What are the messages you want to share with teachers as the winter break draws close and as teachers and students return to school in January? Are staff and students languishing? Do we need to refocus on “what really matters?” How can you communicate to teachers that you support and encourage their focus on what really matters? That focus is likely to provide renewal and recharging for teachers.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening.
Steve: 00:29 Leaders’ Messages to Teachers in December and January. I’ve been writing and presenting for the past several months on the need for leaders to play a role in refocusing and reframing mindsets about teaching and learning as students and teachers have returned to classrooms from the virtual quarantine teaching of the past nearly two years. As the weight of the current pandemic impacts continue and in many cases deepen, I think leaders need to consider the messages we want to communicate to staff as the December break approaches and again, as the return to school occurs in January.
Steve: 01:34 My attention to this concept was raised additionally, when I read an email from Justin Bader who operates the Principal Center. You can find him at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll put his email in the lead-in to this podcast. He wrote, “I’m sounding an alarm. Teachers are going to quit over the holidays, not a ton, but enough to make the rest of the school year nightmare. We’re already short on subs and there’s no one to hire. Teachers and administrators are already covering classes. Most schools cannot afford to lose even a single teacher and many will lose several. So our job for the month of December, the next three weeks is to keep teachers from quitting. We can only do that one way and that’s by improving working conditions.” Justin went on to identify three places that he suggested we needed to place our attention, taking things off the plate, solving problems and listening.
Steve: 02:44 He continued to write, “if you’re in a school based role, make it your number one priority to make teachers jobs easier. Note, I didn’t say more fun. Corporate America is giving raises and letting people work from home. Schools are giving teachers permission to wear jeans and reindeer antlers. I wish I was making this up.” And as I read Justin’s email, it took me back to a conversation that I had with a school in attendant who shared with me that the teachers were stressed as the state that he was in was moving ahead with their state exams. And teachers were feeling pressures from students being behind where they normally were in their learning and knowing that those tests were approaching. The superintendent went on to share with me that he kept telling teachers to relax, not to worry that no one in the district, no administrator push was going to come when the student scores turned out to be not what they had previously been in the past.
Steve: 04:05 He went on to say that his message wasn’t heard, at least not at the level that had any impact on the teacher’s response. I suggested to him that perhaps the message he wanted to offer needed to change. And what I mean by that is that teachers need to be spending their time on things that the teacher is identifying as most important, most meaningful to their students lives. It’s that meaningfulness that drives value for the teacher. I do believe it’s important to take things off teacher’s plates, but if you’re taking things off the plate is still not leading the teacher to engage in meaningful things that are replenishing and building the teacher, I’m afraid we’re not going to get the results we’re looking for. That concept was was built further for me when I took part in an international conference and I was in a breakout room where we were having a discussion about educator fatigue, and we were identifying that fatigue has always been part of this profession.
Steve: 05:28 It’s rarely that as a teacher or administrator, I don’t leave school on Friday afternoon tired. In some ways stressed and worn. But previously, people’s experiences have been that a weekend would replenish them. So if I spent time playing with my kids or I took part in a hobby or recreation that that I valued, or if I just vegged out with a good movie or book, it led to me returning to school on Monday ready to take on the new challenges that I faced. In the current climate that we’re in, people are leaving school fatigued on Friday, and nothing happens over the weekend that that can rebuild that. So they’re walking into school on Monday with that same sense of fatigue and I’m concerned people are going to return from a December break into January finding that that substantial break still didn’t provide new energy.
Steve: 06:39 So for me, the question is how do we look at generating that energy? Part of what influenced my thinking was Adam Grant’s writing about the concept of languishing. He used the term languishing to describe a spot on the continuum between being depressed and flourishing. So in other words, people were saying, I don’t feel depressed, but I know I’m not flourishing. I know that I don’t have the energy, the focus, the drive and being able to label that as languishing is a good place to start. Let me allow you to hear Adam Grant describe languishing.
Adam Grant: 07:35 Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield, and it might be the dominant emotion of 2021. As scientists and physicians work to treat and cure the physical symptoms of long haul COVID, many people are struggling with the emotional long haul of the pandemic. It hit some of us unprepared as the intense fear and grief of last year faded. In the early uncertain days of the pandemic, it’s likely that your brain’s threat detection system called the Amy amygdala was on high alert for fight or flight. As you learn that masks help protect us, but package scrubbing didn’t, you probably developed routines that eased your sense of dread. But the pandemic has dragged on and the acute state of anguish has given way to a chronic condition of languish.
Adam Grant: 08:26 In psychology, we think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing. Flourishing is the peak of wellbeing. You have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others. Depression is the valley of ill being. You feel despondent, drained, and worthless. Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing, the absence of wellbeing. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work.
