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May 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 8

One to Grow On / Caring for Teachers

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I can't envision a time when teaching has been easy—at least not real teaching. Nonetheless, it's difficult to envision a period when teaching in the United States has been more difficult, more riddled with pressure, more laden with tension than it is now. The reasons are many—societal, political, economic, structural, personal. It is surely a time that merits our full consideration of how to care for teachers in ways that make their work fulfilling rather than depleting. The cost of not doing so is potentially catastrophic.
Although multi-faceted approaches to making schools hospitable and teaching rewarding are undeniably needed, two key stakeholders—school leaders and teachers—can contribute to the vitality of teaching.

Leaders Caring for Teachers

The opportunity to observe life in schools over several decades has helped me think about leadership in schools where teachers are proud to be—places where teachers thrive. In virtually all such schools, I see leadership that is fueled by vision, trust, energy, and joy.
In Start with Why, author Simon Sinek makes a case that rings true for me. Great leadership, he says, begins not with what an organization needs to do and not with how those things will be done, but with why the enterprise matters. I don't recall ever having met a powerful education leader who wasn't a bit obsessed with "the why of teaching." They are not focused on students walking in straight lines down hallways, test scores, or the latest educational buzz. To be sure, they nearly always make sure that their schools are orderly, that adults are attentive to achievement, and that they themselves stay current in pedagogical knowledge. But what drives them is the architecture of young lives—a sense of obligation to help young people construct sturdy and worthy lives. At a place deep in their souls, these leaders sense the responsibility that emanates from making decisions that will profoundly and permanently affect the young people they serve.
These leaders likely work too hard and care too much, but they are fed by the work they and their colleagues do. In other words, the work strengthens them rather than diminishes them—at least on balance.
Certainly these leaders unambiguously understand that the work of building student lives happens at the hands of teachers, and that much of the leader's work must focus on supporting teacher success. In addition, however, they care for the welfare of teachers in the same way they care about the welfare of students. They learn about the teachers as human beings—in the classroom and beyond. They seek teacher input and advice. They listen. They prove themselves to be worthy of a teacher's trust, time and time again. They pay attention to teaching, not for purposes of judgment, but to learn from teachers and students. They provide multiple forms of support to help each teacher grow as a person and as a practitioner of and contributor to education.
These leaders do what they do with joy, and they do what they can to help teachers do their work with joy as well.

Teachers Caring for Themselves

My experiences have also enabled me to reflect on teachers who remain enthusiastic about the work of teaching, even in contexts that breed discouragement. These teachers are a varied lot, of course, but I see common sources of "energy renewal" among them.
These are generally folks who work extraordinarily hard. They are involved with their students on multiple levels and are devoted to the disciplines they teach, but they also understand the need to separate from that work on a periodic basis and to define themselves in other ways. They may be photographers, rock climbers, cooks, gardeners, community activists, animal enthusiasts, poets—the list of endeavors I've noted is extensive. In these other identities, the teachers find "new air to breathe." Creativity finds release. They are renewed. As one teacher reflected, "I have to get away from the thing that consumes me before I am consumed. When I return, I am once again in a position to give."
These teachers seek to create joy in learning. They take pleasure both from creating those enlivening opportunities for their students and from the satisfaction that their students take from the opportunities. In other words, they work to create classrooms that feed their students and feed them as well. And, they seem to separate "foreground" and "background" in the daily rhythms of teaching—to tune into encouragement and to tune out the irritants and absurdities of schooling that can take over the soul. They draw pleasure from small victories. They laugh at the moments of levity that are an inevitable part of classroom life. They seek out and spend significant time with peers who inspire and energize them.
As we make a case for societal change that supports the kinds of schools society needs, we'd be wise to take care of one another and of ourselves in ways that also support the best use of our energies for the young folks whose lives we touch.
End Notes

1 Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York: Portfolio.

At the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish, Jr. professor and chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy, teaching post-graduate students, mainly in the areas of curriculum design and differentiated instruction. She is also co-director of the university's Institutes on Academic Diversity, where she strives to help educators understand the principles of differentiated instruction and develop competence and confidence in creating responsive classrooms that meet the diverse learning needs of today's students.

As an educator for more than 21 years, Tomlinson has worked as an elementary and a secondary public school teacher. She was named Outstanding Professor at Curry School of Education in 2004 and received an All-University Teaching Award in 2008. In 2016, she was ranked #16 in the Education Week Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings for "university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling," and as the #3 voice in Educational Psychology. She's written more than 300 books, book chapters, articles, and other materials for educators.

 

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