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Roy Kent gets it. There’s a scene in the last episode of this season’s Ted Lasso where the team’s game plan doesn’t seem to be working. The coaches huddle together in Ted’s office and debate whether they should stick with the plan or try something new.

Roy Kent, a former soccer player, points to the players in the locker room and says, “Why don’t we ask them? They’re the ones playing the game.” Okay, that’s not exactly what he said. He used his typical Roy Kent salty language. But you get the idea. In choosing systems and strategies, the people with the best firsthand knowledge at the players on the football pitch.

Notice that Roy Kent doesn’t deny his expertise. He’s still a coach with full coaching duties. He’s also a legend with immense football knowledge. But in this moment, he doesn’t lean on his legendary status or the years of experience he’s gained. Instead, he recognizes what he’s not: a player. He humbly admits that he doesn’t know what it’s like to be a footballer in that moment because he is no longer playing the game.

In this scene, each of the coaches leave their office and step into the locker room to ask for player feedback.

My best administrators did this all the time. They were able to say, “Let’s ask the teachers” and they did so as more than just lip service. They genuinely listened and sought out our advice. Some were blunt like Roy. Some were quiet, like Coach Beard. One was loquacious and positive, like Ted.

Being on the sideline doesn’t make you irrelevant. It doesn’t strip you of your authority or your expertise or your experience. We need leaders who can observe and guide from the side. We need coaches who can offer their expertise in the moment. But we can never assume that leaders and coaches know what it’s like to be a player. The moment you step away, you begin to lose some of that firsthand experiential knowledge.

I’m no longer a K-12 classroom teacher. I have strong memories of teaching in an underfunded middle school. I remember days when we had no school supplies. I recall the moment when I realized it had been two straight months without a prep period because we had no subs. But I have no memories of teaching during a pandemic. I don’t have to tell my college students to pull up their mask 2,017 times a day. I don’t have frantic parents making demands at 7 pm. I don’t know what it’s like to be a teacher. I could get guess or I could try to relate it to my own experience but the best approach is to ask the teachers.

I realize that a classroom isn’t a football pitch but I think there’s some wisdom in taking a Roy Kent approach.

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The Struggle Is Real

I recently asked a group of teachers to identify the challenges they were facing. Here’s what they shared:

  • Lack of soft skills in students
  • Lack of engagement and participation among students
  • Lack of substitute teachers
  • Additional administrative tasks that they didn’t have in the past
  • Challenging student behaviors
  • Demanding parents
  • Too many new initiatives
  • An increase in emails

Note that these are almost all systems issues. It’s not enough to have a positive attitude or the right mindset. Creative and innovative teachers are facing huge barriers based on the larger context of a pandemic and the way it is impacting the systems and structures of their schools. I haven’t met a single teacher who isn’t feeling this struggle.

The Struggle Is Universal But the Pain is Particular

Although the struggle is common, we are all in different places with our pain. Many teachers are exhausted right now. They are feeling the effects of doing too much. There’s this sense of overwhelm at the seemingly unending tasks that keep piling up. For these teachers, the real challenge is simply that of time, energy, and capacity compared to workplace demands.

Other teachers are feeling a sense of failure. In some cases, it’s an issue of shame fueled by the message that if there are any problems in the classroom, it’s the teacher’s fault. Consider the challenges teachers are facing with classroom management. When a teacher says, “The students are more challenging this year,” it doesn’t mean they are being anti-student. Admitting that classroom management is harder and pointing to trends in challenging behavior is not indicative of lower expectations or a deficit view. Telling a teacher to “just be positive” or “look on the bright side” denies their current pain.

There’s almost this pressure to say, “The kids are great. It’s the system that’s hard.” But I wonder if that creates a mindset where teachers end up with no permission to feel frustrated with late work, constant interruptions, and other challenges they are facing. You can love your students and still feel frustrated by certain behaviors. You can recognize the role of trauma and still want to be treated with respect. We need to recognize that this year is not normal and pretending that we’re not in a pandemic is a form of gaslighting.

Jennifer Gonzalez wrote a phenomenal piece called “Teachers Are Barely Hanging On” and one piece really stood out to me. It was the role that gender plays into this gaslighting and shame.

The teaching profession is still overwhelmingly female, right? And what we’re talking about is a system in which a whole bunch of people are basically getting exploited for unpaid labor. That exploitation seems to be fueled primarily through gaslighting, examples of which can be found here, here, and here, for starters.

In some cases, it feels more internal. So many teachers I know have left the building each day with a sense that they are no longer good at their jobs. One of the best teachers I know said, “I hate the fact that I leave each day feeling like my lessons aren’t as good as they should be. My classroom culture isn’t as tight as it should be. Nothing is as good as it should be. I’m not looking for perfection. I’m just looking for that elusive good.”

For other teachers, the challenge is decision fatigue. When a person makes too many decisions, they often have a reduction in the quality of their decisions over time. The sheer number of decisions and the challenges in making tough decisions can lead to a sense of exhaustion. When this occurs, people are more likely to avoid making decisions and to make impulsive negative decisions. It can become harder to self-regulate.

