Sunday, September 29, 2013

Teachers' Stress: Reasons for it and Ways to Help

I’ve just come across this understated but extremely timely and important post on the LinkedIn group for the National Association of Secondary School Principals by Dr. Marc Tinsley (@DrTinz) .  It’s a limited survey from one inservice day at a high school, but with a few brief statistics, he’s got me thinking about the connection between teaching and stress level.  As is all too noticeable, issues of teacher burnout, the amount of stress involved in educators’ work and how stress affects people’s general health and outlook are deeply relevant in today’s schools.  It’s timely because the school year’s just starting out - so there’s a chance to help - and important because teacher burnout is unnecessary and a true threat to the quality of teaching in our future.

For starters, please know that I haven’t been a full-time teacher in 4 years, but being a full-time high-school English teacher for 10 years and then an ELA department coordinator and assistant principal lends me a global perspective that I do like to have on issues like this.  Secondly, I know that other professionals within schools and school systems are stressed, but I’m not going to write about them here.  If you want, for example, to read about the clearly overwhelming world of school principals, you ought to read and follow a Blog by John Falino (@johnfalino1), Prinicipal at Dobbs Ferry High School in Westchester, NY, who in this post writes about trying to prioritze his work and links to other people who have attempted to list all that principals do.  It’s a mind-bending task list, but I’m going to focus on teachers.  

If you’ve read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, you’ll best understand my introduction’s final point.  In it, he creates a number of words that help to define a life-outlook / religion known as Bokononism.  In this case, we’re talking about “teachers” as what Vonnegut would call a “granfalloon,” a group of people who are referenced together and have some similarities, but aren’t actually similar enough to be measured as a group.  (Think: teenagers, Southerners, Musicians, etc)  Of course, we can stereotype and generalize, but I won’t. For now, I want to only consider those at the top of our profession, those teachers who are fully actualizing their job description and then some.  It’s those who fulfill all philosophical and tactical expectations for the work. Think of the Hollywood movie teacher of yesteryear - before the profession became vilified - and see the stress that led up to divorce, heart failure, jail time, bankruptcy, etc in films like Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, Dead Poets’ Society, and  Freedom Writers.  Some of these are fictional  or fictionalized, but there are legions of teachers - some of whom I’ve had the privilege of knowing and working closely with - that are very real and equally in danger of stress, poor health and burnout.  Am I saying that there are teachers who don’t fit these qualifiers?  Yes, I’ve seen them, and I’ve worked with them too.  Some from this group have stepped up and improved their attitude and work while the others...well...not so much, but this is an issue for other times. I’m going to explore a bit about the people who strive to do it all.  

I want to open the dialogue because, as an administrator, I think that we have to work to help alleviate as many pressures as possible.  We must be reflective enough to understand the few tweaks we can do to our outlook, attitude, and systems that’ll help teachers lower their stress levels, which is better for them, their students and the overall school culture in both the short and long terms.

Sources of teachers’ stress, as I see it:

1) The length of the “work day.” While it’s true that school hours aren’t very long, the teachers I know put in almost as many hours outside of scheduled hours as during the day with students.  When we consider paper grading, lesson planning, meetings, communication with parents and room set up, we start to get the picture.

2) Let’s add to the time factor by saying that education - as a profession - is changing at a blistering speed. In order to keep up with the students’ changing needs, the absolute expectation of hitting the needs of all students and the omnipresent expectations of the political and economic machines that now more than ever write our rule book, teachers need to be constantly learning.  What we are doing about that is increasing our connectedness and research.  We’re reading, discussing, trying, and learning about everything from international literary titles to brain research and iPad apps.

None of this is helping teachers relax and get needed sleep.

3) The moral and social justice aspects of the job mean that every moment holds a tremendous amount of emotional weight.  We know what happens to our students if we don’t bring our A game.  Since most excellent teachers are either  type-A people who succeeded in school because of their passions, tenacity and refusal to fail and want the same for their students or they are type-A people who struggled in schools and are going to work themselves to the bone in order to help their students avoid the same experience(s).

