As the pandemic has progressed, the mantra of self-care has come under attack by educators and leaders (https://www.boredteachers.com/post/teachers-cant-self-care-themselves-out-of-toxic-environment) as the idea of being able to care for yourself alone seems more impossible.
I have seen a transition away from the highly individualistic strategies of self-care to an approach that emphasizes mutual care, connection and collaboration. While efforts to care for ourselves through practices that promote healthy sleep, movement, eating and engaging in enjoyable activities is necessary, alone it is insufficient during this time of stress.
In a recent training, I shared 3 choices I see organizations and leaders making and what to do instead. If you want to check out the training, you can find it at our youtube channel at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zq9AzIbE_Xk&t=3s.
Choice #1: Toxic Positivity or Conscious Vulnerability
At a school early in my career, I worked with a leader who always had a smile on her face and was always positive, even when it wasn’t an appropriate response. The staff often left interactions with her feeling unheard and frustrated because she always tried to put a positive spin when people really just needed her to listen.
Toxic positivity is inauthentic happiness and can cause damage in personal and professional relationships. Vanessa Van Edwards in her blog the Science of People says that “toxic positivity is the feeling of acting happy or cheerful when you’re really not. It’s that fake kind of happiness people say to you like ‘Just cheer up!’ or ‘It’ll get better, don’t worry,’ when something really bad happened to you.”
Responding in this way is invalidating. You can’t convince anyone else out of their feelings. To invalidate someone’s feelings is to make them feel unseen and unheard, often making the other person feel that they need to be louder, more insistent or withdraw.
Instead, I suggest trying conscious vulnerability, which is choosing to disclose your personal struggles in an intentional way to build trust and normalize emotional expression. While being vulnerable about your own struggles can certainly cause problems when overused, making thoughtful decisions to share your own struggle or just be present with someone, without trying to fix it, is a powerful way to validate someone’s experience and build trust.
When we make ourselves open and vulnerable, behaving in a way that extends and elicits respect, that tends to generate the same in the other.Christina de la Huerta
Knowing we are not alone and that others are also feeling the same way is so powerful. Creating an environment where sharing our hard days is possible, and it creates an environment where we can carry the burden of each other.
Choice #2: A hyperfocus on student needs or balanced support
Education is full of phrases like “All in for kids” and being “student-focused.” A school I worked at even gave out awards for going “above and beyond.” Almost always these awards went to people that were donating their evenings, weekend, finances and own personal health to support students. While we do need to set aside what is comfortable for adults and be intentional about making choices that are best for students, a hyperfocus on student needs leads to a grind culture in schools.
Maslach and Leiter (2004) have identified seven organizational risk factors for burnout:
- Heavy workload
- Conflicts with coworkers
- Diminished resources
- Lack of control or input
- Effort-reward imbalance
- Rapid institutional changes
This list reads like a description of schools over the last 24 months and helps me understand the reason why burnout seems to be at an all time high among educators.
The Demand, Control, Support model originally developed by Karasel in 1979 and expanded by Johnson and Hall in 1988, has dominated research on occupational stress for the last 3 decades.
This model states that employees with jobs that have high demands, low control and low social support/isolation are most at risk for burnout and that by providing moderate demands, high control or autonomy and high support employers can reduce burnout among staff.
Practicing balanced support means understanding that the needs of our students and families are important and that they must be balanced with the needs of staff. When there is a hyperfocus on student needs, the mental and physical health of educators will suffer. Based on the Demand, Control, Support model, I would ask you to consider the following questions:
- Lower Demands: Is there one thing that if we could find a way to take it off your plate, would provide some relief?
- Increase Control: What do you think would work better? Do you have ideas for how we could accomplish this goal or task in a different way?
- Increase social support and fight isolation: What opportunities for collaboration and connection could we create or could you engage in?
Choice #3: Fix It Mode or Community Support
I think many people drawn to education as a career, have an intuitive need to take care of others or try and fix things for other people.
I come to the field of education with a background in social work and had the privilege of teaching undergraduate social work students for 15 years. One observation I made of early career social workers is that they often wanted to approach the situation and have the answer; they were proud when they knew of a resource or they had the “right” answer to help a family. Their lack of experience blinds them to the fact that the best path forward has to be determined by the client and that their role is to walk beside, listen, encourage, and empathize. I have seen this pattern of behavior that I started to call it “fix-it mode” as a verbal cue for when students might be falling into this type of thinking.
I often see educators fall into fix-it mode too. It comes from a good place. They want to help and make it better, but this pandemic is something we cannot fix.
While we may have some ideas so far that I believe are solution-focused, the reality is that we can’t eliminate the concerns that people are facing with economic hardships, parenting struggles, health concerns and social isolation.
And there is an emotional cost of being to fix it mode and others might think it is your job to take care of things. But that is a burden that is too heavy to bear. As much as we want to support, I think sometimes our response needs to be helping others accept that this is a hard time that doesn’t have a solution.
Instead of trying to fix things, sometimes the best thing we can do is create opportunities for people to be in community with each other and support one another. Consider creating opportunities for people to be authentic with one another. To be able to set aside the role of teacher/social worker/counselor/principal and to recognize that this has been hard. That they are valued in your community and you want to support them.
We have a free resource to help you host these types of interactions called a Supportive Conversations Guide. This 12 page guide will help you to plan out your hosting conversation, has sample activities and tips for effective facilitation. We hope you find it helpful!