The Return to School: Asking the Great Questions

When we think about this fall, the only thing we know for sure is that nothing is going to be the same. Our choices to begin school and determining the way we want to go can vary depending on everything from the number of community Covid-19 cases to typical class size versus the room size to the availability of technology. We had pandemic learning spotlight areas of equity that have always been present in education. Socio-economic disparity, the technology know-how/attitude toward education and background of caregivers, the tech-savviness and prior innovation background of administrators and teachers, and wifi access to rural areas, as examples, have always been challenges that we have needed to address. With pandemic learning, they just became more pronounced and now districts know they need to be considerations moving forward. We have learned a lot about what not to do, but are still unsure what the right answers are. Unchartered territory calls for unchartered answers.

I’ve spoken with districts who are trying to be as innovative as possible moving forward and who recognize that there is a fine line between changing everything up and overwhelming staff and students, and having the desire not to go back to the way things used to be. They understand that this could be our opportunity to do exactly what we have wanted to do in education: disrupt. When I think about our world right now in so many areas, I look at it as if we have taken everything we have and tossed it in the air. We have the opportunity to pull down only the best parts and put them back into place, and replace anything we don’t want with something better. The issue is that “better” can look different depending on the eyes of the beholder, and humanity doesn’t have the best track record of making awesome decisions when the stuff hits the fan.

In search of this something better, I have heard questions being asked that may indicate what seems to be the driving factor going into next year for some people. But as we seek answers to our wonderings, I suggest we also put our own personal-professional agendas aside and take some quiet time to really reflect on what our world has been for the last few months (and foreseeable future). Ask yourself if the questions you’ve been asking are the ones you want to drive the district/your classroom into next year.

Good Questions

There are definitely questions that still need to be addressed. These questions would be ones I’ve heard that sound like:

How can we get more devices to our students? More Wifi?

How are we going to fill the learning gaps for students who struggled/never attended pandemic learning?

What online platform/tools should we be purchasing in case we need to continue online?

How can we create buy-in for teachers to want to be Google EDU certified?

These questions are good. I feel like they are ones that can and should be answered after the great questions have been asked.

Great Questions

The great questions are the ones that pop into your head when you stop thinking like an organizer and start looking at the people around you and asking them how they are and how the decisions of the organization are impacting them. I have spoken with teachers and administrators who took pandemic learning by the horns and enjoyed the challenge of owning it. I’ve spoken to many more teachers and administrators, however, who were exhausted and overwhelmed by the end of the year. Teachers who have said that they can’t do that again and are thinking about leaving the profession because that’s not what they signed up for. Teachers and administrators who were working 17 hour days because they didn’t know how and weren’t equipped to set boundaries for online learning. Students who dropped out of school the second it went online. Frustrated and exhausted parents, especially if those parents were also teachers or admin. So, great questions, in my opinion, address these issues. The human issues.

How is the staff holding up?
I have spoken to very few teachers who haven’t said to me, “I finally got the chance to try (insert tech tool here) and was able to learn it, and I’m so (happy, excited, proud of myself) and that is absolutely AMAZING. If you had that experience I’m so happy for you. All things considered, that truly is quite an accomplishment. My concern is for the people who are also exhausted, and even if they enjoyed learning something new, have a bit of struggle in their heart for education after the massive shift that had to happen in a moment’s notice. I’ve written a few posts about it that can be found here and here. This is one of the questions that may need to be answered by actually looking at people. We don’t take the time to stop and notice very often.

How do we make people feel safe going forward?
It’s interesting to me how the meaning of safe has morphed within the last few months. We haven’t had to worry about active shooter incidents as much, but have had to worry about catching a virus. If a choice is made to return to schools in the fall, we will need to worry about both, unfortunately. This question is going to need to be broken down into many more questions, all of which are imperative to answer. How many students can fit on a bus if they are not wearing masks. If they are? What about the students who ride public transportation typically? Will parents be able to choose to have their child continue to attend school online if they are feeling too unsafe to send them? If so, what happens if the parents need to go back to work and the child must go to daycare? Are they going to be required to attend online sessions/get work done with a daycare provider? Will parents be required to wear masks in schools, and if so, where will they get one if they don’t have one? How are teachers going to teach classes if they have a pre-existing health condition that makes them more susceptible to the virus should they get it? How will our decisions impact our staff and students personally? As examples.