4) Weltschmerz is the depression experienced when people’s expectations are crushed by the physical reality of a situation.  There is an alarming rate of new teachers who are leaving the profession within the first five years.   Is it student apathy, deep literacy issues, big testing, unsupportive administration, a lack of strong technology or something else altogether?  Probably some of all of the above.  What I know is that the classrooms, schools and profession they dreamed of is full of things they neither expected nor are prepared for/interested in working on.

5) The most distressing source of stress listed in the survey was student behavior.  I’ve worked in a few relatively calm schools and a few schools with what I call “a lot of personality.”  Our truth, which I guess educators can whine and moan over if they’d like, is that there are a lot of students who need help understanding what affective standards look like in a variety of situations.  They need to practice how they carry themselves in classrooms, hallways, sporting events, restaurants, job interviews, live theaters and a host of other scenarios in the same way that we teach them how to hold debates, clean up art supplies or participate in socratic seminars.  This is such a stressor because 1) Many educators don’t feel as if it’s their job to teach these things, and a lot of students and families would agree.  2) Affective lessons take a long time and a lot of patience before they’re internalized, usually meaning that some students may not “get better” at some things by the end of one year. 3) the tough one is that those of us who accept this as a vital part of what we do, know that the first step in fixing it is to reflect on our own expectations and look at our students with empathy / understanding instead of pity and frustration.  

This may sound troubling, but as a solutions-based administrator, I want us to remember that a lot of these issues can be averted or solved through some top practices around systems:

1) Create supporting systems for all teachers, but especially new hires.  Teachers’ success is important to them, their students and you, so be there for them.  Even if you  don’t see evidence of things going well in their classes, give constructive and specific feedback and examples so that the teacher(s) can grow.  On top of your administration team’s 1:1 time with them, find a way to set up a new hires’ committee, horizontal grade-level teams, vertical content-area teams and time for teachers to see other’s best practices in action.  Don’t forget that you’re a manager in the building.  In my opinion, having employees means that you’re willing to give timely, proactive, sincere and professional feedback, especially if something is going well.  Give them the knowledge and the chance to improve.  

2) Ditch any unproductive and unnecessary asks.  There is so much on teachers’ plate right now with technologies to learn, the Common Core to adapt to, new testing structures to become familiar with and, of course, their students to understand.  If you are asking anything of them that’s not vital and directly attached to student needs, it just needs to go.  Don’t change things for the sake of changing things.  Focusing on whatever is truly needed by students can help you rally the whole school around an effort.

3) Help teachers recognize wins.  Most master teachers I know are hyper-critical of themselves, only seeing what else they could have done and what didn’t go perfectly.  Their students get all the credit for great learning moments, and they give themselves all of the blame for struggles of any sort.  Send notes, send emails, find them to point things out in person and share their wins publically if they’ll let you.  Try to set up faculty-run pd workshop days where those who do things well share with the faculty as a means of recognizing their excellence.

4) Make sure that everyone knows that school is a place where people learn. Nobody is a permanent expert.  We have to allow ourselves, students and teachers to make mistakes and be imperfect.  Do away with any vestige of “gotcha politics” and turn your observation and evaluation system into a chance to dialogue with teachers about how their lessons are or are not helping students meet standards that are set by content masters and grade-level teams.  Especially now that most states have new teacher evaluation rubrics coming on board, we need to ensure that teachers have a chance to understand it and practice adhering to its rubrics.  

