In studies on job satisfaction and burnout, teachers often cite “lack of supportive work environment” as a main cause of attrition. I know my colleagues and I have all felt the stress of increased workloads due to resource limitations, the pressure of performance evaluations and lack of autonomy in the classroom. These factors can contribute to an environment antithetical to the art and science of teaching. The good news is researchers have also found that positive relationships with colleagues mitigate negativity, and that these supportive relationships flourish in supportive environments.
What is challenging about these findings is that the nature of the educator relationships depends greatly on the culture of a school. Teachers in the same building or department may have radically different backgrounds, personalities, belief systems, values and ideas about students and education. As educators who value difference, we sometimes mistakenly assume everyone appreciates a marketplace of multiple viewpoints. Many of us have witnessed or experienced the uncomfortable gossip-filled teacher lounges and political power plays, which are two of the most obvious symptoms when differences are not tolerated on a school staff.
In divisive departments where toxic behaviors seem entrenched, the question of how to create change confounds those who desire it. One investigation I read about burnout in the classroom led researchers to conclude that training educators to develop their own social and emotional competencies (SECs) is an absolute necessity. Similar programs promoting mindfulness in the classroom have concluded that teachers must attend to and develop their own social emotional awareness before they can elicit transformative change in their students.
Here are a few suggestions from my reading and experience about how to better support our colleagues and create a more just and welcoming environment across the entire school.
Get to Know Each Other Personally
We know that building personal relationships with students and families enhances both classroom climate and academic learning. This same principle applies to building relationships with colleagues. The more we know about each other’s backgrounds, interests, strengths and passions, the more empathy we build for one another. No one wants to hear their colleagues share overly personal information, but taking genuine interest in the lives and well being of those we teach with goes a long way toward building community and compassion.
Focus on the Positive
We can support our colleagues and ourselves by resisting the temptation to use the teacher’s lounge as the complaining station. Talking through problems is a key social emotional skill, but so is stopping when the conversation ceases to be solution-focused. Try a change in direction when “venting” turns into either gossip or railing about students’ inadequacies.
One of the most inspiring stories I’ve heard in my career involved a teacher stopping lounge gossip and slander. A veteran teacher overheard two teachers degrading another openly gay teacher in the district. This veteran teacher directly confronted the offenders on the spot, addressing them as professionals and friends responsible for creating a more tolerant, just school and community. The two teachers, because of their respect for the veteran teacher and his conviction for speaking up, apologized and corrected their behavior.
Keep an Open Mind
Exchanging ideas and thinking critically about our daily procedures and educational choices inevitably opens up opportunities for conflict of opinion and ideology. Even though these conflicts are not personal, being in conflict at all can be uncomfortable for people whose cultural or familial background discourage open argument. Try setting ground rules for discussion to help the group be mindful that how we disagree—the words we use, our tone of voice, whether or not we focus on solutions—can be the difference between colleagues feeling personally attacked or being willing to engage in open communication.
One of the most exciting movements in education concerns the development of mind-body awareness in teachers and students. Programs and classes all over the country are aimed at helping teachers recognize when feelings of embarrassment, frustration or fear threaten to hijack professional conversations. I’ve found that practicing this mindful awareness has helped me and my colleagues to act instead of react to potential stressors and to be more creative in our approaches to potentially explosive situations.
Work to Change the Bigger Picture
The Dali Lama co-wrote a book titled The Art of Happiness at Work. In situations where colleagues cannot or will not adopt a supportive role, he suggests working to change larger injustices that conspire against others, causing them to reproduce negativity by contributing to a hostile work environment. Redirecting anger and frustration toward more constructive activities can help diffuse the hopelessness and disengagement that a difficult work environment engenders.
Hostile, unjust work environments do exist, and in some cases, the most emotionally healthy response is to leave. Research has found, however, that teachers who experience more positive emotions at work are more resilient and creative in their own classroom management. By improving our social emotional behaviors as staff members, we make our schools better places. This research also advocates for buildings and districts to adopt a broader idea of professional development, one that builds in social emotional learning supports for everyone in the school.
As social beings, we need each other. And if we want to usher in a more empathetic, open-minded society, we have to be the change we wish to see.
Ricket is a high school English teacher in Ohio.