Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
July 11, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 9

Fixing Your School's Well-Being Ecosystem

author avatar
author avatar
For teachers to have the bandwidth to thrive, schools need to revamp policies that chip away at energy and efficacy.

School CultureSocial-emotional learning
Summer 2022 Kise header image
Credit: CHEE SIONG TEH / ALAMY
I keep telling myself, 'Assume positive intent.' But the number of mental health days teachers are taking is straining our resources to the breaking point."
As consultants who help school leaders improve their effectiveness, we've heard this sentiment from school leaders all across the country this year. These leaders are concerned that their own capacity for compassion is running dangerously low. They're hoping that the long summer break will recharge everyone, resulting in a "new normal" in the fall.
However, the high levels of teacher stress and mental health days are only symptoms of a bigger problem. Further, relying on self-care as the solution is like bandaging up an injured goalie and putting her back in the nets without treating the actual injury. As members of a profession that was highly stressful even before the pandemic, teachers can only improve their mental health so much via self-care.
Why? Because self-care is only part of the long-term answer. Another huge factor is the environment in which teachers work and that influences their sense of efficacy—their learning community and, of course, the outside pressures placed on that community. We know that collective teacher efficacy—a focus on common goals to improve student achievement, with confidence in reaching those goals by working together—ranks second out of more than 200 influences on student learning, according to John Hattie's research (Visible Learning Meta, 2022). If teachers are working within a system that doesn't foster energy, engagement, and other sources of efficacy, they'll continue to exhibit the symptoms and consequences of stress. The result? Less learning for students.

It's All About the Bandwidth

Our research on brain energy and bandwidth—one's capacity for staying energized, effective, engaged, and confident in their self-efficacy—began in 2015. Long before the pandemic, we found that educators' bandwidth was on the decline. Several trends in society and schools have led to norms, practices, and policies that don't sync with how our brains work. We created and validated a survey to help individuals and organizations pinpoint the factors driving low bandwidth.
Think of your school as an ecosystem where a very specific combination of nutrients, biodiversity, and other factors is necessary for its specific organisms to thrive. Each individual is responsible for behaviors that lead to health, but if the ecosystem is stressed by failing to incorporate key elements essential to its survival, the individuals are doomed.
How might your teachers respond to the following question: "My learning community allows me to be effective and efficient." Our research has shown that this measure of organizational support is the biggest predictor of individual bandwidth scores. This is why teachers are lashing out at the self-care movement in education. They know it won't be enough to fuel the ongoing struggle to stay energized and passionate for the task of educating each and every child, accepting each learner as they are, where they are. If the vision teachers are given doesn't match the reality of time, resources, energy, student mental health capacity, and so on, collective efficacy is doomed.

Addressing Stress, Together

One major characteristic of those who exhibit hardiness, defined as the capacity to grow from stress, is that they do not isolate themselves.

Whatever level of leadership you may be at, consider what you can do to improve the ecosystem of your learning community. Here are six steps you might take to restore your learning community ecosystem to a place where everyone can thrive.

1. Limit Your Priorities

Until 150 years ago, the word "priority" had no plural (McKeown, 2014). You could only have one. Initiative fatigue is no joke; having more to do than a human being can do drains our sense of efficacy and meaning.
Be brave. Have your staff, working in teams, list all the responsibilities they have, in order of the importance they see each one having. Then have them indicate which responsibilities they believe they're realistically able to accomplish. Use this data to eliminate responsibilities that aren't important—or that simply cannot be accomplished with current resources. A leader with an unrealistic vision is just as irresponsible as a leader with no vision at all; either way, your learning community can't reach that vision. If you do this well, you'll have the data to "influence upward" to get some responsibilities off teachers' plates. Use phrases such as, "We are focusing on the most important factors for student achievement, eliminating for now time-intensive efforts that take resources away from these high-impact priorities."

2. Set Guardrails

Not even Steve Jobs understood the societal implications of the iPhone when he introduced it in 2007. Expectations of instant access and instant response—and the ability to instantly complain—are incompatible with what humans need to do good work.
You as a leader can set—and model—guardrail policies to help teachers work in ways that match how their brains work. Encourage turning off all notifications and only answering emails and texts at set times during the day. Standardize a schoolwide "Away" message so parents hear a consistent policy about how quickly teachers will respond to them and have realistic expectations. This can be kept simple, such as, "Please know that I answer emails only at set times during the teaching day and aim to respond to emails within 24 hours." Don't send or answer emails after school hours (and schedule any you do write to arrive the next day). Talk about the benefits and dangers of allowing parents to text staff members. Insist on putting phones away during meetings, since multitasking is a myth; your brain is actually task-switching, resulting in misunderstandings and time-wasting inefficiency (Medina, 2014).
In other words, reexamine energy-sapping policies and practices that may have become building norms. Be clear about the new policies, so teachers can comfortably reset their practices to stay within the guardrails.

