Despite being surrounded by people all day, teaching can be a very isolating profession, if teachers don’t make a concerted effort to break down the walls of the classroom. Sharing with and learning from other educators is a very powerful tool.” 

One tool that a participant recommended is narrative therapy or “verbatim,” a tactic commonly used by chaplains during their training. Meeting with a peer group, one individual presents a first-hand account (story) of a specific teaching experience. The other listen, re-construct the experience alongside the presenter, and offer ideas and feedback about ways the teacher might have gone about things differently. Teachers are filled with love through their experiences with reflection, listening, and co-construction.

Support Wellness and Mental Health

Last but not least, we discussed the importance of supporting teacher wellness and mental health. Take inspiration from Three Village School District where they set up a staff “Well”ville room and care program for staff. Soft lighting, relaxing music, lounge chairs, puzzles, and a meditation area go a long way. We also love the idea to solicit donations from local business for wellness offerings, such as yoga classes, music performers, or catering. Ask for staff (and student!) volunteers to lead wellness committee that finds way to care for staff. A more significant but highly impactful investment: provide mental health training and counseling, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), to help teachers deal with negative thoughts and stress.

 

Where To Go From Here?

It’s hard to overstate the importance of filling teachers with love so they can share love. As a community, let’s continue to encourage one another and exchange feasible ways of nurturing ourselves and our colleagues. Take the time to remember:

Teaching is hard work. 

I do my best everyday. 

Like my students, I deserve rest and care.

Thank you to all who joined this online community gathering. We’ll keep the conversations going through a series of online chats throughout the school year. You’re invited to join the next conversation on Wednesday, December 4, 2019 at 6:30 PM ET on the topic of getting others to buy-in to SEL. Sign up today to join us.