1. Teacher Life

Rethinking Professional Learning to Support Adult SEL Needs

I saw the following quote and image on the Kognito website:

The mental health of teachers is a critical component to caring for and addressing the health of our students and communities. We ask so much of them already, and now they are tasked with not only coping with changes and uncertainty due to COVID-19, but with supporting their students through this crisis, too.

Teachers are on the front lines of recognizing and addressing the mental health of their students. So to support our students, it’s critical to care for teachers.

We cannot forget that, much like the recommendation made in airplane safety procedures,  teachers need to “put their own masks on first before helping another with theirs.”

Dr. Hoover Quote - COVID-19 Impact on Mental Health

Many educators worldwide have reached out to me and have shared their stress and how overwhelmed they are feeling.  But instead of thinking about supports that can be provided and creating “mental health initiatives,” it is necessary to address some of the items that are causing the overwhelming feelings and exhaustion in the first place. 

I wrote about this in a post from July of 2019 titled, “Are you adding to the person or the plate?”, and referred to a picture I saw (I can’t find the original but the idea really resonated with me when I first wrote about it!) that shared something along the lines of the following:

“We spend all of this money and time developing and providing mental health initiatives in the workplace yet we don’t look at the things that we do in the workplace that may be contributing to the problems in the first place.” 

That idea really resonated and has stuck with me since I first saw it.

Here’s an example. A close friend of mine had shared their dismay that a professional learning day was quickly put together when a day “on their own” to do planning was initially promised.  The reality of the situation is that the “planning” still had to be done, so now it was a full day of professional learning plus planning that had to be done.  

I understand the dilemma that many administrators feel when they want to provide opportunities for professional learning and collaboration amongst staff members, but are their opportunities to do it differently that may provide more flexibility for staff to do it in a way that works for them?

For example, when I was a principal, we implemented digital portfolios for our staff through blogs.  I remembered distinctly sharing the agenda for a Friday staff day on a Monday and had blocked off the first two hours for them to create their own blog post for their personal portfolio. After that two hour time, there was a scheduled 30-minute break, followed by an opportunity for staff to share what they had created with their colleagues.  But here was the catch…I shared with my staff that if they wanted to do it before the day and start the day with us at 10:30 AM (the start of the sharing session), they did not have to be at school at the time.  If they needed support, I would be in the library to help them during those first two hours, but otherwise, they could do it on their own time.  Only a few staff members showed up to that staff session, but most didn’t show up until the 10:30 AM sharing session.

Some did the learning from home that morning. Some at night when their kids went to sleep earlier in the week.  Some people did it whenever they wanted it that week and enjoyed an extra two hours of sleep that morning.  No matter how they did it, they all did it in a way that worked for them that week.  That was the intention of the process.

Did they need the two-full hours to create a post? Probably not. That was the point. I wanted them to have a break. Some could be done in 10-20 minutes, and some may have taken two hours, but does it ever make sense to be bothered that some people were able to do it faster? 

I also had to consider, as an administrator,  that I was accountable to someone else for my staff learning on that day, which was easily proven through their posts. In fact, it was more evidence of learning than many professional learning opportunities might be able to provide. But I wanted the opportunity for my staff to have the flexibility to learn in a way that worked for them.

Recently, I worked with a few school districts on planning a professional learning day. Instead of taking session after session, they gave their staff the opportunity to take a self-paced course I created (or some other options) on that day in a way that worked for them. They could start it earlier in the week, on that day, at home, or from their classroom. The parts they asked them to complete would have taken a couple of hours at most, but they could have the opportunity to do other things on that day or dig deeper into the content and spend more time on it.  They also provided some in-person sessions of interest, but the majority took the self-paced option. Each individual could see how far they went into the course, so the accountability was built into the process.  But people had an opportunity to do it in a way that worked for them, at a time that worked for them. 

I know that professional learning is important, but if people are emotionally and mentally exhausted, how much learning is truly going to happen?  Are their opportunities to create professional learning that is flexible while being meaningful to one’s growth instead of overwhelming those we serve?  Many districts are doing a great job of rethinking how they are providing professional learning that supports the social-emotional needs of the adults, instead of only providing sessions on SEL for adults. Both are important.

I am not sure how much this solves to support people in their own wellness journey, but personally, sometimes, what I need more than anything is time.  Time to myself. Time away from learning. Time on my own. 

Instead of a day to provide sessions on supporting our mental health, maybe it is more important to provide a day so we can have time to breathe.  We need to rethink the structures leading to the issues in the first place, not think about how we can add initiatives on top of the structure that will only leave us feeling more overwhelmed in the first place.

P.S. The ideas I have shared might not work for your staff, but ask them if you want to know what does. The people we are trying to support are far too often left out of the conversation. 

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