5) Get your teachers connected.  This one may be a tough sell in some cases because you’ll essentially be talking with teachers who may already feel themselves stressed, overworked, tired, and annoyed with technology, and you’re going to suggest that they spend chunks of their precious “down time” online connecting with other educators, reading blogs and coming to understand new resources and methodologies.  It may sound counterintuitive, but as Todd Nesloney (@TechNinjaTodd) tells us in a recent post , “How my PLN (Professional Learning Network) Saved My Career,” connecting with educator from across the country and even the world can be refreshing and revitalizing.  In the same sense as the adage that tells us we have to spend money to make money, it is true for many, myself included, that we’ve had to invest a decent amount of time in order to lend a renewed sense of potential and purpose to our professional work.  The group with whom I’m connected - thanks to John Falino’s influence (see above reference) - is unshakably positive, hopeful, supportive, creative, innovative and insistent that the work we discuss is always done for the benefit of student’s learning.  There are a lot of places for them to go to connect, but I’d have to recommend using Twitter.  I’m going to suggest that administration signs up first as a “walk the walk” gesture.  

Sunday, September 15, 2013

What My Job Search is Telling Me About Students' Needs

I’m a professional educator without a position for this year.  For the first time in the past fifteen years, school is starting without me.  I found a teaching position when I was fresh out of school, two department chair positions and a great administration position as my family and I got bounced around during the recession - my wife’s the family “breadwinner.” After moving for what I’m truly hoping is the last time - or at least to my last town - ever, though, I just have not been able to make it happen, yet (I’m still looking and hopeful).

I have a theory about some of the root causes of my current joblessness - besides the literal reason that I resigned my position from 2012-2013 - and would like to propose a fix to our schools to help better position our students after they graduate.  Let me explain my thought process.  I have fourteen years experience in public schools that includes substantial work on innovations and initiatives that cover any facet and reform that has come to public education in the near past.  I have a double major and minor from my undergraduate studies and am essentially at enough graduate credits for two masters degrees.  I am certified in four states for just about any job I could name - from teacher straight up through superintendent - aside from business manager.  What don’t I have?  Interviews.  

I can account for it in two ways.  (Since people rarely if ever get to talk to hiring managers about not getting interviews or not being hired, I don’t know exactly why, but I have theories.)  One, I’m applying for my fourth job in five years.  The reality is that regardless of how sensible and necessary and out of my hands my moving around has been, people may be hesitant. They’d see my resume and say: “Hmmmm…he’s risky…too much movement...he’s not committed...he won’t stay” and never have me in.  In a different day and age, I’d buy that more easily, but in today’s work force climate, I’m thinking that people moving around is more prevalent and more understandable than ever.  After all, a giant chunk of the country has been out of work and had to move for work, right?  It may play a role, but I just can’t see this as my major obstacle.

What is it, then?  The two missing pieces to the puzzle?  

Number 1: not enough solid connections.  I got to interview for three great positions - two of which I got the jobs - because I knew people who knew people and was smart enough to work connections.  People I know even got me in front of interview teams for positions that were essentially filled already just so I could get some interviewing practice.  Please know that there have been a number of people who have offered help and a few who have been able to pass my resume along, but I have very few solid people in my new area (Northeast Massachusetts), making the likelihood of my knowing someone who knows someone who has a job for which they can say “Dave’s your person” very slim.  It doesn’t matter how hopeful the news is about joblessness and hiring trends; there are a lot of qualified people out there, and a lot of them - unlike me - know the people who are hiring.   The LinkedIn model of job searching isn’t fictional.  The more 1st tier connections you have, the better off you are.

Number 2: the specificity that employers are free to now ask for when searching.  I don’t want to say that “transferable skills,” those Common Core and common sense nuggets of being analytical and literate, communicating well, working with teams for a variety of purposes and audiences, etc. aren’t valid.  Job seekers need to have general skills and a solid background. I’d even say - in my case - that people think it’s great that I’ve taught elsewhere and had roles close to the one for which I’m applying.  Ultimately, though, big whoop.  You and two hundred others communicate well and build capacity in work teams.  It’s just not enough any more.  I’ve seen hiring committees pass on veteran middle school teachers because they have no 9th grade experience.  World history teachers won’t necessarily get invited in for American history interviews.  Suburban teachers don’t get interviewed for urban jobs and vice versa. Forget about leaving education...not even education businesses want educators; for them, it’s all sales, marketing, psychometricians, and software architects.  

