School Leaders Take Note: Teacher Care is a Lot More Than Self-Care

If you get burned in a fire, you first treat the wound, but you also try to put the fire out. In education, we treat the wound and then usher our teachers back into the fire. Excuse the pun but they are more than burned out, they are scorched.

Chelsea Prax, a program director at the American Federation of Teachers, sums it up succinctly.

“You can’t deep-breathe your way out of a pandemic; you cannot stretch your way out of terrible class sizes; you cannot ‘individual behavior’ your way out of structural problems,” she says.

This quote, which comes from Education Week’s aptly titled piece, Teachers Are Not OK, Even Though We Need Them to Be, is just one of numerous articles, reports, and statements outlining the stress that educators are under, and the well-intentioned but flawed approach of asking educators to save themselves.

Just in the past month, we’ve read:

But the only solutions we are presented revolve around “self-care,” i.e., rest, relaxation, meditation, physical activity, and yoga. Basically, it’s up to you to save yourself. No doubt these strategies are helpful in addressing the wound, but they do little to nothing to address the cause. For many educators, being asked to “find time for themselves” is both impossible and, in itself, stress-inducing when finding time is not a real option.

Larry Ferlazzo, the award-winning teacher who writes a popular education blog and a teacher advice column, recently wrote, “I teach in an almost ideal situation and I’m exhausted after just the first month of this year. I don’t know how others who might be in less than ideal situations are handling it.”

The experts are exhausted. The experienced are exhausted. We can safely assume that those new to the profession are exhausted too.

So, what do we do?

We must stop expecting educators to save themselves and instead start to address the group climate and culture of our schools. We must improve the environments that educators find themselves in every day and at a minimum decrease the stress and increase the support available in that setting. Collaboratively, we must start to address the systems that we have helped foster that has caused much of the stress in the first place.

If we only focus on self-care, we only affect the top of what I’ve coined the Wellbeing Pyramid. Not only is the effect temporary but it butts up too often against unsupportive environments and unresponsive systems. We must target the group interactions and focus on our school cultures, and then we must address the underlying causes. We give most attention to the Self but we must place more attention on the Group and eventually the System.

Sean Slade, 2021.

As educators, or in fact, as anyone who works with children and youth, we have less impact over our System—the scheduling, supports, time for collaboration, funding, duties, responsibilities, and accountability systems. But we have more influence over the Group and consequently our culture and climate at the school. This is reflective of how we—the adults—treat each other. How we interact, how we react, and how we support one another.

And while everyone in the school setting, from students, to staff, to families, influences the culture and climate, the person, or persons, who influence our school cultures the most are our school leaders. As my colleague Alyssa Gallagher and I wrote earlier this year, “Principals have the power to set the tone and establish a new order of business in a school. The principal provides education credibility to almost any initiative they champion, and as such, most school teams buy-in.”

How do we do this?

We start by enhancing and improving the ways we interact and the ways we react to one another. These skills can be learned and fostered, but in general, they revolve around core understandings and actions.

  • Acknowledging individuals, both personally as well as professionally
  • Demonstrating our human side of collaboration, and of leadership
  • Increasing our own understanding of how we react to, and interact with others
  • Adjusting our communication and leadership styles.

If we continue to focus only on self-care without addressing the causes of the stress we lose in both the middle and long game. We must start to focus more attention on the venues where we work and the interactions that influence the culture. This will not alleviate all stress (after all, most stress comes from our system), but if we continue to build our schools into places of care, support and positive interactions, we start to buffer the system stresses and support the self-care that may take place.

It is not teachers’ responsibility to save and take care of themselves; it is our responsibility to help ensure and develop safe, supportive environments with them.