How are you going to increase staff’s baseline knowledge of trauma and incorporate embedded SEL competencies into online learning?
I was speaking to one of the districts that I consult with on a regular basis and brought up how SEL was going to be addressed in their online environment if either they needed to be online for next semester OR at minimum in the online program that they are creating. I was excited to hear that they had already contacted their purchased SEL curriculum company to find out how it could be morphed to being online (some of the videos were still VHS, for example). My question is, however, how can we embed SEL experiences into what we already do? I find that if a program isn’t embedded in learning that is already happening, it becomes the next typing program where it’s done when we have an extra 15 minutes to spare only. Also, understanding that SEL and “student engagement” are not synonymous terms and that SEL incorporates deeper competencies (see CASEL.org) is imperative.

In addition, if we return to the brick-and-mortar setting, the level of trauma experienced by some of our students along with the behaviors they might exhibit because of it may be increased. It is also important for educators to be able to recognize some issues with trauma within themselves or understand what vicarious trauma is so they don’t start to detach.

How are you going to fill the learning gaps in educator’s knowledge of online learning so they are more comfortable with online/blended learning?
And some of you may be saying, “Um, you just said asking for buy-in for learning was only a good question.” I sort of did. The difference being that sometimes this question is correlated to how can we make people better instead of the great question of how can we fill in the learning gaps of educators so they are more comfortable and less stressed in what they do. When we do the latter the former will follow as well as people will feel supported. While some may complain about mandatory PDs, the truth is that good professional learning opportunities teach educators what they need to do to do their jobs well, therefore taking some of the stress off the educator from the alternative of “figure out how to do it well because you’re a professional.” Professional learning should support areas for healthy growth and innovative thinking therefore making educators less nervous and apprehensive about getting online again or the necessity of offering a blended option in the fall.

The best questions we ask will always be human-centered. This is especially important in the midst of a crisis. I do believe that there is value in all questions we ask as all of them will provide a more proactive approach to any issue. The questions we ask and focus on, though, will not only drive our decisions but will also send a message as to what we value as a district, school, and classroom. By beginning with and focusing on human-focused questions we will not only be sending the message that our people are cared for and safe and we believe the best learning will grow from that, but we will be setting up an environment where educators and students believe that message to be true.

To learn more about educator engagement and mental health, check out my newly released book Reignite the Flames: Finding our passion and purpose for learning among the embers, the follow-up to my first book, The Fire Within: Lessons from defeat that have ignited a passion for learning.

Three Ways Administrators Can Support the Social-Emotional Well-being of their Teachers (and One Please Don’t Do)

One of the most common questions I get in regards to the way that educators may disengage or the topics on educator mental health that I cover in Reignite the Flames and The Fire Within is “How, as an administrator, can I support my teachers who are disengaged?” (OR how can I keep them engaged). “How can I support their mental health?” I find that administrators really do care about their teacher’s mental health even though some of them fumble with how to be supportive. The issues with this support range from the more abstract I’m not sure how to talk about emotions to the practical when am I treading into privacy issue territory. Couple that with the fact that mental health is personal and must ultimately be addressed by the teacher and teachers don’t want to be burdened with convincing their administrators that they are emotionally stable, and it’s a recipe for how do I even know where to begin? Here are three suggestions I have for growing a culture of educator social-emotional support (all for FREE).

Education
The education in this area is two-fold: first, understanding the root causes of educator disengagement and second, teaching those causes as well as other opportunities for learning about mental health, self-care, and mindfulness.

The first, understanding the root causes, means to understand that there is more to educator disengagement than burnout. There is also demoralization, secondary trauma or compassion fatigue, personal and professional adversities, or teacher trauma. It’s understanding that sometimes the mental health issues of teachers are born from the very place that they are trying to work in, and then sometimes they are not. Learning about these areas and how they can be addressed as well as educating teachers so they know the signs to watch for can be a proactive way to give people the information they need to put a name to how they feel and subsequently, look for a solution.

The second part of education is providing teachers a way of learning some additional skills in the area of self-care such as meditation or mindfulness. It can also be taking a PD day and instead of learning (more) about literacy or math strategies, provide them with an opportunity to learn from a teacher who is fantastic at fixing all her meals for the week on Sunday night or the yoga instructor who knows special stretches for people who stand too much (or sit in the case of virtual learning). If finding elements of joy help support educator mental health and engagement and aid in building resilience, then help the people who would typically take care of everyone else but themselves find the time and energy to learn what brings them joy. These activities may not look like something you would typically provide for a professional development opportunity, but sometimes getting to the root of the issue doesn’t look like addressing the actual symptoms of the problem. Sometimes you need to go deeper.