Steve: 09:06 I think a phrase that illustrates the presence of languishing is, “not one more thing.” It’s a common response that school leaders and instructional coaches are telling me they hear from teachers as they explore areas for progressing or growing from current teaching and learning practices. Whether it’s discussing coaching sessions, peer observations teaching strategies, or technology options for teaching and learning, there exists a hesitancy to commit, to exploring the possibility of change. There’s a sense of holding on and hoping to get through the current realities. I think the question that we have to be asking ourselves and asking our colleagues is what really matters? I would suggest that one thing that really matters is more happiness. What some people might call fun. and I’d agree if we call it real fun, the research suggests that happiness and fun reduces stress that leads to increased productivity and creativity.
Steve: 10:32 It has impacts on both short and long term physical and mental health, it improves social skills and it creates the opportunity for new positive memories that can help deal with emotional wounds that can be present for our teachers and our students currently. I’m afraid that the educator disillusionment might actually be creating a lack of fun and happiness for teachers and learners. In doing a little background re search into this concept, I identified three elements that increased the likelihood of having happiness and fun. And the three elements are playfulness, connections and flow. I love this description of playfulness that I pulled from MIT’s lifelong kindergarten group that explores learning through through play. And they describe play as an attitude and an approach for engaging with the world. They see play as taking risks, trying new things and testing boundaries.
Steve: 12:03 They see play as a process of tinkering, experimenting and exploring. These aspects of play are critical to the creative learning process. Does the current focus on surviving and meeting student needs connected to what some people are calling, learning losses, are those things driving people away from that playfulness approach to learning and should one of the messages that that leaders are encouraging teachers is to look for that playfulness opportunity. The second element of connections. To what degree do we need to reinforce the message of the importance of connections? It was pressed big during the virtual times. I’m wondering if we’ve stepped back from it in our desire to “catch up” as we return to the classroom. So teachers creating those opportunities to build their connections with students for students to build their connections with each other. Is that a piece that we wanna describe as something that really matters?
Steve: 13:23 Megan Varga said it great and I quote her here: “A teacher’s impact on their students can last long after the end of the school year after a student has a meaningful connection with their teacher, they’re more likely to form similar relationships in the future. Teacher to teacher collegial relationships are critical for us to be exploring at this time as well.” Quality collegial activities, and I wanna stress that word, quality, quality, collegial activities like professional learning communities and peer coaching can be the places that teachers can find and increase that connectedness, which is critical to their happiness. In many cases, these are being seen as things to take off the teacher’s plate because they’re weighing the teacher down. And that I agree is the case if the quality of those experiences is not present. And the third item connected to happiness was flow. And Adam Grant and work on languishing suggested that flow was the antidote to languishing.
Steve: 14:43 The state of flow is created by activities that have these properties: They’re challenging, tthey require skills, they have clear goals and we get immediate feedback. The key success here is in setting challenges that are neither too demanding, nor too simple for one’s abilities. When I’m engaged in flow, I lose track of time. It is sometimes called by athletes, “being in the zone.” Benefits of flow have been identified as increased enjoyment and fulfillment, greater happiness, and an increase in intrinsic motivation. You’ll find a link to an article called, “The Psychology of Flow” on the lead-in to the podcast. Adam Grant suggested focusing on these three items to encourage flow: mastery, mindfulness and mattering. Mastery – it’s been identified that at work, the strongest factor in motivation and joy is a sense of progress. Flow involves small wins that count. Are we identifying and celebrating the small wins for our learners as well as for our teachers?
Steve: 16:21 Mindfulness is the ability to fully concentrate and focus on the task. In our push for survival and our push for closing the gap on some learning needs, is it possible that we’re continually pushing and jumping from item to item, content to content, standard to standard and missing those opportunities for the students, as well as their teachers to get a engaged long enough in something that’s meaningful enough to generate flow? And meaningfulness leads us into Adam Grant’s third word there of mattering. Knowing that you are making a difference in people’s lives. As administrators, if there’s a question to be asking teachers when, doing what do they feel that they are really making a difference in the lives of their students? Knowing I’m making that difference, that’s the point that’s gonna drive and rebuild teachers energy that’s going to recharge. That’s how I’ll it over fatigue. Make sure you’re identifying, giving teachers the opportunity to identify for you, what it is that really matters to them, and then use your leadership to assist in encouraging and supporting them focusing, talking about and celebrating those things that really matter. I found a tweet that was put up by Andy Jacks, a principal in a K-8 school in Virginia that I thought gave another great description in response to what really matters. He stated, “Kids don’t need us to be rock stars right now to help them. They need reliable adults in their lives, as much as possible. Stability, consistency, kindness, patience, direction. We sometimes overlook the most basic and effective qualities to help our kids feel safe. That’s what really matters.”
Steve: 18:51 Thanks for listening. And I hope that you’ll find some flow before, during, and after the break that you are going to be entering. Take care.
Steve: 19:08 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.