ASCD Featured Article - When Netflix Isn't Enough: Fostering True Recovery for Educators
by Allison Rodman, Alissa Farias and Shannon Szymczak
This article was retrieved from the online version of the ASCD Educational Leadership December 2020 Issue. Articles in this month's issue highlight Mental Health for Educators and are available for free to everyone, members and non-members alike. This article and other helpful resources can be found at the following link: http://www.ascd.org/publicatio...
Walk through most schools at critical points in the year (usually before scheduled breaks) and evidence of survival-based practices abounds. Lesson expectations feel a bit more lax as educator fatigue elevates. The volume of socialization among staff members increases as they search for quick energy surges from each other. An abundance of indulgent snacks pops up in the staff lounge. Collectively, we know we have hit a breaking point, and as a herd, we retreat to survival mode. Even more telling is that, in many schools, we have now established social committees and "sunshine clubs" to predict such points of exhaustion and schedule energy-boosting and feel-good activities to help staff members get through them.
The problem is not that activities like orchestrated gift exchanges and happy hours—or even self-indulgent Netflix binges and spa days taken by teachers—are bad. It is that none of these practices provide true recovery and, as a result, they don't lead to sustainable practice. It is no wonder that an estimated 44 percent of teachers in public and private schools leave teaching within five years of entry.1 There are distinct differences between continuously recharging for survival and authentically recovering for self-care. Until schools fully attend to adults' social-emotional needs—parallel to those of students—educators will continue to engage in superficial recharge activities, and turnover will persist.
Educators show up every day for their students—it's what drives us—but if we are not proverbially "putting our own oxygen mask on first," we will not be able to model effective social-emotional practices for our students. Veteran educators may coach new teachers to leave the school building at a reasonable time, resist the compulsion to grade every paper, and take a genuine break on the weekends. In truth, though, these are band-aids we have learned to apply over years of neglecting much deeper systemic challenges in education.
Wholly meeting student needs means we need to ensure our educators are whole first. We need to create spaces in which adults themselves, to use the language of the ASCD whole child framework, are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. As the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning has noted, "In order to create conditions for students to effectively engage in SEL, adults themselves need to feel empowered, supported, and valued."2 Empowering educators requires us to examine social-emotional conditions through an adult-learning lens.
Survival Versus Recovery
Shannon, one of the coauthors of this piece, offers an example from her own experience of the way educators, blinded by the expectations of their profession, often fail to attend to their own emotional well-being. At one point in her career, Shannon was teaching at a turnaround school close to the neighborhood where she grew up. She recognized and was committed to the level of effort required of this position, and she worked with a strong school leader she respected. However, when a student attempted suicide in her classroom, she was forced to reckon head-on with the emotional load demanded of educators.
Shannon returned to school the next day, ready to teach and prepared to model for her students what it looked and sounded like to be "OK." As on so many other days, Shannon showed up for her students at the expense of her own well-being. "I went back the day after it happened, knowing deep down I should have stayed home," she recalled. "I tried to care for students' trauma before acknowledging my own. I put students before myself."
Shannon eventually took a two-month leave, but this time away was filled mostly with activities focused on recharging. She never fully recovered, but instead returned to the same position and workload, but with less passion. It was not until Shannon transferred to a new school entirely and created some emotional distance for herself that she finally began to heal and recapture her love for teaching.
Her story isn't an isolated one. As educators, we consistently show up, perform, and push ourselves to be "on" for our students, without considering the long-term effects on our own well-being. As a profession, we need to stop normalizing the exorbitant emotional load expected of educators. Self-care must be elevated side-by-side with student care.
The Recovery Zone
To avoid burnout and build resilience, educators need to spend less time in the performance zone (with superficial recharging breaks) and more time in the recovery zone, where we have time and space to develop our social-emotional capacities. We also have a collective responsibility to demonstrate vigilant awareness of others' burnout and act to prevent or ease that burnout when possible. The National Alliance on Mental Illness identifies five components of self-care: physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and professional. The following questions can help guide educators' reflections on the degree to which their schools are cultivating spaces that allow social-emotional growth for educators, particularly in the form of recovery and self-care:
- Are we providing staff members with regular access to healthy foods?
- Are we encouraging consistent physical activity through exercise or yoga clubs, "walking" meetings around our campus rather than seated ones in an office or classroom, and learning walks as a form of professional learning?
- Do we support educators when they call in sick or take time for preventative medical care, dismantling the notion that we need to "power through" on behalf of our students?
- Do we embed time in our professional learning experiences for mindful focus and self-reflection in addition to strategy sharing and action planning?
- Do we value journaling as a form of conversation and processing?
- Do we give one another permission to say "no" to additional responsibilities instead of being "volun-told" to the point of sheer exhaustion?
- Do we provide and facilitate quality time to connect with colleagues in deep and meaningful ways, to help us understand one another's perspectives and needs?
- Do we affirm social-emotional achievements on the part of teachers and students in the same way we might celebrate test score increases? What messages do we inadvertently send (or fail to send) about the learning we value?
- Do our spaces allow for validating feelings and expressing emotions? Can we be vulnerable enough to openly share our growth opportunities without fear of judgment or retribution?
- Are we committed to fostering a connected community, not just a collection of individuals?
- Do we consciously work to not only push, but also inspire one other?
- Have we crafted and cultivated a solution-oriented school culture in which educators build one another up and amplify one another's work? Do we focus on what's possible rather than what's problematic?
