“Do you live here?”, one of my students asked as we were putting on our coats to head outside for dismissal.
“No,” I answered. “But sometimes it certainly feels like I do.”
The pandemic has blurred the lines between home and school for many teachers. It lingers like an uninvited guest who has overstayed their welcome, overshadowing the work we do every day, with worries of school staying with us wherever we go.
Whether you are a School Board member, district leader, principal, teacher, parent, or student, you know how emotionally challenging this has been. The pandemic is not something any of us wanted. But here we are, over two years later, exhausted from the havoc it has left behind in our schools.
Since I am a classroom teacher, I know this story best from inside the classroom walls. But, there are other ways of seeing it, and one thing I know for sure is that no one’s role in this pandemic has been easy.
Classroom teachers have a unique perspective because we are the ones who have experienced the pandemic with the children. We are the ones who have welcomed them into our classrooms each day while still struggling to find our way through the logistical, cultural, and political battles of Covid-19. We are the ones who shaped pandemic learning day after day for our students, trying to offer comfort and certainty when there was little to offer.
And we are tired.
NPR reports that teachers this year are leaving in droves. Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, says, “Without exception, every stop I made, from Kentucky to Oakland, I heard those similar stories of educators who were exhausted, overwhelmed, feeling unloved, disrespected.” Unfortunately, this is true in schools all across America.
Is there anything we can do about it?
What does authentic, genuine support look like for teachers?
How can school leaders retain the talented teachers our students need?
I believe change can happen when policies are put in place, systems are established, and teachers receive the support they need to do their jobs well. These policies often start at the top.
Here’s some advice for school leaders who want to keep great educators in the classroom, followed by tips for teachers to get the support they need.
The school leader’s role in retaining teachers
1. Facilitate healing conversations
For teachers to move past the trauma they have faced, we must facilitate healing conversations. During the pandemic, classrooms closed down overnight, with students never returning to projects only half complete. Teaching routines were constantly interrupted, moving between remote, hybrid, and in-person learning without planning or training.
Conflicts arose at every turn, and teachers did not always agree on the best way forward. Nor did they always feel included or supported by those making decisions that put their health and livelihood at risk. At the same time, some teachers faced unprecedented and unwarranted criticism and threats over the curriculum they chose to include or not include in their classrooms.
These enormous losses and upheavals can’t be overlooked. For a community to move forward, they have to be addressed and discussed together as a staff, led by someone trained and competent at facilitating conversations where all voices can be heard. When a safe place is created for difficult emotions to be spoken, past trauma can begin to heal, and teachers can come together as a community that supports each other in the demanding work in front of them.
2. Be present
It is essential for school leaders to be present in classrooms to see teachers’ current challenges up close. Some of the best school leaders I’ve worked with are the ones who did daily walkthroughs in my classroom and spent a couple of minutes quietly observing what was happening. The intention of these non-evaluatory visits was to get a pulse of the school to know the strengths and the needs of teachers and children working there.
So when I went to my principal for support, they could say, “Yes, I understand. I’ve seen that happening. Let’s problem-solve together.” Or when my principal wanted to offer me a suggestion or a compliment, it was based on actual work I was doing, “The flexible seating you’ve arranged for your class seems to be working. How did you come up with that?” With specific, genuine feedback instead of empty praise, teachers feel seen, valued, and heard.
Schools leaders and instructional coaches need to spend time in classrooms. Help teachers see what’s going well and what needs to be adjusted. Then, when you make decisions or offer solutions, you know from experience what your teachers are dealing with.
For example, have you ever tried teaching enthusiastically and compassionately to a room full of children with a mask on for six hours? Do you understand how challenging that is? If not, give it a try to see what it looks and feels like. Then when you sit down at the table to have conversations about classroom practice, teachers know you care.
3. Honor teachers’ time
As teaching methods constantly change during the pandemic, every minute counts for teachers who never have enough time. Having agendas and clearly outlined objectives for meetings values teachers’ time. Providing teachers with a 30-minute duty-free lunch and separate planning time each day honors teachers’ time. Allowing them to do what they need to do — design learning and instruction for their students — shows you understand how important their work is.
Due to pandemic staff shortages, teachers have consistently lost the planning time they need to do their jobs well. That must come back. One of the most important things school leaders can do to support teachers is hiring additional staff to cover unnecessary duties for teachers.
