By Andrew Hawk
When I was completing my undergraduate work, the number of teachers who would leave the teaching field within the first five years was widely discussed by professors and students. When people approach me for advice about entering education, I tell them how much I have enjoyed my career. However, I also emphasize that a person has to love teaching, or they may not be happy on a long-term basis. Teaching is challenging work. Teachers focus their energy on meeting the needs of their students while trying to balance their lives at home. Then you add in the pressure that comes from various sources such as trying to achieve a good letter grade for your school, and it is not hard to see how teachers find themselves in need of emotional first aid. Here are some things that principals can try to support their teachers’ mental health.
Build a Culture of Trust
This is sound advice for any school or organization. For this reason, people have written books on the importance of trust in the work place. It is a challenge to stay emotionally healthy while working as a teacher in general, but adding in a toxic work environment makes it nearly impossible. I can attest to this from an experience I had at the beginning of my career. A culture of trust does not just appear—it has to be established over time. Letting your staff know that this is a priority is a good first step.
Know When Enough Is Enough
If administrators are not careful, they can bury their teachers under a mountain of paperwork, all in the name of accountability. While I value accountability too, I still want my teachers to prioritize planning lessons that meet the needs of their students above clerical tasks that I ask them to complete. Assess your current practices and reflect on whether you can take anything off of your teachers’ plates.
Implement Morale Boosters
Yes, they are cheesy and sometimes lame, but these little activities also tend to make people smile. I can remember a principal of mine who called a staff meeting only to let us play board games for an hour. At my current school, a local gas station donated a soft drink for every staff member. What you choose to do will depend on your school and setting, but I think you will find many morale boosters take little time and funding.
School improvement goals can be overwhelming. No matter how good a school is, you can always write a goal to get better. To help keep your teachers fresh, prioritize all the goals on your plan and place emphasis on one or at most two of them.
Let Your Teachers Be People
One of the challenges of being a teacher is that the school day takes up nearly all of the “business hours” of the day. Teachers still have aging parents they take care of and kids who have appointments. Not to mention, they themselves sometimes need to go to the eye doctor or visit the dentist. It is stressful if you think your boss is going to be upset with you because you need a day off. Administrators want their teachers in the classroom because that is what gets the best results, but we also need to stop and remember that our teachers are people too.
Set a Good Example
Just like with other areas of professionalism, principals should model the behavior they expect from their teachers. Tell your teachers that this weekend you are going to take an entire day and not do anything that has to do with school, then do it. Exercise, hobbies, pets, day trips, and pleasure reading are all great ways to defragment yourself. Pick a couple of these to try and then tell your staff about your success.
Form a Committee
Most schools keep some sort of social committee anyway to plan baby showers and staff events. If this committee is already in place, add emotional health as an agenda item at your next meeting. You are likely to gain some insights about how your staff feel and how you can support them.
Be Ready to Listen
Principals often form strong bonds with their faculty. This helps when a principal has to offer the constructive criticism that will help a teacher reach their full potential. These bonds can also set a principal up to be a safe person for their teachers. Being a safe person means that a teacher may want to tell you about how they are going through a divorce or having trouble with a son or daughter. Though some may argue that it is not appropriate to engage in such conversations with subordinates, I believe it is inevitable. While I never seek out personal details about my teachers’ lives, I am always ready to listen if they need me to listen. I think getting things off their chests helps them focus more on teaching.
Stay healthy, everyone!
Andrew Hawk has worked in public education for 18 years. He started as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He completed his bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. Andrew has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. Andrew has worked as a resource room teacher and also has taught in a self-contained classroom for students on the autism spectrum. In 2017, he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership, also from Western Governor’s University. This is Andrew’s first year as a building principal. He is the principal of an elementary school that houses kindergarten through fifth grades. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with this wife and two daughters.
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