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How Leaders Can Create a Sense of Belonging for Teachers Returning to School

How Leaders Can Create a Sense of Belonging for Teachers Returning to School

Welcome back, educators and leaders, to a school year like none we’ve encountered before! Usually, we use this space at this time of year to offer some ideas for how to get off on the right foot in the classroom or on your school teams as you prepare to bring your community back together in schools and district offices. This year, that looks a little different. 

As we start the year, the daily news is full of stories about virus loads, transmission rates, and shifts in how schools are approaching supporting student learning in the face of previously unimagined challenges to our abilities to “do school” as we have always known it. 

Heading into Fall 2020, we face these three truths:

  1. We have all been through something major
  2. We’re still in it
  3. We can’t rely on what we have always done to get us through this.

Teachers are returning to a school environment that is completely different than the one they left in March, and the comfort of community that may have gotten them through the more challenging years in the past is needed now more than ever. School and district leaders can help foster resilience, trust, and connectedness by thinking creatively about ways to use technology to support a sense of community as we head into a time when we can not rely on physical proximity to do some of the work for us. With these three factors we believe that teachers will feel a stronger sense of belonging and connectedness to each other.

Resilience 

Resilience is one of those hot terms that has been passed around in education over the past few years. Often it’s in the context of building student “grit” or resilience to persevere in the face of challenges. However, we want to reframe how you think about resilience in your classroom. 

First, resilience isn’t just about getting through or getting through in a particular way - it’s about getting through and getting stronger. As Elena Aguilar has said, “resilience is when you experience a challenge or a setback and you come out stronger than you were before, having learned something new.” 

We also know that it’s been a hell of a year. At the moment, you may feel like you’re just getting through - there’s hardly time or energy left for learning! However, teachers will find that they’ve learned a tremendous amount about themselves and their practice on the other side of this pandemic. That said, it is important to purposefully build resilience among our teachers at this time, perhaps more so than ever before. Teachers are leaving the profession at an alarming rate as we face the pandemic. This is for a variety of reasons, many of which resilience will not address, however the prospect of burnout and stress are very real for teachers and we must equip them to get through this time. Second, teachers who are resilient can model for students how to be resilient and can be better teachers to their students. 

As you try to build resilience here are a few principles to keep in mind:

  • Know yourself and what you need: Much of how you react to situations is rooted in your experiences, context, and identity. Taking time to build this self-knowledge is the foundation of being able to show up every day, even when it’s hard. Provide space for yourself or your teachers to reflect on and process the experience of 2020 so far (you might consider using a reflection frame to help as people process COVID-19). Also take time to reflect on what made the spring semester more manageable for you personally (if anything). This might be child care, exercise, or getting your weekly grocery order basics in place. Before the school year starts, begin getting those pieces in place so that you can hit the ground running. 
  • Lean on your community: Team up with others in your school community to get through this time. Create a regular time to collaboratively work and check-in on each other. Create a space where you can each bring your wins, challenges, and losses. Consider where you might be able to team up and make the workload more manageable with others in your PLC, on your grade level team, or subject area.
  • Remember to control the things you can, and release the things you can’t: Previously, what happened in our classroom was very much within our control. As students are learning in myriad learning environments with many different settings so much is uncertain. Try to remember what is in your control and what is not and allocate your energy accordingly. 
  • Celebrate the wins, feel the losses: When things are stressful, a common coping strategy is to push through without processing the emotions of the time. Take time with your team to celebrate the wins, feel the losses, and then exhale and release them all each day. In order to get through this and show up each day, we have to allow ourselves to feel our feelings - good and bad - so that we might learn and heal and move forward. As Brené Brown has explained, you can’t selectively feel. If you’re blocking the bad, you’re also not allowing yourself to feel the good.

Teachers: you already are resilient. It may feel like “coping” or “getting by” but you’re showing up and pushing through a crazy stressful time. That’s unparalleled strength that you’ve had to sustain for a long period of time. Pat yourself on the back!