Find ways to give educators the time they need to plan, reflect, learn about a new curriculum, evaluate student work, meet with colleagues, and communicate with parents.
Hire community members, parents, or other school employees to cover planning periods, lunch duties, and recess coverage so teachers can accomplish their essential work when they are not in front of students.
If these tasks are not completed during the school day, they must be done after teachers’ contractual hours. This is a huge factor leading to exhaustion and teacher burnout today.
4. Use shared decision-making
When developing solutions to address today’s challenges, teachers must be part of the conversation. They need a place to offer their professional opinions based on real-life classroom experience. When school leaders consistently make decisions without them, teachers feel unheard. Whether it is the purchase of a new curriculum or creating a school masking policy, bring teachers to the table to create a shared vision for moving forward.
Use efficient protocols to gather and reflect on the knowledge of your staff. Facilitate faculty meetings that are safe places to share ideas and discuss issues. On a district level, give teachers a representative seat on the School Board or leadership team to have a voice in decision-making.
With Google Forms, it is easy to survey the teachers in your school or district to hear their suggestions and concerns about what is happening in the classroom. Be transparent about the results and share them with the staff. Then, pull it apart and discuss it together. But then, most importantly, follow through on their recommendations and use that information to shape policy, protocol, and standard procedures that affect teachers’ workdays.
Of course, not everyone will get their wishes to come true, but just knowing your voice was heard and considered by all is empowering, makes teachers feel valued, and goes a long way in creating a shared vision where people feel included.
5. Communicate clearly
Things are constantly changing in schools depending on the current state of the virus, politics, or other pandemic impacts, making timely communication essential. Well-organized systems are needed to move hundreds of children in and out of a school safely each day. These systems need to be communicated clearly for a school to operate efficiently.
School leaders can update staff regularly by having a weekly staff newsletter with helpful information, encouragement, questions answered, agendas, and procedures outlined. There is comfort and reassurance in the clarity of details. The more organized these daily operational procedures are, the more teachers can focus on teaching.
With the pandemic, the need for school-wide protocols was increased significantly. Where are students eating indoors? How are we controlling traffic flow in the halls to avoid overcrowding?Who’s providing coverage for absent teachers? How are we evaluating and responding to increased student needs?
These are important systemic decisions that need to be determined together as a community, so all people feel heard and implemented consistently, so teachers are not left wondering. Without clear communication, teachers become overwhelmed by constantly creating and implementing the routines and policies that students need to make it through a successful school day.
6. Provide relevant professional development
This certainly is not the time to overload teachers with new ideas that are not directly related to surviving the upheavals of pandemic teaching. Instead, teachers need training in dealing with the overwhelming immediate issues confronting them each day.
How do we account for the growing range of abilities due to inequitable learning environments at home during the pandemic? How do we care for students’ social-emotional health? How do we build back trust in our schools? How do we provide manageable workloads for teachers? These are essential issues that need to be addressed by giving teachers the relevant professional training they need to meet the current demands of their jobs. Other important initiatives must wait.
During the pandemic, teachers had to bring their classrooms online overnight, and many of us had little or no training on how to do this. This leads to huge amounts of stress when you are left to figure things out on your own or left to repeatedly seek out individual support. Give teachers training in the systems, pedagogy, and curriculum they are expected to implement in their classrooms.
Sometimes, this can look like bringing in trained experts to model best practices during faculty meetings or a professional development day. Sometimes it can look like bringing teachers together to learn from each other. Provide ways for teachers to take learning walks through each other’s classrooms or set up mentors to support each other.
This year, I am in a Professional Learning Community (PLC) that meets once a month. The facilitator has every teacher upload a few pictures to a Google Slideshow of an activity they did during the month that worked well or a challenge they would like to get feedback on. By being in this space together, teachers share the highs and lows of what classroom life looks like right now. Community is formed as we celebrate successes, share strategies, and help each other through the challenges. Having dedicated time during contractual hours to do this and a facilitator who makes it happen helps teachers feel less alone, more supported, and valued in their work.
7. Listen to teachers
The needs of teachers will be different depending on your district, school, and student population. So how can you best support the teachers in your school?
Listen to their concerns. Take them seriously.
