As I work with teachers in districts around the country, I often hear that part of what makes teaching so stressful is not feeling supported by school or district leaders. Many times, however, if you ask that leader, they will list the ways they feel that they do provide the necessary support. This disconnect between the leader’s perception and the reality of the situation as experienced by the teachers can lead to disengagement, burnout, and demoralization amongst educators at any level. The “us against them” mentality lends itself to additional stress, trust issues, and a toxic culture, which takes its toll over time.
So, the question becomes, “What does the administration need to do to support teachers in the way they need to be supported?”
Both the educator and the administrator must work together to develop a mutually trusting relationship. However, in order for that to work, the educator must be able to answer the question of what actions make them feel supported as it can be different for everyone. “Support” is not a blanket action that covers every person’s needs, but instead a personal need that can be specific to that individual. Being able to articulate the answer to that question first requires becoming self-aware.
From my personal experience, I’ve learned that in order for my leader to provide me with support, one of my non-negotiables is that I feel like they have my back all the time. I need to know that if I fail they will still support me. I need to know that if I really screw up, they will guide me in the right direction. This is my number one support need. In speaking with another district administrator, I asked him what made him feel supported by his leadership. His answer was clear communication. He needed his leader to show him trust by keeping him in the loop and communicating effectively. When I mentioned my support need, he said that didn’t matter to him nearly as much as the communication factor. Both of us developed our support needs by working with administrators who did not offer us this type of support at some point in our careers. Similarly, to how we bring different stories, backgrounds, and talents to our work settings, we interpret our support system relative to our needs based on our varying experiences.
The disconnect in the support structure can be felt when leadership meets the individual needs of some but not others. There may be many reasons for this – perhaps a commitment has been made to offer a certain type of support or maybe that type of support comes naturally. Most likely, people offer the type of support that THEY want to receive as opposed to the type of support that the other person wants to receive. The best leaders, however, adjust themselves to the needs of the people they serve regardless of whether their preferences align with the leader’s preconceived notion of what support should look like.
Realistically, how can we move forward to fix this issue?
Step One: An educator must be self-reflective in order to articulate what actions help him/her to feel supported. If the educator does not know, then how can the leader be expected to know? Meanwhile, leaders must revisit their own lens of support and open themselves up to feedback and new ways of doing things.
Step Two: An open and honest conversation between the teacher and the administrator must happen. This crucial conversation will determine the success of the work going forward. Some individuals are comfortable speaking up and asking for what they need but many others are not. Leaders should seek this information out and ask for specific examples if the information is not freely offered up by staff. The challenge with this step is for the leader to refrain from becoming defensive and understand that they may not have been wrong in their support. They may just not have been meeting the needs of that particular teacher – even though their actions may have worked just fine for others.
Step Three: The teacher and administrator can set goals together for the support improvement. A timeline can be put in place to reconnect and revisit the changes. As both people move forward in the process, adjustments can be made and new goals can be set. When the support system is improving, those are times for celebration as that would be indicative of personal and professional growth by both the teacher and their leader.
Regardless of where you are in developing a trusting relationship with your leaders or staff, the good news is that beginning to repair a relationship can happen at any time that both parties feel they’re ready. These crucial conversations help to rebuild trust, deepen connections, and provide an understanding of support that can only happen when we take the time to develop individual relationships. And these relationships are worth focusing on – not just because they provide a more supportive, engaging environment for educators to reconnect with their feelings of efficacy but because it models the way teachers can individually support their learners to help them grow.