Trust

Building trust with your team is key during times of uncertainty. Challenges and pivots are unavoidable, but having a high level of trust in leadership can support a collaborative environment in which team members acknowledge mistakes, ask questions, and share ideas. On the contrary, in a low-trust environment people avoid asking questions, offering ideas, and sharing mistakes in order to avoid feelings of ignorance, negativity, and shame. 

To create or sustain trust, try keeping the following principles in mind:

  • Consistent communication through rituals like a weekly email or regular meeting item provides the certainty of a recurring update. At EdElements, our leadership team sent a COVID update email every Wednesday and included a COVID item in our weekly all-staff meeting. 
  • Explaining the why to give context behind a decision, changes, and future expectations lowers the uncertainty and confusion around decisions. Providing additional context also helps people deal with the inevitable changes that will occur, because they have an understanding of how (and why) the sausage was made. Even if a policy or decision is met with resistance, people will feel less worried if they know why it was enacted.
  • Showing sensitivity and strength as a leader, whether of a team of adults or a class of students, builds the trust in leadership that people look for in times of crisis. Brené Brown speaks about the importance of being vulnerable to build trust. 

Connectedness 

Educators know the importance of establishing a sense of connectedness as they start the new year. We are used to a new school year starting with a teacher work week, in which there might be an all-staff meeting that feels like a pep-rally, with some sharing of stories from the summer, introduction to new teachers/staff, and announcements about positive developments and goals for the school year. Then teachers break and go work in small groups or in their rooms, preparing to create a sense of community and connection in their own classrooms by thoughtfully arranging the learning environment, planning for first day get-to-know-you activities, and finalizing the classroom routines that will become comforting rituals for students returning to school.

In the book, Rituals for Work, the authors share the importance of creating work rituals for connection, “Companies and people face big challenges at work today. There are low levels of engagement, high levels of stress and fear, inhuman environments, and failed reorganizations. These problems at work require a multi-faceted set of strategies to make more human-centered, values-driven, and creative workplaces.” And this was before COVID-19…

Consider these ideas for fostering a sense of connection and community:

    • Check-Ins: Open each meeting with a check-in question. These questions can vary in depth and tone-for a large meeting, you may want to solicit a one-person answer to be shared in the chat feature on your video-conferencing platform (In the chat, share one word that describes your personal weather today: I am hazy.); in meetings of smaller groups, you may want to ask a question that requires a slightly longer answer and offers an opportunity to share something more personal (Our check-in question today: what is your favorite snack?)
    • Using Gestures for Synchronicity: One of subconscious ways people connect when in person is behavioral synchronization--if you are telling a funny story, and smiling as you build up to the punchline, you can detect a connection with your conversation partner when they are smiling as they listen. These subconscious cues can get lost when we are connecting over video conferencing tools, but you can build opportunities to sync into your group time. In one of our project meetings, we start the meeting with a moment of appreciation: each person shares something they appreciated since our last meeting, and the rest of the participants “raise the roof” in acknowledgment. Even if you do not come off mute and offer something, you are physically in sync with the celebratory vibe of the moment when you pump your hands toward the ceiling and smile along with your team mates.
    • Virtual Teachers’ Lounge: During a pre-COVID school day, teachers can retreat to the teachers’ lounge to decompress while they make their coffee or share a snack, chatting about funny things that may have happened in their personal life or classrooms since they last connected. In a virtual or hybrid learning environment, this sacred space needs to be recreated online. Consider using a platform like Slack to communicate more informally as a group. Our team created a channel for this type of sharing, entitled “WWFHS” for Weird Work From Home Stuff. On this channel you will find photos of dogs sitting on desk chairs, kids crafting next to a working parent, and any amusing image someone has seen as they go about their day.

By intentionally creating structures to support resilience, trust, and connectedness for your teams, teachers, and staff, you will be strengthening your community and giving your students and families the best possible partners for learning and growing through these extraordinarily challenging times. You may even discover that you’ve created some bonds and rituals that will become part of your school or district identity for years to come.

 

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