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December 1, 2020

Morale-Boosting Educators

Using the Teach to Lead process, three Connecticut teachers set up ways for teachers to tackle schoolwide needs together—and enjoy each others' company.

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Professional Learning
Social-emotional learning
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When teachers and students entered Mohegan Elementary School in Connecticut this September to start a semester of hybrid learning, many hadn't been in the building since it closed to in-person learning in March. They were welcomed with an uplifting sight: halls lined with a photo of every student, teacher, and staff member mounted on black paper, each photo paired with a phrase about how that person makes a difference at Mohegan.

That winter and spring, Mohegan teachers Lisa Halloran, Lisa Kaplan, and Kate McCarney had launched an effort to get students and staff to reflect on what they contributed to the school community, and to pair this affirmation of their worth with a photo. Just before the building opened in September, they posted these "I Make a Difference" statements so the hallway would be a tunnel of appreciation as people returned during a stressful time. One teacher told the group, "Thank you! I was having a bad first day and took time to read these messages about everyone making a difference. It lifted my spirits!"

Halloran, Kaplan, and McCarney are the nucleus of a group that sensed teacher wellness at Mohegan needed a boost. Teachers wanted to better address students' social-emotional needs, but research shows that teachers first need to hone their own social-emotional skills to model them for students. Conditions to build such skills—like open communication and supportive relationships with colleagues—were lacking for teachers at Mohegan even before the pandemic. Teachers seemed be working in isolation. Negative publicity related to a "fight-club"-type incident at another district school left the town's educators rattled. Although the elementary schools weren't involved, this episode didn't help morale.

Halloran, Kaplan, and McCarney began strengthening their knowledge of social-emotional skills and ways to foster teacher leadership, work that culminated in their attending a Teach to Lead summit in Philadelphia in 2019. Teach to lead is a partnership of ASCD, Teach Plus, and the U.S. Department of Education that helps teachers develop and amplify school-improvement ideas. The project's idea-development process (and their Teach to Lead "critical friend" Cynthia Wright) helped them broaden their teacher wellness plan to include teacher-initiated problem solving with their colleagues, addressing schoolwide needs that were a major source of teacher stress. Since then, they've begun putting their plan into action. Although the pandemic put some of this work on pause, the three continued to talk and plan—including by attending virtual conferences and reading Permission to Feel by Marc Brackett.

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Lisa Kaplan, Kate McCarney, and Lisa Halloran (front to back) with "I Make a Difference" statements that school staff and students created.

Finding Out What Teachers Needed

In preparation for using Teach to Lead's process, Halloran, Kaplan, and McCarney surveyed Mohegan's teachers and tabulated their responses to questions like "What supports would help you become a better teacher?"

"It shouted out from that survey," Halloran says. "Teachers wanted more time to connect with colleagues supportively and problem solve together." The three teachers made this desire and others that surfaced from the survey the center of the plan that they refined at the summit.

One action the three came up with is a "Solution Squad." They envisioned this "squad" as a group of three to five Mohegan teachers (with rotating membership) ready to tackle any problem of practice or school culture a teacher identifies. The squad would meet with the teacher who raised the need, drawing in other staff members with expertise on the issue and meeting as often as necessary to brainstorm and implement ways to solve the problem.

At the summit, Halloran, Kaplan, and McCarney had developed a formal process for teachers to submit any challenge they're concerned about and a protocol for exploring the issue and choosing a viable solution. The ultimate goal, not yet in place, is to have such needs defined through discussion at regular PLC meetings.

Putting Their Plan into Action

After the summit in Philadelphia, the three teachers presented the Solution Squad concept and other parts of their plan to Mohegan's principal and teachers. "Thanks to our pitch practice, we had answers ready for every question we were asked," Kaplan says. Their plan was enthusiastically approved.

The original three, plus two interested colleagues, became the first Solution Squad. But it took some time (and frustration) to get enough hours carved out in the schedules of interested teachers to start Squad meetings. In the meantime, the group spearheaded the "Why I Make a Difference" project, inspired by the #WhyYouMatter art project initiated at Chelsea High School in Detroit (www.whyyoumatter.org). Their goal was to get all students and school adults to reflect on why they matter at Mohegan.

Teachers in every classroom led these reflections, using age-appropriate books and guiding each student to finish the sentence "I make a difference because ___." Almost every student and all school employees (including custodians and school office staff) had their photo taken holding up their phrase.

Meanwhile, one need the Solution Squad did tackle just before COVID-19 closed the school was the lack of social activities for teachers to connect more personally. "We used to have great camaraderie—events where we just did something fun together. That had slipped away," Halloran explains. The Squad brought back a "Breakfast Club." Once a week, teachers are invited to have breakfast together before school starts (with food provided) and do something like discuss a TV series of the group's choice. The first two breakfasts were popular; the Squad hopes to resume them once face-to-face gatherings are possible.

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Teachers' and school employees' "I Make a Difference" statements are displayed in a hallway at Mohegan Elementary. Photos courtesy of Lisa Halloran.

From a Distance

The pandemic has changed the nature of the group's work. "We had things planned to build community. Once the school closed, we had to think how to build community virtually," notes Kaplan. The group has collected resources about self-care—including tools like the "mood meter" from Brackett's work on emotional intelligence—and made them available to teachers on Padlet. Since the district is encouraging teachers to take an online course called "SEL for Teachers in COVID Times," the group is setting up a way for teachers to meet virtually and discuss what they learn in the course.

With teachers back in the building several days a week now, the group is taking steps to boost morale in person. "We're hoping to set up a system where each teacher can "check in" emotionally with a colleague, like we do for students under stress," explains Kaplan.

"The problems teachers face trying to create safe learning opportunities are creating stress for us," McCarney asserts. "If we can tackle those problems in any way, that reduces our stress. That's part of wellness."

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