Model the Behaviors You Wish To See
This, for me, is one of the most important aspects of a leader and definitely goes for self-care and self-reflection on one’s own engagement as well. After all, as I state in Reignite the Flames, educators include administration. If you are touting self-care and mindfulness as activities that would assist in defending oneself against the causes of disengagement, then learn about and find time for these activities. Reflect on your boundaries. How do you help your teachers create/maintain their boundaries? For example, by sending a non-emergency email at 8:30pm, even if you’ve told your teachers that they do not need to respond at night, you are still implying that it is acceptable to be working 12-14 hour days. In regards to self-care and mindfulness, if you hear an admin colleague say “I don’t want to” or “I’m too busy” or “I don’t know how” you may notice that their staff will feel the same way. Even if the teachers don’t acknowledge the administrator is practicing self-care, the vulnerability and commitment will be shown and the seed will be planted.

Insurance Deep Dive
This is probably one of the most practical and least addressed areas. Usually, when I ask districts or their employees if mental health services are covered, they know whether they are or not and that’s about it (unless they or a family member have had to use them). I highly recommend that several people go through the process right up to making an appointment with a mental health professional to see how the insurance company 1) updates it’s databases on whether doctors are covered and accepting patients and 2) how easy it is to find this information and make the calls if you do not work with the insurance all the time (in other words not your district insurance folks). When a reliable process can be determined, it is written down in a format that makes sense and put somewhere it can be easily found. I believe in seeing a counselor as a proactive approach even when you’re not struggling, but if you need to see one while you are and it is a struggle to figure out the process, it is difficult to have the wherewithal to want to follow through on a complicated, unclear process.

The ultimate support in this area would be to work with community mental health professionals to come into the schools for appointments not only for students but also for educators (teachers and administrators) who are unable or unwilling to use sick time for mental health sessions.

And the Please Don’t Do: Self-Care as Compliance
The activities that educators are participating in for self-care should not need to be reported on to an administrator. To me, there’s not much difference between that and asking a teacher every day if they took a shower before they came to work. Any kind of personal well-being should never be a compliance issue. In fact, demanding it could be a privacy issue. And just from the standpoint of understanding how humans work, the second it becomes compliance is the second that the joy and the life begins to get sucked out of whatever the activity is.

I know so many wonderful administrators who are looking for the best way to support their educators and understand the potential mental health risks they are taking by being in this rewarding but overwhelming profession but just don’t know where to start. I’d say the baseline is always knowing what you need to know, teaching others what you know, implementing what you know, and watching the results grow. If you understand educator engagement you understand how much of a part it can play in climate and culture, student achievement, and many other areas of the education ecosystem. And supporting all of those areas are, of course, extremely important. But I always prefer to bring it back to the standpoint of being a human and understanding that educators deserve to be happy in their jobs. Administrators deserve to be happy in their jobs. And there are steps we can take tomorrow to help develop the culture of understanding and support we all desire.

Educator Mental Health and the New Hot Topic

Years ago when I began speaking about educator mental health, I was met with a lot of blank stares and uncomfortable glances. When I began speaking about educator trauma and the impact of disengagement, I was told that people didn’t want to hear sad things, that educators shouldn’t have mental health issues and if they did, they certainly shouldn’t talk about it. I was told I was going to get fired or I was going to get someone else fired. I was turned down by online education article sites because the content wasn’t something they were “interested in sharing” and by conferences because it rarely fit their theme. But I believed in it wholeheartedly and secretly held onto the idea that it was my purpose and I was at least planting the seed of recognition and destigmatization. 

Lately, the topic of educator mental health has been blowing up. There are books and blogs and podcasts and articles written about educator mental health, adult social-emotional support, mental health issues, and burnout. The pandemic has highlighted the need to support teachers so they can best support students. The emergency learning and in some cases utter chaos that the move to virtual learning has caused has brought about a sincere look at the wellbeing of educators. And the part of me who has been trying to bring attention to this matter for years has finally felt vindicated! Like all the times that I had felt bad about myself because my message wasn’t well received or recognized as valuable is finally worth something. If you have ever been looked at like you were crazy more times than you were accepted, you may understand my point. 

Now, people who weren’t speaking about it before have been practicing their own vulnerability. Articles are being written in regards to the very topics I’ve been toiling over! There is the part of me that is rejoicing that attention to mental health is becoming a more accepted conversation to have (although I believe mental health issues are still off the table in many ways). However, there is the other little part of me that knows how education works. I’ve been in education long enough to understand the New Hot Topic in Education, and the trends tend to wear out and die down, sometimes with a lot of talk and very little action.