3. Dust Off Do Not Disturb Signs

Did you know that if you are concentrating on a demanding task like delivering a lesson, providing student feedback, planning lessons, or reviewing student data, interruptions waste far more time than the few minute it takes to answer a call from the office or respond to a knock on the door? It takes about 23 minutes to get back to the same level of concentration you had before the interruption (Mark, Wang, & Niiya, 2014). In our workshops, we hand out "Do Not Disturb—Brain at Work" doorknob hangers for school leaders to use. This message is a gentle reminder to people that even a one-minute interruption can waste significant time when the task is complex.
Once, "Do Not Disturb" signs had real power. Everyone understood the value of concentration. Now we take for granted our loss of focus, caused by everything from announcements over the PA during class time to mandatory meetings that eat into teachers prep time—or lunch. We even interrupt ourselves and each other, giving and receiving texts, checking whether there's anything new on that breaking headline, etc.
Broadcast the fact that, as humans, we're wired to concentrate on complex tasks for about 52 minutes at a time, then rest for about 17 minutes (Bailey, 2018). Then actively work to decrease interruptions by minimizing loudspeaker announcements, ensuring teachers are only required to attend meetings essential to their own work, and so on.
Have your staff experiment with putting their phones in a drawer across their classroom from their desk to experience deeper concentration. If teachers share offices or have only their classrooms as workspace, consider where in your building you might create "Do Not Disturb" carrels. Talk with everyone about how finding times for deep concentration increases how much they can accomplish.

4. Cultivate Community

The pressures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic led to many teachers saying, "I don't have time for community building. Just let me work in my classroom." A better normal needs to include the understanding that humans evolved as social creatures. Stress is inevitable for human beings who have goals and relationships. But one major characteristic of those who exhibit hardiness, defined as the capacity to grow from stress, is that they do not isolate themselves. Instead, they seek out those who care about them and about whom they care. They know that talking or simply being with those experiencing similar circumstances is actually an antidote to the potentially harmful effects of stress.
Why? You've heard of oxytocin, the "cuddle" hormone that's released when we're with those we love. What's less known about oxytocin is that it's also released, in smaller amounts, when we experience stress; it actually protects our cardiovascular system, expanding arteries and veins in ways that decrease blood pressure and the harmful effects of chronic tenseness (McGonigal, 2013). However, people produce more oxytocin when they're around others they have caring relationships with, providing more of a buffer against stress's damage.
This doesn't mean learning community time needs to evolve into support group meetings. Short well-being check-ins, followed by solution-oriented discussions of formative assessments, classroom practices that are working, and the other ongoing tasks of your professional learning teams, can also let the oxytocin flow. In other words, cultivate purposeful teaming to build collective efficacy and mental health.

In our workshops, we hand out 'Do Not Disturb—Brain at Work' doorknob hangers.... The message is gentle reminder to people that even a one-minute interruption can waste a lot of time when the task is complex.

Author Image

5. Model Smart Practices

Making the most of the practices that lead to brain energy and bandwidth starts at the top. Personally, we won't work with a school unless the leaders commit to certain practices first, because teachers don't feel empowered to engage in self-care or other crucial practices unless these are modeled from the top (Skakon et al., 2010).
Whether you are a teacher leader, building administrator, district leader, or external provider, what you do and say counts. For example, it's true that some interruptions are inevitable. But when you know you need to concentrate to finish writing a grant, can people see a "Do Not Disturb" sign on your door? Have you created a norm that a seldom-used conference room can be scheduled by anyone needing space to concentrate? Does your team know that you sometimes nap to regain focus after a long, stressful day before hopping in your car for the drive home?

