More than Self-Care

More than Self-Care

“Greatness is built on the backs of giants,” is a quote a mentor shared with me years ago. At the time, I did not fully appreciate the implications of the wise words she was sharing with me. At first glance, it appears to be about success but now, years into my career I have a  much deeper understanding. I understand now we are only as great as the people around us. I understand that it requires each and every one of us to accomplish big goals. However, I also understand the costs of carrying greatness upon our backs.

The truth of the matter is, being in the field of education can be difficult at times. It is beautiful and worth all of the difficult moments, but hard nonetheless. This is a truth that we cannot ignore. More and more teachers are expressing how difficult their job is; how the profession is taking a toll on their personal lives; how some are choosing to walk away all together. This breaks my heart, and it likely breaks yours, too.

Teachers are crying out for support. They are expressing the need for home/work life balance. They need to be able to walk into the classroom each and every day as the best versions of themselves so they can do the extraordinary work of educating the next generation. That is why I was elated when self-care became a popular topic and a priority across the country. Teachers hearing far and wide, “it is okay to take time for yourself”. It was an acknowledgement that teachers are the single most important factor of student achievement. They were hearing that they are valued as people.

Time began to pass, and teachers began to be frustrated with the message of self-care. Educators were being told to take care of themselves, while at the same time being held to higher expectations. The message of self-care was being misconstrued as a method to increase productivity. Teachers began to feel like self-care was just something “people” said and not actually something they valued.

Self-care is important, self-care needs to be talked about, self-care allows teachers to know it is okay to prioritize themselves. I love the message of self-care, but how do we create school cultures that do more than just talk about it? How do we effectively impact the culture and climates in buildings so that staff members know just how truly valuable they are? How do we shift the message away from, “I know you are tired and I ask a lot, but please take care of you because I need you to complete this extra task”?

The answer is simple: teachers need more than self-care. Teachers need organizational care. We need leaders, districts, schools, politicians, and each other to advocate for school systems that truly care for teachers’ wellbeing.

However, this paradigm shift takes hard work.

Here are five ways to help lead our schools towards organizational care:

  • Create Boundaries - The first step is critical. Taking time as a building or a district to evaluate and create agreed upon boundaries. A quick and easy example would be - we will not send emails before 7 am and not after 5 pm. When we set boundaries like this, and then actually practice them, staff will eventually learn that it is truly okay to unplug. They will learn that you mean, take time for yourself.
  • Allow for Time for the Things you Value - This step is always so much harder than it seems. We are all really busy and guilty of letting the urgent things move ahead of the important things. So we need to be intentional. One example would be if your school values parent communication, then give time during a staff meeting time to send the positive emails. Giving time to the things we value as a school communicates to teachers, we will ask you to do hard things but we do not expect you to do them alone or on your own time.
  • Give the Gift of Time - We all know how precious time is, so when you can, give it back to your staff. Remember that the people in your building are professionals who often work far beyond their contracted hours to complete all of the responsibilities. So any time you are able to cancel a meeting that does not have a full agenda or allow for flexible working hours (like on a non-student contact day), give it. Give it and tell your teachers how much you trust them. Tell them you know they will get everything done, whether you choose to do it right now or later. Tell them you honor their time.
  • Advocate for their Needs - Teachers sacrifice a lot for the betterment of the students in the classroom. Let them know that you will advocate for policies that create better working conditions. This could be things like better maternity/paternity leave policies, access to mental health care, protecting plan times, or better sick day/personal day policies. When teachers hear our leaders advocating for us, we know how much you care.
  • Listen and Respond with Empathy - Again, this seems easy but often our best intentions can deliver mixed messages. For example, when a staff member calls in sick before school starts because her child got sick in the car, our response needs to be, “take care of your child, we have everything covered here.” Instead, all too often we move into problem solving mode which unintentionally communicates your job should take priority over your family. Listening to your staff, hearing their needs, responding to whatever circumstance with empathy and grace tells the teacher it is okay to be a person.

These five things, when implemented consistently, effectively, and intentionally, begin to shift the culture around you. They begin to create a working environment where people feel supported, valued, and heard. It creates a workforce that better retains teachers. It allows for educators to #LoveTeaching because they know the place they work will take care of them. When organizational care and self-care work hand-in-hand, it creates the very environment where leaders can stand in front of their staff and say, “take care of you,” and they know you mean it.

Rachael Wilcox is a  First Grade teacher at Independence Elementary School in the Francis Howell School District. She is a 2020 Missouri Teacher of the Year Finalist and recently honored by the NEA Foundation’s Awards for Teaching Excellence.  She is committed to creating cultures that educate the whole child by weaving character education and social emotional learning across all instruction and professional development. Rachael enjoys inspiring educators, but her most significant impact has been in the hearts of her students. She believes educating the whole child influences the next generation to act with empathy and empowers them to become world changers.

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