When I began speaking about educator mental health and mental health issues it was not because I could see the pandemic coming. It was because being an educator was already challenging and nobody was willing to recognize the toll it was taking. We were in the era of being “for the students” many times meant “at the expense of the adults.” Being an educator is also incredibly rewarding, don’t get me wrong. Living and loving your purpose can be one of the greatest life experiences. But, there has increasingly become an expectation that educators are willing to give up taking care of themselves in order to take care of others. Some may argue that this is not an expectation, but in doing so they’re ignoring the undercurrent of assumptions and martyrdom that are forever present. The pandemic was simply the cherry on top of many already burnt out people. This is not a new phenomenon and it will not go away when the pandemic is gone. This is not a trend. It is not something we can speak about now so people feel they’re heard in their greatest time of need and then forget it later when we move onto another hot topic. This is not a new concept. It is just one that we have been hiding from for a very long time.

My fear is that at the end of this pandemic we are going to settle into our new normal and miss the still present deer-in-the-headlights look that many of our educators are wearing. And in true educator fashion, their students will be doing well because the teachers will be giving everything they have to make sure of it. So, because the students are doing well we will forget to address the educator mental health AND mental health issues because the conversation never continued past educators are burnt out because of the pandemic

No. 

Educators are burnt out because teaching is hard. They also can be demoralized, traumatized, and be facing adversities that we don’t even understand all of which may require different support and coping strategies. Zeroing in on pandemic burnout is missing the bigger picture of how does this look in a month? In the fall? In a year? In five years? The pandemic did not bring on these issues. It only magnified the need that was already there.

Moving forward, the conversation needs to shift from the recognition of “this is what is happening” to the action of “this is what we can do about it.” Bringing attention to the issue is great. That is a fantastic start. This topic doesn’t need to be difficult anymore like it was years ago. We have a catalyst to push us forward and make changes. By bringing action to the conversation the topic of educator mental health, mental health issues, and addressing the whole educator can get teeth into our culture and can become an Expected Education Topic We Address instead of just a New Hot Topic in Education. 

This blog post is one of a series on #MentalHealthAwareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement, as well as ways to create action in the conversation, in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.

#MentalHealthAwarenessMonth and Defining Mental Health, Issues, and #SEL

A few weeks ago I was on a panel for mental health for #DigCitTO and about half-way through, one of the student panelists brought us back to basics. She said, “I just want to say that mental health and mental (health issues) are different. Everyone has mental health.” It reminded me of how we so often speak about this stuff and throw out these words, but I’m never confident that everyone is on the same page. This month, for Mental Health Awareness, I’m going to be moving from my once-a-week blog posts to one about every other day to address some common mental health and mental health issue topics. If you’d like to receive all of these posts to your email, please sign up for my blog.

My go-to whenever I start something new is to make sure that we have a common language around what we are discussing so we can be sure that when I refer to a topic, we all have a baseline of what it is. Right now, I’d like to define three common terms that I’ve seen used interchangeably that are actually very different: mental health, mental health issues, and social-emotional learning.

Mental Health
According to the WHO, mental health is defined as, “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Everyone has mental health. To address your mental health through self-care or mindfulness is the equivalent of addressing your physical health through diet and exercise. If you don’t take care of your physical health your body may start to fail to work as it’s meant to. The same happens with mental health which can lead to poor mental health or mental health issues.

Mental Health Issues
The term mental health issue has come about as a way to be more sensitive to those who struggle with them, but technically they are synonymous to mental illness, mental health disorders, or mental health conditions. They “affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors” (Mayo Clinic). Mental health issues can be developed from extreme, prolonged stress or trauma, but they can also be hereditary. In fact, having a family member with a mental health issue is the largest risk factor, although some argue that this is not only because of genes but also includes the repeated exposure (stress of living with, taking care of someone) to the mental health issue.

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
According to CASEL (my favorite SEL organization for amazing information), social-emotional learning is defined as “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” I often see SEL used synonymously with mental health and it is not the same although they may have a symbiotic relationship. I also see SEL used synonymously with student engagement. SEL and student engagement are not the same thing. Although there may be a small piece of engagement in SEL, to define SEL as engagement is largely ignoring the most important pieces of what it actually is. By focusing on social-emotional learning and helping students and adults understand their emotions, make positive, responsible decisions and focus on positive relationships, we are giving them the tools to make decisions and react in a way that will support their mental health.

We are in a place right now where we are willing to talk about social-emotional learning. We are a little resistant to speak about mental health, but we will do it. Mental health issues or illness feels like it’s still off the table. Defining what we are discussing is the first step to understanding what we are really talking about and de-stigmatizing mental health issues.