- Do we recognize and value quiet and calm as much as we do busyness?
- Do we set limits and boundaries on our own work and encourage one another to do the same?
- Can educators openly communicate their needs—for example, to grow, but also to feel fulfilled?
Moving beyond survival to self-care and social-emotional growth requires consistent commitment—not just from leaders, but from educators collectively. We need to recognize and affirm that if we are going to show up for students, we need to show up for ourselves first. We must be mindful of the actions we take both inside and outside school walls to maintain equilibrium.
Leveraging Time and Space
Fully committing to social-emotional learning—for both students and educators—also requires that we revisit the (often woefully outdated) structural systems that define the environments we have come to classify as schools. This means we must re-examine how we conceive of time, space, and connection within education.
Rethinking School Scheduling
School schedules, in many ways, are still grounded in a factory-based model of buildings and "blocks." Even when content is repackaged in a standards-based rather than a course-driven framework, we still look for students to demonstrate proficiency with x amount of content and skills in y amount of time. Despite significant changes in what we know about effective teaching and learning, we continue to approach master schedules and bell schedules as a series of pieces to be manipulated and moved (and sometimes contorted) until they all fit.
Simultaneously, our expanding recognition of students' learning and developmental needs and the (very necessary) drive for more personalization in learning multiplies these pieces exponentially and leaves leaders with less staff for administrative functions and teachers with more classes to prepare. Most educators know they need additional time for recovery, but they cannot find this time within their school schedule unless we intentionally incorporate it as part of the system.
We need to approach school schedules as the people-building—not widget-making—systems that they are. Students and teachers alike need more flexibility. For teachers, time in the day to decompress, plan lessons, and process emotions and information is critical to maintaining well-being.
Creating Space to Grow
Ask most educators where they eat lunch, and many will simply laugh. We are much more likely to engage in a "walking lunch" rather than the "walking meeting" encouraged above as we transition from class to class and copier to hall duty. It is not uncommon for teachers to share classrooms and even for administrators to share offices—practices that may seem logical in a system built on efficiency, but would not even be considered in many business settings.
There is little space for educators to quietly reflect, reset, and recover in most schools because this has not (yet) been valued as a constructive activity—and thus, an appropriate utilization of space. We need to value educators enough to give them room to hone and refine their craft. We should consider space in both the physical and professional sense, asking ourselves:
- Do our class (and classroom) sizes provide teachers with the space necessary to form meaningful and engaging relationships with each of their students?
- Do the layouts of our buildings allow educators the room they need to decompress from secondary trauma they may be exposed to throughout the day, as well as develop their best ideas?
- Do we give educators the proper space (physically and professionally) for both recovery and growth? Do our common staff spaces emphasize sheer busyness and survival, cluttered with tools like staplers, paper cutters, hole punches, die-cut machines, microwaves, and water coolers? Or do we also affirm the value of carefully chosen lighting, staff pictures and affirmations celebrating community, inspirational quotes, and yoga or exercise equipment?
Finally, we need to consider the ways in which our structures promote productive and intentional teaming via common planning time, targeted and personalized professional learning, high-leverage coaching relationships, and authentic opportunities for connection.
When Alissa, another coauthor of this piece, reflects on her time as a Spanish teacher at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Washington, she fondly recalls staff meetings and professional learning that included "Abe Talks"—a community-building activity named after their school's namesake. During these talks, select colleagues would share about themselves, their passions, and the impact education has had on their personal and professional lives. The talks diverged from the school's regular professional learning activities, but collectively they demonstrated a commitment to community growth and reflection. It was not uncommon to have a football coach, introverted veteran teacher, and woodshop teacher share their stories in the same meeting. Some were nervous, some read from notes; some sat, and others moved around the room.
As more and more staff members shared, the sense of mutual vulnerability and openness grew, and so did the sense of community. Alissa and her colleagues began to see each other as more than just the "teacher in room 215" or someone they passed in the hallway on breaks. The talks enabled staff members to gain a stronger sense of one another's motivations and shifted conversations from business exchanges to human connections. When staff members later faced circumstances of significant trauma, they were able to lean in and remain strong for students because of the community—and sense of "we"—that had already been intentionally established.
Staving off educator burnout, depression, and anxiety requires that we consider and plan with adults' social-emotional learning needs in mind, in addition to those of our students. We must also learn to recognize the differences between recharging and recovery in our own practice and that of others. It is not enough to unplug; we need to make space for rejuvenation and, subsequently, empowerment.
Additionally, leaders—at all levels of the system—must confront and correct the ways in which our structures of time, space, and connection have not kept pace with our ever-changing world and, more important, with our students' and educators' ever-changing needs. We need to stop reactively swimming upstream and instead collectively construct proactive solutions that cultivate whole educators.
Reflect & Discuss
➛ Does your school do enough to support the social-emotional growth of educators as well as students? What additional steps could it take?
➛ Does the idea of "recharging for survival" (as opposed to authentic recovery) sound familiar to you? How much is it a part of the culture of your school?
➛ What changes does this article inspire you to make, either for yourself or in your school?
1 Ingersoll, R. M., Merrill, E., Stuckey, D., & Collins, G. (2018, October). Seven trends: The transformation of the teaching force – updated October 2018, p. 20. Scholarly Commons.
2 Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2019). Strengthening adult SEL. SEL Trends, 7.