As we begin Teacher Appreciation Week in what has felt like the longest, hardest school year in human history, I think it is important to discuss some takeaways from this past year-and-change in terms of how our schools have functioned, how they have struggled, their victories, and areas where we can see a need for growth. I am fairly certain that if you asked any teacher in the United States right now, that teacher would tell you that they are exhausted. They would tell you that they are burned out. They would tell you that they are overwhelmed. They would tell you, also, that they are pretty grateful to be employed and that they are proud of themselves for accomplishing what we did this school year: navigating school and quarantine with a raging pandemic and its obstacles was not easy for any single day out of the last 160 that I’ve taught in person, masked, and socially distanced.
Teachers have literally been building the plane they are flying for over a year. When the world started to get hairy last March and public places started shutting down, and when Covid-19 became “real,” schools were shuttered, forced to go virtual almost immediately, and teachers were called upon to facilitate that transition. It was no easy task at any level of education.
Since that time, the changes to all of our lives have been significant. They have been life-altering. They have been, in some cases, traumatic.
I will speak only for myself for a moment, when I share that my school corporation has been holding instruction in-person every day since July 30. We have teachers managing masks, cleaning, social distancing, quarantining, putting work online, teaching work in person, teaching live over zoom, and a million other things that we weren’t expecting. It’s been a really hard year. It would have been hard if this had been the only challenge these teachers were navigating.
And life doesn’t stop for pandemics, for masks, or for challenging school years. In fact, for many of us, life has raged on. It has presented unique challenges, and it has tested our resolve at every level. Everyone has their own personal bubble they live in, where they have individual obstacles that have made a hard year even harder.
If you know me at all, you know this year has been the hardest. Year. Of my life.
Adding a major illness, nearly losing my mom in a car accident, significant career and life issues, and being a full-time working mom to the mix has nearly done me in this year. I am literally at the edge of what I can handle—more on that later.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because as life raged on this year, teachers around the world showed up. They entered their classrooms, no matter how, and they did their very best every single day to make some type of education happen for their students. These teachers looked to their leadership for guidance and direction. They looked to their leadership in times when they didn’t know what to do. They looked to their leadership for a road map, and they looked to their leaders for empathy.
I’m fairly certain that the most important lesson I have learned about education this year is a lesson that I already knew: checking on people and showing empathy as a school leader might be the most important aspect of school leadership.
That’s a bold statement.
But hear me out.
Empathy is really about being able to meet someone where they are and to hold space for their struggle. It isn’t about problem-solving or creating solutions that don’t exist. Certainly, there were no solutions to the cancer diagnosis my husband received in September. All I have needed all year long was empathy and compassion. I have needed someone to hold space for my struggle and to ask me how I am coping with shouldering the majority of the management tasks of our family and of Jon’s medical care myself while also promoting my first book and teaching full time and being a mother to two little boys who deserve my best every day. The only thing I have needed is someone to say, “How are you coping with all of that?” or “We are so sorry you’re having a rough time, but we care about you and think you’re doing great.”
What does it mean to show empathy in school culture? Sometimes showing empathy has nothing to do with words and everything to do with actions. School leaders can show empathy by doing something as simple and seemingly meaningless as walking around their buildings and asking their teachers how they’re doing. I know that seems so small, but it’s critical to understand, school leaders, that it’s not the answer to the question that matters, but that the question was asked at all. Showing empathy might mean that school leaders come in with no computer and just sit for part of a class period—just to say hello. It might mean that they hear a teacher out when she has a concern, and that they show genuine care for her concern. It might mean, even, that a teacher just needs to hear “I’m sorry you’re going through this, and we are here to support you.” And then following through on that. It might even mean popping a hand-written note, even on a post-it, into a teacher’s mailbox. Even if that paper just has a smiley face and your name on it.
Showing care and concern for our teachers is critically important at this crossroads we are reaching in American education. In the United States, teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Why? Because they don’t feel valued or appreciated. They’re also grossly underpaid. Not a great combination of job-satisfaction factors. This was an issue before we faced a global pandemic that drove teachers further from feeling supported and valued. This was an issue before masks and social distancing. This was an issue before potential budget cuts that annually threaten teacher salaries and school operating budgets.
If we want to appreciate teachers this Teacher Appreciation week, let’s think about ways we can share our hearts with them. Let’s think about ways we can ask them to share their hearts with us. Let’s think about ways we can show up for them. Go ask them if they need a restroom break. Then give them one. Go ask them if they need some fresh air. Then let them take a 15-minute walk in the spring sun. Go ask them if they need copies made—and then make them. Go ask if you can take something off their plates. And then take it off their plate. Just once, even once, means so much. Ask them to meet you for a latte after school, or pop in and have lunch with them one day and ask them about their families. Shout them out in a staff email if they’ve done something wonderful—or even if they haven’t.
And check on them. Above all else, check on your people. They’re the heartbeat, the pulse of the building you’re leading. So, ask them how their hearts are beating. Are their hearts aching, broken, tired, weary? Are their hearts happy, joyful, fortunate, stressed or afraid? If you never ask, you’ll never know. And I promise you this—just the asking means something.
We do this with our students all the time, don’t we? We ask, “Hey, how was your weekend?” even if we frequently regret receiving the answer. Ha! But the point is, we ask. So, it would stand to reason that our teachers would also want to be asked. They may not even know that this is a want, but I can promise you that once you start doing it, they will appreciate it, and they will smile more than they did before the asking began. You see, you may not always want the answer, and the answer almost never matters. But the asking always matters.
Again, it’s not the answer to the question that matters—and it won’t matter on either side of the conversation—it matters that the question was asked at all. And so, school leaders, If you do nothing this Teacher Appreciation Week, go ask someone how they are. I promise their smile will be worth it!