“Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.”
The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said this, and as I’ve read it over the years, I have only glossed over it, not really stopping to consider the multiple ways that this phrase could be interpreted. Until today, when my voice shook so much I could barely speak, but I spoke anyway.
Life has been pretty intense lately. It’s been a tough year for everyone, and the distancing required for safety has made it really hard to care for the people in our lives the way they deserve to be and need to be cared for. It’s made it hard to “see” people the way they need to or are meant to be seen, as most of the time, our faces are hidden by masks. Safety has come at a cost, one that cannot be recouped overnight, that will take some time for all of us to heal from. The difficult truth of this is also that not only will healing be required in our families and with our friends, it will also be necessary in our schools—among teachers and students, with leadership—at every level.
If you know me at all, you know that the essential thesis of my life is that taking care of people is the literal most important thing our fellow humans, including and especially school leaders, can do. So, you probably can also guess that I’m feeling hyper-aware of the healing that must take place post-pandemic, and the ways that people are going to need to process the events of this last year are going to be unique to everyone.
Caring for our education professionals has always been critical to the success of our schools, but I would argue that it is, now more than ever, something our leaders must focus on in order to move forward in this post-Covid world. In our schools, we must prioritize our relationships, place value on the human capital in our organizations, and encourage education professionals at all levels to seek the healing they need in the comfort of the relationships they’ve built with their colleagues.
We can care for our colleagues in some pretty simple ways. In my professional life, I have seen the “caring for people” happen here when leaders have popped into my room—with no laptop—just to say hello or to check on me. I have seen it here when leaders have offered to take a section of one of our classes so we can have an extra prep period. I have seen it happen here when leaders have sat down and commented on changes they have noticed and asked what in our lives might be driving those changes. I have seen it happen here when leaders have hosted department lunches, when they have met us for drinks after school and shared their hearts with us and allowed us to do the same. I have seen it happen when leaders have advocated for us to our superiors, in handwritten notes, goodies in my mailbox, and in just a smile that is reassuring and says, “I get it; you can do this.”
Unfortunately, relationships and connections aren’t always a priority for leaders. My argument is that they must be. Amid hundreds of emails and discipline issues and scheduling concerns, and parent phone calls, and the thousand other things that a school administrator must consider, they cannot forget that their workforce is comprised of people. Of actual living, breathing, feeling humans. And, yes, this can feel like “one more thing,” I’m sure of it.
But it is critical to understand that relationships and caring for people is THE thing.
There must be a prioritization of the human capital in the school organizational structure. Teachers often forge important emotional ties and relationships with their colleagues over a period of years. The critical nature of these relationships cannot be ignored. When leaders prioritize numbers or achievement over connections and relationships, a breakdown in what is most important occurs. It is critical to consider the mental health needs of not only the students in the building, but of the teachers who are providing these educational opportunities.
When education professionals first prioritize community and connections, the results are incredible—both in classrooms with student achievement, and in the collegial relationships that are forged. When teachers feel respected, heard, valued, and connected, the level and the quality of their work goes up. They plan more engaging lessons; they work harder and with more passion and fervor to make the process work better. Therefore, the entire organization benefits.
People invest when they feel that they are an investment.
If leaders truly want the best from their people, it is critical for them to consider not only what is best for students, but how we can do what is best for kids and also demonstrate the value that exists within the humanity of our teachers.
Without trust, relationships, and people, you have nothing.
I recently had a really tough (for me—education leadership is not in my future! Ha!) conversation with a leader in my district about this very thing. Voice shaking, I shared with her the intensity of the storm I’ve navigated in my life over the last seven months: a significant professional shift, almost losing my mom in a car accident, my husband being diagnosed with cancer, the loss of my husband’s best friend to the same cancer, publishing my first book, and a million other contributors. I also shared that navigating this in a new room with new teaching assignments and colleagues who don’t know me has presented its own uncertainties.
When school leaders don’t prioritize morale, staff relationships, and the mental health of their teachers, and instead consider only numbers to drive the sections of courses that are needed in order to achieve the data they are looking for, this turns our schools into factories and achievement machines. When we do this, we have missed the point entirely.
And the entire point is this: We have always needed relationships; we need them now more than we ever have.
Placing achievement and numbers over people and relationships makes the entire system suffer.
Sending the message to teachers that the “show must go on” no matter what the cost is sending the wrong message. It is endangering the climate and culture of our schools, and it is reaffirming for teachers that their mental health, that their working conditions, and the relationships they are building as professionals that help them build lasting, meaningful relationships with students do not matter. The message this sends to teachers is that the harder they work, the more of themselves that they give to an organization, the more likely they are to be “rewarded” with more or different or life-altering work.
No one could have predicted the storm I would face in my life this year. Not a single administrator could have even guessed, but what may have been a benefit would have been a stronger consideration for what we already know about teachers—the relationships we build and the communities we create with each other contribute to the quality and the authenticity of the communities we create with our students. This existing information could have provided some guidance for decision-making and helped them to understand that the trauma that has been caused by the pandemic alone would require some healing—and then allowed us to do this with people we trust and love and with whom we are familiar.
But even with that shaky voice, I spoke my mind in the hope that I can maybe make a difference in how school leaders are viewing their decision-making processes as we (hopefully soon) transition into this post-Covid world.