Superintendents are not born in charge. Most of us “came from the ranks” of teaching--or classified staff, counseling, school psych, etc. We are not too far removed from the work closest to the student to know how hard it can be.
I started my career as a high school English teacher, barely five years older than my first group of students. Not knowing yet how to balance the demands and incorrectly believing that everything I assigned needed to be graded, I spent many weekends lugging boxes of papers to grade in my small apartment, yelling at my roommates to turn down the music so I could concentrate on grading essays. I had three ‘preps’ that first year--three different courses that I had to plan for, execute, and grade. I taught in the beautiful, yet poverty-stricken foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and my students came to school with every type of obstacle to learning. It was one of the hardest years of my career; the first one almost always is for educators. And for my efforts, I took home $20,000 that first year. You read that right.
Teaching is hard work. We all know it will be. In my nearly 25 years in education, I have yet to meet an educator who didn’t enter the profession for the right reasons. HINT: It’s not the summers “off,” as many outside the profession seem to believe. Spend one week in a classroom and you’ll realize that there are plenty of easier ways to achieve summers off and make more money doing it.
An educator chooses their craft because they’re called to it. You have to be. You’ll be eaten alive by the kids, the parents, and/or the reality of it if you are drawn to the profession for some less admirable purpose. From day one, if you don’t already know, you soon realize that you will work extremely hard to get good, stay good, and retire in this career.
And so, when I became a more experienced teacher, assistant principal, principal, and then moved to the District Office, ultimately accepting the role of Superintendent, I took with me a good deal of understanding for the demands of the job. My experience as a classroom teacher informs the decisions I make, the way I make them, and the relationships and systems I build to achieve our goal; it also informs how I listen to educators.
There will always be a fair amount of consternation by educators regarding how hard the work really is. Try as we might, that will never change. From the Boardroom to the dining room, from the negotiating table to the corner table at Starbucks, we’ll continue to hear exasperation from educators about the demands.
Fast forward to 2021 and the overwhelm among educators is noticeable. I wasn’t exactly able to put my finger on why the messages I was receiving were different, but something felt unique about this moment. It wasn’t and isn’t typical angst; the fatigue is palpably different. As I scroll through the morning headlines of education news (which I do daily), I see headlines that read:
Teacher Burnout Leaves Schools Scrambling,
Schools are Closing Classrooms on Fridays; Parents are Furious,
Teachers All Over the US are Burnt Out, but Parents’ Compassion Has Gone,
Teachers (and Students) Can Only Take So Much.
A skeptic would no doubt question the validity of the actual difference in exhaustion from this year as compared to previous years. And why wouldn’t they? Weren’t most districts’ teachers and students comfortably at home last year guarding themselves from the pandemic? Isn’t teaching, in the best of circumstances, tiring and challenging work?
The questions, I suppose are reasonable, but I’m not a skeptic so that’s not where my head goes. Rather, I’m a designer. Designers ask questions. Designers find out more information. Designers empathize with their end user (in this case, the educators) to find out more about their lived experience in the moment. And so, as a designer and former teacher who happens to be a Superintendent, I did what designers do and I asked a group of teachers-- “What’s different about this moment? Why is it so hard even for those of you who take the challenges of teaching in stride?”
Here’s some of what I heard:
I share all this not to seek anyone’s pity for our educators. They don’t want, nor do they need our pity. I share this because the insight I took away from my empathy session with our teachers resonated with me and helped me understand why this moment feels different. There’s something bigger going on that requires a different response.
I also do not believe that the exhaustion of our teachers should be held as more virtuous than the exhaustion of others. We have all, collectively and individually, been impacted by the constant stress of this pandemic. I think, perhaps, the most important reason to elevate the needs of our educators right now is that they are often expected to “be okay” in the face of any and all difficulty. While teachers are superheroes to our little ones, they are also still human and the impacts of their stress are real. We have to hold space for this reality.
Our bodies and brains are designed to handle stress. Stress is part of the normal, human condition. The problems arise when stress is ongoing, or chronic. Chronic stress impacts everything--our sleep, our appetite and digestion, our cardiovascular health, our nervous system, our physical strength, literally everything. What I heard when I met with these teachers could be summed up simply: they are experiencing the very real impacts of chronic stress and it's taking its toll.
As a Superintendent, and an empathic one at that, it’s hard for me to see people whose well-being I am somewhat responsible for, hurting. I don’t have all the answers, in fact, I have very few. The answers I do have are limited in their ability to have the desired impact. Healing takes time. Healing looks different for different people. However, I can’t let my limited ability to effect change stop me from trying to positively impact where I am able.
So with the teachers in my impromptu design session, we came up with a plan to acknowledge the reality of the moment (often the biggest gift we can give is to just be present, listen, and acknowledge what is real); offer some opportunities of relief (no matter how small or how far apart they may be); and continually manage my own expectations and those of the people around us (it’s easy to get distracted by the “noise” of the moment).
What do these three things look like? In MPCSD, we have decided to let go of some expectations around assessment and meetings. We’re not letting it all go, but we’re letting some of it go. Where it remains, we are going to hire outside support to score and input assessment measures. For the remainder of the year, our professional development is going to focus on a very important part of our Whole Child Framework--integrated well being. Instead of standards-based grading training or modeling of the ‘workshop model’ of reading instruction, we’re going to provide a playlist of wellness activities for staff that they can choose to utilize or not: drop-in counseling, a yoga class, meditation, a community circle--whatever it is they need and feels helpful. Is the PD we won’t be offering this spring important? Of course it is. But it’s not what’s most important right now. And we’re going to engage our parent volunteers, most of whom will jump at the chance to help out in the effort to love-on our staff. Coffee carts, lunch buffets, and warm (masked) hugs are just what the doctor ordered.
We won’t stop there. Remember, the educators are seeing that our kids are in need of social-emotional support, as well. So we intend to partner with youth-serving community organizations to co-create field trips (that our teachers won’t be required to attend so they can focus on their own wellness) focused on the themes of communication, teamwork, emotional regulation, conflict resolution and those other important skills that children didn’t have the opportunity to practice as regularly the last 22 months.
Is it going to solve all of our problems? No. Is it a start? Yes. Does it at least acknowledge the reality that there is something bigger going on than typical winter-time exhaustion? Yes. Will every staff member appreciate it and every parent think it necessary? No.
If I’ve learned anything being a Superintendent, it’s that sometimes you just have to follow your instincts and in this moment my instincts tell me that our staff are hurting and they need someone to acknowledge that the impacts of the chronic stress they’ve experienced is real.
So to our staff in MPCSD and to all the educators who may stumble upon this blog, I want you to know that we see you. We hear you. We appreciate you. And, we’re going to try to help in some small way.
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Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.