The growing teacher shortage continues to make headlines. Recent findings by the National Education Association suggest a staggering deficit of approximately 300,000 teachers and support staff across the country. Numerous surveys show that the majority of teachers are stressed out and struggling. A national survey of 1,200 teachers revealed that 42% believe their mental health challenges are adversely affecting their job performance.
What is less known is that a similar crisis is simultaneously occurring among administrators. Like teachers, administrators are experiencing frequent job-related stress at twice the rate of the general population. Four out of 10 administrators are expecting to leave the profession in the next three years, according to a National Association of Secondary School Principals report.
What is causing all this stress? Building administrators cite staffing challenges as the top source of stress. Reasons teachers cite for leaving include a sense of being unsupported, overworked and undervalued.
Caught in a power struggle
The fact that teachers cite working conditions and lack of administrative support as a source of stress while administrators cite “staffing challenges” suggests that, all too often, principals and teachers are caught in adversarial rather than mutually supportive relationships.
When administrators feel like teachers are resistant to implementing new policies, they are likely to begin moving more toward controlling and micromanaging their staff. When teachers feel micromanaged, their stress increases and their sense of being respected is reduced. This stress makes teachers more likely to leave, which puts a greater strain on their colleagues who remain and on the administrators who now have to try to seek a replacement.
These kinds of adversarial relationships are not unlike the power struggles that teachers sometimes get tangled up in with students, in which the teacher is trying to control the student and the student is resisting being controlled. The only way out of this is if administrators and teachers find ways to cultivate trusting, supportive relationships with one another.
Questioning a foundational assumption
One approach that can help is to prioritize “being” over “doing.” In education, the assumption is that students learn based on what teachers do. When students aren’t learning as well as we’d like them to, the logic follows that teachers are not doing enough or they aren’t doing the right things. This leads teachers to harbor feelings of inadequacy while leading administrators to institute new policies and responsibilities for teachers, to get them to do more so that students are successful.
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Of course what teachers do matters, but what if something else is more crucial? What if boosting student achievement has more to do with the version of themselves teachers bring to the classroom than what a teacher does? Similarly, what if the key to enhancing teacher performance lies in the version of themselves from which administrators relate to their teachers?
If so, adding more things onto teachers’ and administrators’ plates may actually be doing more harm than good as overwhelmed educators have a harder time bringing their best selves to their students.
Mirror neurons and why bringing our best selves matters
We all want our students to have the highest chances to learn, but for this to happen, our students need to be in their best-self learning brains. Excessive stress tends to move human beings out of their thinking/learning brains and into their reactive survival brains.
Due to mirror neurons, our brains will fire in ways that mimic the people around us. This means that for students to retain their best-self learning brains, their teacher needs to be teaching from their own best-self learning brain. When teachers are stressed, overwhelmed and demoralized, they will slip into their survival brain, making them less effective and prompting students to slump out of learning mode and into resistance and reactivity. When both students and teachers are out of their learning brains, student achievement suffers and teacher burnout increases.
Whether an administrator takes a controlling, judgmental approach to leadership or takes a supportive and encouraging approach has a significant impact on teachers’ capacities to bring their best to their students. When teachers are bringing the best to their students, an administrator’s job becomes easier. Staffing challenges decrease, and teachers in their best-self learning brains will be much more open to an administrator’s feedback.
One way we can inspire the best in one another is through positive messages. Positive messages are not empty compliments, but allowing ourselves to be genuinely curious about another person until we are moved to speak in a manner that highlights something good about them. In general, the harder the work a person does, the more messages that person needs to be able to continue bringing their best to their work. Teachers perform an incredibly hard job and there is no better message source than their administrators.
Research shows that reflecting the positives we see in someone is one of the best ways to help them access their best selves. In one study, research subjects asked friends, relatives and coworkers to write about the subject’s strengths. After reading these narratives rich in positive messages, the subjects showed measurable improvements in performance, better immune responses, a 200% improvement in creative problem-solving and significantly less anxiety. Further research demonstrated that telling someone about their strengths boosts both physical and mental functioning and enhances motivation for growth and learning.
School and district cultures can be reimagined as places where positive messages are frequently given and received.
Long, fulfilling careers
In addition, to help inspire the best in school staff, school and district policies need to be considered through a lens of how this policy impacts staff’s ability to bring their best to students. When staff feel supported and well-resourced to do their jobs, their performance increases, which leads to increased learning gains. This supports administrators to continue to bring their best because the stress of “staffing challenges” dramatically decreases when supervising teachers who are operating from their best selves.
To get out of the crisis we are currently experiencing in education, administration and staff need to get out of fear-based adversarial postures and build relationships based on trust. By prioritizing positive messages, administrators can create school cultures that bring out the best in staff and students alike. As a classroom teacher, I transformed the climate of my class by giving students positive messages a daily practice. School climates can be renewed and teachers can be buoyed in exactly the same way.
I wrote Teach from Your Best Self: A Teacher’s Guide to Thriving in the Classroom because the challenges we face in education are severe and we need new perspectives to find our way forward. By working together and inspiring the best in each other, teachers and administrators can both enjoy long, fulfilling careers, and we just might save education in the process.