We work in a profession packed with decisions. This is part of why so many new teachers crash at the end of the day. They are drained from the sheer number of intentional decisions they have to make. While veteran teachers have routines and certain skills that have become automatic, new teachers are learning these skills for the first time. They don’t have the same muscle memory. Now, amid the pandemic, many teachers are feeling like new teachers all over again. With the context changing so rapidly, it’s hard to plan in advance or create any kind of predictable routines.

In some cases, the issue goes beyond fatigue. Certain teachers are experiencing vicarious trauma (or secondhand trauma). As teachers build relationships with students, they come face-to-face with the trauma students are facing during the pandemic. The constant empathy and engagement can lead to symptoms that resemble actual trauma. Many teachers are experiencing behavioral challenges in students who have faced trauma during the pandemic. In some cases, teachers are experiencing firsthand trauma as well. If you are experiencing trauma, please seek out professional help. It’s a sign of strength and humility to go to a licensed professional so that you can heal.

I also want to recognize that administrators are in an impossible situation this year as well. We are hearing a lot about teacher burnout but so many principals are working tirelessly and navigating the challenges of mask mandates, angry parents, significant school-wide discipline issues, staffing shortages, and cultural issues (like the battle over Critical Race Theory). Moreover, the policies tend to continue with a “back to normal” approach with a huge emphasis on standardized testing and an overblown crisis about “learning loss.” Many of these administrators are experiencing their own trauma and vicarious trauma with the added layer of isolation and loneliness.

There is no one-size-fits-all for preventing burnout or for dealing with fatigue because the pain is so individualized. It is not as simple as taking a day off, focusing on self-care, or choosing to stay positive. This is why it’s important that key decision-makers are able to pull a Roy Kent and ask the teachers.So what exactly does this mean?

Ask Teachers What They Need

About eight years ago, I made this continuum for myself to think through whether I’m tired or actually injured. This isn’t scientific or anything. It’s just a tool I made for myself eight years ago, when I faced true moral injury and realized I needed more than just rest. That was my hardest year of teaching. We had a new principal who led from a place of insecurity and it led to a culture of fear. Ten teachers quit the profession altogether. Many more transferred. It was the only time in my life I experienced panic attacks. For me, I needed something more than rest. I needed healing.

Here’s how it works:

  • Rest: I need a break but I’m also ready to learn
  • Recovery: I need a longer break with deeper processing
  • Restoration: Something was taken from me this year and I need systems changes, culture change, and support
  • Rehabilitation: I’m hurting and need healing and therapy to recover from this year

It can help to ask teachers the following questions:

  • Where are you on this continuum?
  • What do you need in order to move toward health?
  • What policies, systems, or resources could we provide to help you thrive right now?

Ask Teachers About Professional Development

Earlier this week, I gave a keynote and sessions for teachers in Nebraska. I began with the disclaimer I always give, that the goal is to hear an affirmation for what they’re already doing rather than a challenge to radically change their practice. After my keynote, a teacher walked up to me and said, “I felt encouraged by what you shared and it felt energizing but I’ve got to tell you that I disagree.”

“About what part?” I asked.

“The beginning. I came here looking for new ideas. This year is hard but I feel like what I’ve always isn’t working and I’m open to trying something new. I appreciate the ideas that you shared and I have a few new things I’m going to try.”

This was an important reminder for me because I felt the opposite way during my hardest year of middle school teaching. I didn’t want to learn about new teaching strategies. I had been using project-based learning and design thinking for years at that point. What I needed was the chance to experiment and try new things as I figured out what PBL would look like for students with significant Attention Deficit Disorder or Oppositional Defiance Disorder. I needed to figure out how to integrate things I had been learning about executive function and dyslexia with things I had tried before around student voice and choice.

I didn’t need new content. I needed time and space to process things. But I also discovered that I needed something else. I needed to hear that I wasn’t alone. I needed stories where people were vulnerable and shared their mistakes. That’s when I discovered Jon Harper’s podcast “My Bad,” where educators shared their epic mistakes. Hearing these stories allowed me to feel less lonely in the challenges I was facing.

I also needed a space where I could process what was going on; a space where I could be vulnerable and ask for help. I wanted to problem-solve my challenges. During that time, I joined my first ever Mastermind Group and together we set goals, problem-solved challenges, and shared stories. It was a restorative experience.

I mention this because teachers need voice and choice in their own professional learning. It’s an idea I explored in this sketch video:

Teachers need the freedom to choose how much professional learning they want to engage in. For example, some are looking for coaching sessions but some just need extra time alone. Some are energized by a conference while others don’t want to leave their classrooms right now. Teachers also need choice in the format and approach to professional learning. Schools can provide options around online and asynchronous professional development rather than requiring face-to-face workshops.

Ask Teachers About Resources

It can be enlightening to ask teachers what they need, in terms of resources. Some teachers want a comprehensive school-wide discipline program while others are managing their classrooms well and would rather not learn a new system. For them, classroom management is still pretty doable. Similarly, some teachers want a boxed curriculum. They feel overwhelmed by planning and a packaged curriculum means they can take something off their plate. These teachers have a creative approach where they enjoy curating resources and experimenting with materials. Other teachers need the permission to go off-script and design their own materials. These teachers need the permission to create something new.

