I thought this question was interesting and decided to address it here since I spend so much time talking about how teachers today feel undervalued and the morale of educators across the country seems to be reaching an all-time low. How do we support the whole teacher?
1. Build supportive communities within our buildings: Teachers, like any other professional, need to be a part of a community. By their very nature, they are social people–I say that, but in the back of my mind I remember the many times I have said to my husband, “I am around people all day long; when I come home, I just want to be alone!” In general, though, they are social beings. There is some phenomenon in school communities that causes teachers, especially high school teachers, to shut their doors after the morning tardy bell and avoid reemerging until that glorious bus bell at 3:00. I, myself, have fallen into that trap when I’ve felt swamped by grading or planning or parent phone calls/emails. Clearly, this kind of environment is not supportive and is, instead, more demoralizing and devaluing to the teacher. How, then, do we develop supportive communities? One idea would be to encourage teachers to talk to each other. Play some of those silly icebreaker games at the beginning and/or close of staff meetings. Sure, your Mr. Curmudgeons will complain while they’re doing them, but they’re still doing them, right? Stop in a teacher’s classroom during her lunch (if she’s making it a habit of eating lunch in her room) just to say hi and see how things are going. Notice how these suggestions aren’t even verging into the area of “collaboration” yet? Supportive communities don’t have to be all about PLCs and BLTs (and ABCs and 1,2,3s…), they can simply start with encouraging teachers to open those vault doors and step out into the sunlight.
2. Make use of your teacher experts: I keep hammering this point, and I’m going to hammer it again. Our teachers are experts in something. Obviously, they are content experts, but they also have varied interests that can make them experts as well. Mr. Jones may be an excellent organizer with a superb filing system, a perpetually clean desk, and computer desktop files for each essay assignment. Mrs. Shelly might be an awesome differentiated instruction teacher who has really cool project-based learning assessments. And Mrs. Green may be completely comfortable talking to an angry parent on the phone, getting him to calm down, and coming up with a solution to the problem. Each teacher has a particular skill that he or she is really good at. On the opposite hand, these same teachers have an area of weakness. Mr. Jones has a hard time communicating with parents; Mrs. Shelly’s room is a perpetual mess with stacks of assignments all over her desk; Mrs. Green leads a lecture-based classroom with little room for differentiation. Find these weaknesses and strengths and make use of them. No teacher is going to impose her strengths to another teacher without an invitation to do so, so to build a supportive environment, establish a mentoring situation. Get these experts talking and learning. Support the strengths and build the weaknesses.
3. Make a concerted effort to encourage teacher professional and content growth: I believe an administrator, or curriculum coordinator or master teacher or anyone, for that matter, should go out of his/her way to provide teachers with information about professional opportunities. If you, a principal, perhaps, know of a training seminar on mobile technologies and you have a teacher who is interested in mobile technologies, tell them about it. This will have a dual effect: first, the teacher knows you are paying attention and trying to help them in their areas of interest, and second, the teacher will feel like their professional interests and goals are supported.
4. Understand that it is teaching that needs work and not teachers: I think this idea is fundamental in making teachers feel supported. I’ll repeat, again, another idea I have said before on this blog…No teacher goes into education with the goal of screwing kids up. No teacher aims to make a child’s life worse. We must always focus on teaching that needs fixed, and we have to put it out of our minds that teachers don’t want to learn or change. When we make the determination that a teacher is not reflective, unreceptive to change, unwilling to learn, and/or unmotivated to try new things, our willingness to support that person disappears. This is similar to what happens when, as teachers, we have the kid in our classroom who constantly checks out, puts his head down, ignores us, and never does his homework–the moment we decide that student will never be engaged is the moment we decide (consciously or not) to stop trying to engage. With our students, we make an effort to treat every day as a new day, a new opportunity for learning and growth. We have to do the same thing with our teachers. So what if Mr. Curmudgeon swears he won’t use the online gradebook today, we’ll get him set up with a fellow teacher expert (see #2!) tomorrow who will show him the ropes. If tomorrow comes and goes and he still says he won’t use the online gradebook, we’ll get the fellow teacher expert back in there the next day to show it to him again until he becomes comfortable with the system–notice that this perspective assumes a lack of comfort with the tool, NOT a lack of willingness on the teacher’s part. Concentrating on the action (teaching) elicits a supportive environment for the noun (teacher).