I have seen this happen through a “Rose, Thorn, and Bud” exercise at the end of a faculty meeting where each staff member anonymously writes one thing that is going well, one thing that is challenging, and one thing they are hoping for. Look to see if there are common themes. Bring the concerns back to the staff with transparency, use meetings or in-service days to problem-solve together, and develop a plan for moving forward.
Instead of encouraging “self-care” as a way to ease teachers’ stress, come together as a community to care for each other by developing strategies to work through the challenges as a team. Ensure adequate support staff is available to help teachers address students’ current academic and mental health needs — so they are not shouldering those burdens alone. Don’t ignore the challenges, ask for positive comments only, or walk back into your office and shut the door. Be present and be a part of the solution.
If you are a district leader or School Board member, this activity can also be done anonymously through Google Forms and lets you hear directly from your teachers. Taking the time to listen to teachers’ voices and acknowledge that you heard them shows you genuinely care. It is a way to receive honest feedback about systemic policies and gives teachers a place to speak freely about the challenges facing your school community so you can see where change must happen.
What can teachers do to get this kind of support?
1. Create a solidarity team
Teachers need a supportive community to help them navigate the revolving door of changes and expectations the pandemic has brought to our classrooms. Look for other like-minded teachers in your school or district to discuss these challenges. If that community is not available, look online for support, ideas, and inspiration.
This year, I found tremendous support through the Truth For Teachers community and Edutopia, where other educators share stories of best practices. When I was out of ideas, they had some great ones to offer. In the same way, it was rewarding for me to provide others with similar support. There is satisfaction in giving and receiving feedback from others experiencing the same challenges. These online communities consist of positive, realistic, forward-thinking teachers who, on many days, gave me the hope or practical support I needed to keep going.
2. Speak up
Advocate with other teachers in your school to the administration or School Board for changes that need to happen, such as abiding by the language in your contract or making sure adequate safety protocols are in place in your building. Speaking up as a group is a powerful tool, especially if you can find solidarity with others in your school.
Seek help from your local or state teachers’ union if you are a part of one and know the rights you have in your contract. Your union leadership team can bargain for a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), a legal document describing an agreement between the union and school district, for changes in contractual language that meet the demands of today’s learning environment. This MOU can establish better working conditions for teachers and is often an excellent place to start creating change.
If you cannot find solidarity with colleagues, don’t be afraid to speak up on your own. Write letters, attend meetings, advocate for what you know your students need. No one knows your students and their needs better than you, so don’t be afraid to speak up to the people who set policies for your school.
For example, when remote learning was not working for my first graders, I advocated loudly to school administration and our School Board for an outdoor learning program to be established at our school in response to the pandemic. I worked hard with other teachers and parent volunteers to make that happen. What are your needs? What are the challenges that face your school or classroom? Make those concerns known to those in leadership roles and try to get others to speak up with you.
3. Set boundaries
For your health and well-being, set limits on how much time you devote to school. You most likely work under a contract, and after your contractual hours are over, you have control of how many hours you give to schoolwork.
Find ways to focus your energy during the day to be as productive as possible and accomplish the essential tasks on your list. Then at some point, say, “This is enough.” Make a plan to leave school (and the heavy teachers’ bag full of work) behind, and head home to care for yourself and your family.
You are important, and your time is important. The thing your students need most is a healthy, caring adult to show up and be present for them every day. The best way to do this is to find ways to care for yourself and set boundaries on how much time you will give to work. Take deep breaths and remember you are doing the best you can, and that will have to be enough.
4. Leave the door open to other possibilities
Some of you may be in the position of having given all you can to your current school, and it still is not a good fit for you. Listen to the signs your body is giving you. I’ve heard stories of teachers crying in their car before entering the building or being up all night worrying if they had the strength to return in the morning. These are signs it is time to move on to another school, another district, another job.
Remember that the door is open. It is empowering to know that you can search for better options for yourself. If your employer no longer meets your needs at this point in your career, you can look for a new employer whose values line up better with your professional goals. If you need support in doing this, check out the Teacher Career Coach for a community that will support you every step of the way.
These strategies have always been an essential part of building strong, healthy school communities but are even more critical now as we face daunting challenges the pandemic has left behind. So let’s make sure these supports are in place for our teachers. Let’s do all we can to hear their voices, support their work, and find ways to make it more sustainable. The well-being of our students and the success of our communities in a post-pandemic world depends on us.
Alissa Alteri Shea
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