We need to trust teachers to innovate and we need to recognize that each different has a different approach to innovation. There is no instruction manual.

Right now, there are teachers who want to reinvent education. They want to dream up new ideas and pilot new projects. These teachers need the opportunity to experiment and try something new. Other teachers need the opportunity to get a sense of normalcy in their teaching craft. They know what works but they need to figure out how to make those small tweaks and tiny iterations given the changes that are happening right now. Both of these approaches work and it’s why it helps to ask teachers:

  • What materials and resources do you need?
  • What programs will actually support you?
  • What is your creative approach?
  • Do you want to pilot something new or take a more iterative approach?

Ask Teachers About Celebrations

I’ve seen a lot of pushback right now on small efforts to prevent burnout. For example, it doesn’t help to talk about self-care without actually addressing systemic injustice. Sending teachers memes with positive affirmations can sometimes backfire and promote toxic positivity.

This is why it helps to ask teachers, “When do you feel the most affirmed for the work you’re doing?”

Some teachers enjoy a positive note. I once worked with a teacher who would have a bad day and email us asking for “a video of a cat or a puppy or anything else that would make me smile.” He wasn’t looking for toxic positivity but he was looking for something positive. But if someone had sent me a video of a kitten during an awful day, I would have felt frustrated.

On the other hand, I like candy bars. Some find it insulting when principals send a note to everyone with a candy bar. However, I will always, always, always appreciate chocolate. I also like puns. You make that candy bar into a dad joke and I will always appreciate the gesture. You want to send me a box of Junior Mints and thank me for my “commit-mint to students,” I will likely smile and feel appreciated. To other teachers, these gestures feel insulting on a day where they lost their prep period and dealt with an angry parent.

Some teachers want affirmation in the form of feedback. I once mentored a new teacher who said, “I don’t want a positive note. I want specific feedback. Tell me what you see me doing that’s working and something that’s not working. I can only believe the good if I know you’re courageous enough to tell me the bad.”

Ask Teachers About Systems, Policies, and Initiatives

The biggest challenges in education right now involve systems and resources. And these often exist outside of the individual school. Building-level principals can’t control the sub shortage or the fact that so many teachers are having to go into quarantine. But they are responsible for designing the systems and policies in response to many of these challenges.

Years ago, I was in a school where the principal began a staff meeting explaining just how dire our sub shortage was.

“I don’t know what to do and I’m looking for ideas,” he told us.

We came up with some ideas for recruiting subs but then he said, “In the short-term, we still need to address this challenge we’re facing. How do we cover each other’s classes? What’s the most equitable way?”

Ultimately, we landed on two options. Either way we give up our prep periods or we have more students in each classroom. Things got ugly and we soon had two factions. I was on Team Don’t Give Up My Prep. As an introverted teacher, I needed the time to recharge. Others hated having ten to twenty extra students because of the classroom management challenges.

At one point, though, a math teacher said, “Why don’t we do both?”

“Is that possible?” the principal asked.

The teacher then drew a diagram showing exactly how this system would work and how we would guarantee that teachers had an equal number of days covering classes. It was a small example of how we can create choice and flexibility in our policies and systems. This is why it helps to ask teachers what policy changes they need right now. For example, they might want a de-emphasis on data and standardized test scores.

Ask Teachers About Communication Preferences

During a really hard year, some teachers find comfort in getting the bigger picture and hearing details about every single decision. They feel left in the dark when there’s a perceived lack of transparency. For them, hearing more information can help ease their anxiety.

I’m not one of those teachers.

For me, less is better. Tell me only the few key pieces of pertinent information so that I don’t hit cognitive overload or decision fatigue. Although I’m a fan of consensus, I don’t always want to deliberate about certain decisions. I prefer a short email with key information and I think it works best when it’s sent out as a bcc so that there are no “reply all” options.

Other teachers want to talk through the key information. They enjoy hashing out logistical issues and problem-solving in person. These teachers not only want to hear more information, they want to talk through this information in a collaborative setting. In other words, they find value in staff meetings. Other teachers despise having meetings that could have been emails.

One solution is to send out an email and make the meeting optional. Right now, I have optional meet-ups with the pre-service teachers in my cohort. Administrators can use the same process by making staff meetings optional unless it’s absolutely necessary.

It can help to ask teachers the following questions:

  • What is your preferred method of communication?
  • When it comes to communication, do you prefer for others to err on the side of over-communicating or under-communicating?
  • How do you feel about making most staff meetings optional?
  • When we do meet, would you prefer that we meet via video conferencing or in-person? Or would you like a flexible approach that uses both?

Empowered Teachers Empower Students

The bottom line is that we can’t ask teachers to empower students with voice and choice unless teachers are truly empowered. This empowerment needs to go beyond buzzwords or phrases. Teachers need to have agency over their professional learning and the key decisions around their craft. They need voice and choice regarding the systems, structures, and policies of their school environments. But the first step to getting their would be to pull a Roy Kent and to ask the teachers.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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