By Maria Dyslin, Bright Morning In-Residence Presenter
As I planned for our welcome back professional development days this fall, I wanted to create experiences that would leave our staff feeling connected, inspired, empowered and motivated to launch the year. I started the year with hope and optimism; I focused on slowing down and working to create emotionally, intellectually and physically safe environments for adults and for students. Then reality set. Within weeks I could see it everywhere I looked—educators are not well.
As I listened to Bright Morning Podcast EPISODE 90: COACHES’ CORNER: IS YOUR TANK FULL? where Elena walks us through five essential questions to assess our resilience reserves, I felt compelled to use this reminder to take action. I wanted to model for staff the freedom to oscillate through the cycles of being human. Real-world wellness is messy, complicated, and not always accessible. If you sometimes feel overwhelmed and exhausted, that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong; it just means you’re moving through the process. I wanted staff to give themselves permission to be imperfect and listen to their own experience and identify what they need to remain adaptive and well.
The following reflections are always important as a leader, but I realized that if I want the educators I work with to remain feeling connected, inspired, empowered and motivated, I need to be intentional about prioritizing well-being. Prioritizing well-being looks like the following:
Lesson 1: Cultivate a Culture of Trust Where People Can Be Vulnerable
For leaders looking to practice vulnerability, it’s important to understand where your strengths and growth opportunities lie and being honest about them with not only your teams, but yourself, too. Strong leaders are self-aware and confident; they understand that they’re not the expert at everything (and they don’t need to be). When leaders feel comfortable enough to lean on their teams to fill in any gaps, it’s an act of vulnerability that strengthens the school team.
Lead by example. Listen to your staff. Just because you’re in a position of power, doesn’t mean your voice is the only one that matters. React with respect. If something goes wrong (which it will), focus on how staff can work together to fix the solution and come out stronger. Be vulnerable. Set the tone with your teams that sharing hardships, challenges, struggles, and wins is not only okay, but encouraged too. You can’t expect your staff to open up if you don’t open up first.
Lesson 2: Keep a Pulse on Staff Energy and Give Teachers a Voice
Leaders must become adept at measuring their own stamina as well as the stamina of those around them; sensible pacing is one key to long-term success. As leaders, we can reduce the burden on teams by monitoring the time spent working on initiatives and in meetings. It’s important to know when to push and when to ease up. Listening is key to measuring how much energy your team has left in the collective tank. Through informal conversations—often as you’re passing through the hallways—you can understand what those around you need, and of equal importance, how much they have left to give.
In addition, we can make efforts to simplify initiatives by looking to intentionally thread things together in digestible chunks of information and embedding time for collaborative planning around implementation. Lean on your team to give their perspective on what they believe staff will be most available for, what will have the greatest impact, and what to hit pause on. Implement teacher surveys to gather feedback. Then demonstrate how their feedback is informing decisions. Whenever possible, get teachers involved in big decisions at your school. After all, they’re the ones who are in daily contact with students and families.
Lesson 3: Normalize the Language Around Compassion Fatigue and Encourage Healing
We have a responsibility to establish an environment that not only allows educators to heal but encourages it. Educate teachers on indicators of compassion fatigue, and give them the space to monitor symptoms, report concerns, and seek help.
Encourage teams to let go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth. Instead, cultivate more play and rest. Incorporate mindful ways of working, being, and make space for movement in your professional learning structures. Encourage wholehearted living, which means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, “No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.”
This is the kind of compassion we should all have time for.