6. Spread Blameless Discernment

Acknowledge openly that we all play the blame game. When things go wrong, we blame ourselves, others, circumstances, or some combination of the three. But getting to a "better normal" will require what's often referred to as blameless discernment. Muster as much objectivity as you can to ascertain what is really happening rather than simplistically attributing the problems to one person, group, or circumstance. And even if practices a particular group tends to follow do seem to be part of where things have gone off-track, frame this discovery in terms of where to start solutions rather than pointing fingers.
Is your default, "If I were a better leader, my teachers would be OK" or "If the teachers would just act like adults …" or "Once the pandemic is over, ___ won't be an issue"? These are examples of blaming oneself, others, or circumstances. Each may hold part of the truth, but the root problem—and solutions—are likely more nuanced, and you can't solve the root problem unless it's correctly identified.
As you shift organizational norms and practices to help everyone reclaim their energy, collaborate with key colleagues to use blameless discernment to understand how you got to where you are, what needs to change, and how to best lead that change. Questions that can help you adopt this mindset include, "What might an observer new to our situation point out about how we got to where we are?" "What data might we examine to confirm or dismiss our assumptions?" and "Are we failing to see our own blind spots or failing to step into the shoes of others to better understand their needs or actions?"

Revitalizing Your Ecosystem

As you discern and prepare to shift systems and your own day-to-day practices in the community-reviving ways described, be sure to take steps to decrease your stress. Enlist a few colleagues to, say, frequently remind you to observe guardrails or limit the initiatives you embrace. As you ponder ways to improve your school's ecosystem, model healthy practices by protecting from interruptions the time you spend reflecting on how to bring change. Ignore less important demands for action until you've identified how to revitalize the ecosystem of your learning community so that everyone can thrive.

Take Jane Kise and Ann Holm's self-assessment survey to gauge your own educator bandwidth—and learn how to reclaim it.

 

Reflect and Discuss

➛ Consider the aspects of your work as an educator that most sap your energy and "bandwidth". Which ones result from policies in your school that could realistically change?

➛ Leaders: The suggestions for "setting guardrails" and "do not disturb" signals all relate to protecting time for concentrated work. Which of these suggestions—that you could actually try—would most protect your teachers?

➛ Why do so many schools suffer from initiative fatigue? How could you address the root causes of this in your school?

How to Regain Lost Time

This new book by Jane Kise and Ann C. Holm offers tools for reducing stress, avoiding burnout, and reclaiming time.

How to Regain Lost Time
References

Bailey, C. (2018). Hyperfocus: How to work less and achieve more. Macmillan.

Mark, G., Wang, Y., & Niiya, M. (2014). Stress and multitasking in everyday college life: An empirical study of online activity. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 41–50.

McGonigal, K. (2013). How to make stress your friendTED. [TED Talk].

McKeown, G. (2014). Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of less. Crown Business.

Medina, J. (2014). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home and school, Updated and expanded edition. Pear Press.

Skakon, J., Nielson, K., Borg, V., & Guzman, J. (2010). Are leaders' well-being, behaviours and style associated with the affective well-being of their employees? A systematic review of three decades of research. Work Stress24, 107–139.

Visible Learning Meta. (2022). "Global research database." Retrieved April 16, 2022.

Jane Kise, EdD, CPQC, founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates, has worked as a consultant for 30 years, specializing in executive and instructional coaching and professional development. She is also the author or coauthor of over 25 books, including Doable Differentiation; Holistic Leadership, Thriving Schools; Differentiated Coaching; and Creating a Coaching Culture for Professional Learning Communities. She holds an MBA in finance from the Carlson School of Management and a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of St. Thomas, where she is an adjunct professor for the doctoral program.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
School Culture
Is It Burnout—or a Question of Ethics?
Tara Laskowski
2 months ago

undefined
Surveys Say: Teachers Need Stronger Systemic Support
Naomi Thiers
2 months ago

undefined
A Survey on Educator Bandwidth
Educational Leadership Staff
2 months ago

undefined
Prioritizing Connection
Michelle Hope
2 months ago

undefined
If We Want Sustainable Schools, We’ve Got to Build Teacher Agency
Paul Emerich France
2 months ago
Related Articles
Is It Burnout—or a Question of Ethics?
Tara Laskowski
2 months ago

Surveys Say: Teachers Need Stronger Systemic Support
Naomi Thiers
2 months ago

A Survey on Educator Bandwidth
Educational Leadership Staff
2 months ago

Prioritizing Connection
Michelle Hope
2 months ago

If We Want Sustainable Schools, We’ve Got to Build Teacher Agency
Paul Emerich France
2 months ago
From our issue
Summer 2022 Header image
Nurturing Well-Being in Schools
Go To Publication