For me, I have a PLN that I’m continuing to build, a LinkedIn profile I’m solidifying and a number of local connections I’m trying to make.  I figure that some patience, some luck and a few good mojo dances will eventually put me in a good position.  For our students, though, here’s what I’m suggesting:

Internships / Apprenticeships:  As soon as possible, students need to be given the chance to work in a field of interest.  We should be giving businesses tax breaks to host local students for flexible periods of time so that they can learn skills, understand the type and amount of schooling that would actually be necessary for that job and also leave it if they aren’t interested.  I’m also not talking about a week or two at the end of senior year or a day with professionals in the building; I want my kids to work a lot, and early on.  Can they go to a workplace instead of taking an elective or two?  Can we realize that minimum wage jobs aren’t nearly as important as career-training apprenticeships and get them out of the mall stores?  Seriously, I’d pay my kids the crappy wages myself so that they can spend summers and weekends working for free with a professional whom they respect.  If they have work in a retail shop, be sure to help them understand the business as well as the importance of greeting customers.  In the same sense that all of k12 academics should include at least pieces of literacy development, all work done by secondary and college students should have a career-training focus to it.  Schools ought to be helping students make those connections, learn from those experiences and plan their higher-ed experiences around them.  Doing this would both give students the specific skills employers want and the human connections that are mandatory for their eventual job search.  Are schools keeping alumni chains going to help students find the most appropriate connections?  Do our schedules and credit systems keep students locked into our buildings to be in a class whose credit they need for graduation instead of at a workplace they could use to jumpstart a career?

Changing a lot About College: There are increasingly fewer people who are going to be able to afford college and earning degrees the way we did.  Higher ed needs to place marketable job skills at its forefront while offering workshops/audits/experiences and other creative, interest-driven, non-mandatory options for liberal arts and “exploratory” courses that are now being required as gen-ed credits.  With even state schools dipping well into the 30,000/yr range in places, it’s just not sustainable.  How many years of a graduate’s life do we really feel ought to spent paying back the cost of being exposed to Early British poetry, Egyptian folklore, or some disconnected 100-level business course?  If graduates really need those for a position, they’ll know that early enough and take those courses.  They don’t need to be required.  Remember that employers are asking for increasingly specific skill sets.  Those classes may need to be invented.  

Finally: self-promotion. In 1988, I graduated high school from a highly reputable school in a highly reputable school system that was sending hundred of students to college every year (around 550/graduating class) and dozens upon dozens to top tier universities.    While I was afforded the chance to take a number of college-credit-bearing courses that eased my gen-ed load, there was no mention of SAT prep, no assistance with writing application essays, and no career days or college advice being given.  There were people from the universities who came in and spoke to small groups, but that’s about that.  Now, of course, schools are almost ubiquitously helping students do all of these things.  The needs are shifting, though.  Every recruiter to whom I’ve spoken now tells me that I need - on top of the connections and specific skills I’ve already spoken about - a media presence and profile(s).  What should we see in senior year of high school? A media course that helps students understand the importance of and actually creates personal blogs, websites, LinkedIn profiles, Twitter accounts and whatever other professional portfolios may be a part for prospective career paths of the student’s choice. Yes, many of these may appear pretty empty at first, but at least there would be a template for students to begin filling in.  They’d know to add work experience as they’re getting internships or at least to get internships that would give them good experiences.  


Please know that I love the liberal arts and what I refer to as National Geographic science (really interesting stuff that may or may be applicable to anything; it’s just interesting).  I studied literature, psychology and theater in school.  I taught high-school English for 13 years. I don’t want to demean it, but in a world where more choices have to be made by more people regarding what can be done and what has to be put aside, I’m worried about whether or not we’re doing right by our k12 and higher ed graduates.  If we say that graduating high school and undergrad are important but see that now additional certifications and degrees are required to get into the workforce, we need to be very careful about the importance of things we’re asking from them and the way we allocate increasingly limited resources.