How Leaders Can Care for Their Teachers

Just titling this post and topic feel tricky. On the one hand, school leaders are relentless, inspiring, rock-steady, compelling forces that guide their teachers, staff, and students towards what can be and should have been. They are the brave ones, steering the ship into uncharted waters. They are the present ones, answering the Sunday evening phone calls no one else has to receive. They are the anchoring ones, steady the ground as it often falls out from underneath everyone for whom they are responsible.

School leaders are 21st-Century warriors in the truest sense. Their love and dedication to their people propels them to come to school each day, so show up so the show may go on.

But, as the past 11 months has taught us, societal trauma creates an unimaginable weight that we all must bear. And, unfortunately, school leaders cannot carry the weight of their entire schools, or communities, on their shoulders alone. It should never have been asked or expected of them, though they are there, steadfast and willing to life with all their might.

When COVID-19 brought our school systems to a grinding halt, school leaders did their best to provide sanctuary, calm, patience, and reassurance to the frantic. They pivoted in poetic ways to ensure student and family needs were met, that food was distributed, homes were secure, and health needs were priority.

In the fall of 2020, many leaders faced the evolving crisis with encouragement, guidance, and dare I say--a desire to embrace the opportunity for transformation. Though daunting and unyielding, the battle to adapt our learning environments for all students promised new learning opportunities for adults. In a sense, school leaders were able to see the rose-colored learning opportunities for again, what they could be--of promises for growth.

However, not everyone in education felt (or was ready to feel) this way.

While school leaders must lead with positive, forward-thinking presence, they must also prepare for the exact opposite from those they serve. They must prepare to support and listen and care for teachers who are hurting, afraid, overwhelmed, anxious, exhausted, and lost. Even the best teachers, the rockstars, the go-getters, the innovators--will hit their walls of "enough!" at some point.

So, when we ask ourselves the question, "How can we care for our teachers?" school leaders must, collectively choose--no matter how difficult--to know and love their staff.

I posed this question to several online groups, and quite surprisingly, I quickly saw trends in answers from principals and leaders. One vein of leaders said that to care for our teachers we need to, "create predictable schedules, offer feedback, give clear timelines, set high, but manageable, expectations." While these suggestions are strong, and I can't disagree that teachers need all of these from their leaders, I was struck by the lack of emotional connection this group provided.

Especially when compared to these comments: "Know each person, lead the way your favorite leader led, listen, ask questions to learn, be your real self."

We cannot care for people we do not know, and we cannot truly know people we do not take the time to see. With all of the requests and daily needs thrown at school leaders, stopping to be near our staff, to ask about their families, to listen when they are hurt, to say we are sorry when we make mistakes...well, these things can easily fall to the bottom of our to-do lists.

To care for our staff requires that we do less and be more.

School leaders need to be given permission (first and foremost by themselves) to trust that who they are is enough to support and care for their people. You are not responsible for fixing any or all of the problems. You don't need to lead the pain or emotion away.

You simple need to be willing to sit in the sadness, the confusion, the frustration, the pain, when the times come. You need to listen and nod and go, "mmm hmmm" and say things like, "Yeah, that is really tough" or "I know! I'm upset about this for you!" You need to be you, and let your teachers be themselves, too.

Caring for someone means that we see that person for who they are and how they feel, and we accept them no matter how uncomfortable their pain may make us.

To truly care for our teachers, we need to slow down, listen fully, and love more.

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