How School Leaders Can Create the Conditions to Support Teacher Self-Care

Encouraging true self-care for faculty and staff often means finding solutions to the more systemic challenges that cause stress and overwhelm. Here are a few actions to consider.
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Blog date
7/26/22
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As school leaders, we don’t need to tell you: teacher burnout is real. In fact, it might be one of the key pieces contributing to your own stress and overwhelm.

When burnout is near—no matter who the burnout is affecting—we talk about self-care: the strategies and practices individuals can incorporate to protect their well-being and happiness, particularly during times of stress. And while there’s plenty of research to suggest educators at every level would benefit from the types of self-care we’re familiar with—mindfulness techniques, moving our bodies, and connecting with people we love and care about—we also know that the teachers in your classrooms often put their own wellness aside to care for their students. Try as we might, self-care is oftentimes easier said than done. 

However, there’s also a larger issue at play. While there’s a time and place for a more individualized approach to teacher self-care and mental health, there’s also a need for a broader, systemic change within schools—the kind of change that gets to the root cause of the stress and anxiety. 

As a school leader, how do you truly move the needle—and move those boulders—to create an environment where educators are able to fill their metaphorical cups and sustain their passion for staying in their profession, where they’re so needed? It can start by taking a few small steps in the right direction, like the ones we’ve outlined below. For a full list of innovative strategies, read our series: Innovative Ways to Create a Positive School (and District) Culture.

While there's a time and place for a more individualized approach to teacher self-care and mental health, there’s also a need for broader, systemic change within schools—the kind of change that gets to the root cause of the stress and anxiety. 

Kick off the school year by establishing a charter with your faculty and staff

Many teachers establish classroom charters with their students—a set of norms and values they create together for how they want to feel in their classroom, the actions they’ll take to ensure those feelings, and how they plan to manage conflict. It serves as a “North Star” of sorts, helping students to share a sense of responsibility in keeping the classroom a good environment for everyone.

Similarly, putting your faculty and staff’s emotional needs in writing may create a similar sense of responsibility—and that’s exactly what an Emotional Intelligence Charter can do. Popularized by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER approach, the charter gives you and your faculty and staff an opportunity to reflect on the feelings and behaviors of your learning community as a whole. 

When there’s a shared set of norms for how you and your educators interact with and treat one another, it creates a foundation of trust.

Building an Emotional Intelligence Charter begins with a simple question: How do we want to feel as faculty and staff? Followed by: What do we need to do for everyone to feel this way? The goal is to create a charter with realistic, attainable actions that contribute to the desired feeling. 

It’s important that the charter be a living document that you can return to with your faculty and staff—creating opportunities to reflect on where you are as a school community. When there’s a shared set of norms for how you and your educators interact with and treat one another, it creates a foundation of trust.

Find ways to give teachers more time back

In education, everyone wishes they had extra hours in the day. This is especially true of teachers, whose time was already in short supply prior to the pandemic. As the pandemic has continued, teachers continue to do more with less—recover learning loss among their students, learn new educational technology, and in many cases, cover extra classes due to teacher and staffing shortages. 

When teachers have the time they need, they’re able to give more deep thought to what matters most—thinking about their classroom practices and adjusting instruction if need be. 

The school year ahead offers the opportunity to reset and ensure your teachers have the planning time they need. Talking directly with your teachers will help determine what can be taken off their plates, but here are a few ideas to start the conversation:

Streamline communication

Is there a way to cut back on non-essential meetings throughout the week or make them shorter? Additionally, are there opportunities to reduce emails by restructuring communications methods, such as sending a daily update?

Simplify initiatives and programs

Brainstorm with your faculty and staff about whether there are new ideas or programs being considered for the coming year that can be put on hold without negatively impacting your school community. Or audit programs currently in place that are no longer working and prioritize what’s most important. Either way, this helps your teachers—and you—focus your energy on where it matters most: meeting the learning needs of your students. 

Be strategic with staffing approaches

School staffing challenges will continue to be a challenge in the year ahead, which will make scenario planning crucial. Are there ways to create alternate schedules or staffing plans that protect teachers’ planning time? Or create shared banks of resources that are ready for last-minute coverage plans when unexpected absences occur. 

When teachers have the time they need, they’re able to give more deep thought to what matters most—thinking about their classroom practices and adjusting instruction if need be. 

Reframing your own role as a school leader

A just-released publication from The Aspen Institute’s Education and Society Program, called “Rethinking the Role of the Principal,” calls for the complete reorientation of a principal’s role for the 21st century. The paper outlines a seismic shift away from a school principal’s current focus on operations and compliance toward a fuller picture of what a school leader entails—a role focused on instructional leadership, student success in academics, social-emotional learning (SEL), and a deeper focus on school culture, wellness, and community engagement.

The publication says when school leaders are able to address the needs and priorities of their school communities through building a positive school climate, they’re able to truly transform K-12 education. This shift creates leaders who are culturally responsive, prioritize equity, and see to it that their community’s values and experiences are reflected in the schools they lead. 

Now is a good time to reset your own idea of a principal: someone who sees academics, SEL, and school culture as intertwined and works with their teachers to bring this vision to life.

Many school leaders have felt the immense pressure over the last two years to be the manager of so much. Now is a good time to reset your own idea of a school principal: someone who sees academics, SEL, and school culture as intertwined and works with teachers to bring this vision to life.

Rethinking the act of self-care

Considering self-care and wellness not only through an individual lens but also a systemic one is a critical part of finding solutions for the persistent burnout, stress, and overwhelm among your teachers and staff members—and you, too.

By tackling the broader issues that often prohibit teachers from having a chance to practice their individual self-care, it shows you’re committed to making their well-being a priority in the short and the long term. 

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