Self-Awareness

Back to Normal

FuelEd trainer, HyoYoung Minna Kim, shares important reflections on the centrality of educator well-being in healing fractured systems.

While messages of reimagining what could be and talks of emphasizing collective care were burgeoning, they rang hollow. I harbored a healthy dose of skepticism as the conversations about the importance of relationship-building to address concerns about student well-being were happening in conjunction with the relentless demands for safer and more manageable working conditions. I feared we were going back to “normal.”

While many longed for “normal” to return, as an educator, I feared it.

At the end of the 2020-2021 school year, the principal met with individual staff members for a brief check-in to reflect on the past year of virtual instruction and the upcoming school year. I shared with them how I was more nervous about the upcoming school year than I was about this last year.

While messages of reimagining what could be and talks of emphasizing collective care were burgeoning, they rang hollow. I harbored a healthy dose of skepticism as the conversations about the importance of relationship-building to address concerns about student well-being were happening in conjunction with the relentless demands for safer and more manageable working conditions. I feared we were going back to “normal.”

Much to my dismay, this past school year was extraordinarily more challenging than “normal” ever was. As many school systems are still experiencing tremendous challenges in this new school year, one of the reasons for this is due to teacher shortages. According to a recent article published by the National Education Association (NEA), the ratio of hire-to-job openings has continually decreased over the past ten years, going from 1.54 in 2010 to 0.59 in 2022. The lack of support reflected in these numbers isn’t just data collected from research. It represents deeply felt needs within the educational system.

While teacher shortages are nothing new, they have steadily increased since 2015, according to Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. The NEA has also tracked that school districts have struggled to fill positions since 2017, expanding beyond classroom instructors to include bus drivers, cafeteria workers, paraeducators, nurses, mental health workers, and counselors.

The problem becomes compounded when combined with employee retention issues as well. Educators and those who have recently resigned remind us that the ecosystem of support necessary to provide our children with the education they deserve is crumbling.

So, as the perfect storm of all of these factors, the pandemic, staff shortages, and the Great Resignation looms over our education system, what do educators need to hear right now?

Not the Signs of Failure

The combination of burnout and turnover are not from a lack of care or effort from the educators. Many of us are doing our best to manage the overwhelming needs entering our classrooms every day. From the uptick in health and wellness needs to the loss of academic learning and an ever-increasing workload, we are pressed to our limits.

And we are more than educators. We are complex humans with our own needs to consider beyond the school setting.

Symptoms of a Fractured System

The sharp increase in burnout and turnover rate are symptoms of a system in which protocols and policies primarily dictate the functioning of a school, and the relationship structures among stakeholders are often unilateral, where top-down decisions are limited to centering student well-being. Such decisions generally bypass the educator’s well-being.

Circumventing our well-being reduces our human qualities to what we can produce. Focusing on results disregards our basic need for security and belonging, which are critical factors that actually increase success in the workplace.

A New Way to Rebuild

Much good has been done in education in the pursuit of prioritizing the students' senses of security and belonging. With more research comes better practices for ensuring the success of the student. But what if a missing piece of student success is the educator's well-being? It can almost feel wrong to consider what it might look like to give the already limited time and money to educator health when there are still so many student needs begging for attention. But doing so does not take away from the student's well-being. Instead, the inclusion of educators and their health directly impacts student health and success.

Studies continue to confirm that the educator-student relationship impacts student engagement. The same applies to school leader-educator relationships and their impact on educator engagement. These types of relationships are called dyadic, and the research supports the powerful impact these types of relationships have on one another in the workplace.

When educators feel safe and seen by school leaders, we are more likely to feel secure and safe in our roles and relationships, which makes us more successful in the classroom and dedicated to the school community.

Falling Short of True Care

Unfortunately, the educator’s well-being is generally relegated to encouraging the practice of self-care. While self-care is necessary, this individualistic approach places the onus of cultivating a healthy and thriving classroom squarely on the educator while overlooking interpersonal and systemic impacts on the educator and the school culture.

Instead, balancing the dominance of individualism with healthy practices of collectivism can lead to reducing burnout and increasing retention. Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain writes:

"Turns out our brains are wired to favor a communal view of the world. Humans have always sought to be in community with each other because it enhanced our chances of survival. We shared workloads and resources. Over time, our brains became hardwired towards working and living cooperatively…Collectivistic societies emphasize relationships, interdependence within a community, and cooperative learning."

Similarly, FuelEd believes a secure attachment leadership style coupled with actively investing in the educator’s well-being dictates the functioning of a healthy and thriving school system, which includes student well-being and positive engagement. As such, FuelEd programs assist educators and school leaders in understanding the science and practice of relationships through evidence-based research on interpersonal neurobiology and attachment theory. FuelEd programs focus on developing self-awareness, cultivating emotional intelligence and social competencies, and practicing skills that promote secure attachment.

Both/And

When practices of collective care driven by empathy are integrated into leadership decisions and interactions, protocols and policies will likely begin to reflect this change. As protocols and policies shift, the culture of the school and even the entire school system follow suit. By simply reinserting teachers and their well-being back into the systemic priorities rather than bypassing them, the schools lose nothing and gain everything. It is not a decision of either/or, but of both/and. Focusing on educator health is focusing on student health.

More than the occasional luncheon and goodie-bag of appreciation for our hard work or messages validating the challenges we continue to face, we need to see and feel the appreciation and validation through acts of meaningful and long-lasting care from leadership. The invitation is for school leaders to invest in sustaining professional development for deepening their own awareness of the self and for developing secure relationships with school staff so that we can do the same for our students.

About the author

HyoYoung Minna Kim

Trainer - Baltimore, MD

Baltimore, MD

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