Have you ever had that one student who could go unnoticed? You know that one student who is softly compliant? Maybe he walks around the playground alone. Or maybe she walks to class gripping the binding on her book just a little too tightly. You know that student who has challenges getting what’s in his brain out in words?
As educators? We look for these kids. We try to engage them either through a conversation with us or an encouraging nudge to collaborate or communicate with someone. We don’t let these kids suffer their idiosyncracies, their innovations, their social anxieties, their misfittedness, their “ish” if you will.
But what about our teachers in our building?
- The teacher who is quietly listening in a staff meeting.
- The teacher who barely curls a smile on her lips as she walks by you in the hallway.
- The teacher who leaves right when the end of the day arrives.
- The teacher who never eats in the staff lounge.
- The teacher who seems to have it all together all the time.
Maybe it’s a veteran teacher. Or maybe it’s a new teacher. OR? Maybe? Maybe it’s you.
Teacher isolation is nearly epidemic. Nearly half of us are leaving our beloved profession within the first five years.
In a truly humanistic profession where educators are surrounded by people of all ages all day long, we are feeling alone and we are lonely.
I know this, because I am this. I have been this. That is probably why I notice it in my teachers more often.
Recently, I came out of the teacher’s lounge and walked by a classroom. There was trash strewn, the bins were one in and one out the door, a student was shirtless screaming at his teacher. There was another supporting educator in the doorway, but my eyes locked with the teacher of this child. There was a deep sadness in her eyes. I had a sharp feeling I may not see this teacher again the next day.
Later that evening, this teacher was still in my heart. She isn’t a teacher I know well; in fact, she isn’t a teacher that even comes across as approachable. But, there was something in her eyes that stayed with me. So, I texted her.
I said,“Hi, I know you likely had a really rough day today. I want you to know that you can always ask for help. I may not be able to help you directly, but I will get the help for you if need be. Do not be ashamed to ask. We have all been there. Keep moving forward one step in front of the other. Hang in there.”
It was simple, but the response I got? It made me cry. In a short text response, this teacher said she had spent the last two days crying. That she wanted to give up and that she appreciated my text so much and how she is so relieved that someone will stand with her and wants to help and doesn’t judge her.
She’s likely not the only one in my building. It might be a different teacher or a different day or a different circumstance. Or even a different hour.
Teachers all over the profession are lonely. They are lonely in their decision making. They are lonely in their implementation. They are lonely in their pedagogy.
It’s not just new, learning teachers either, although sometimes I feel this is where it starts. We throw these new, spirited, capable people to the wolves and because “we have all been there” we are happy to give glib commentary like, “Don’t worry it will get better…” or “Oh yeah, I remember those days…” Instead we need to support these new teachers and really step outside of our “been there done that” attitude.
Nor is it just veteran teachers who can’t keep up with the continual changes; or don’t want to.
It’s innovative teachers. Teachers who continually have an idea and are told no, we don’t do things that way. It’s also teachers who can’t say “no” and keep being asked to do more, to the point of being on a perpetual hamster wheel and only coming off when the spin is too fast.
It’s all of us.
We wouldn’t let children suffer this sort of seclusion. Why do we allow teachers to?
There are some things we can focus on when it comes to tapping into these feelings of separation.
Of course one idea…Twitter–. I just spent what seemed like a lifetime writing a dissertation about the experiences of Twitter and how using it combats the feeling of isolation. While educators are using Twitter, a context where they feel encouraged, accepted and a part of positive change, it doesn’t seem to be transferring into the personal connections inside our schools. In fact, I have had educators share with me, “I would rather be on a Twitter chat collaborating, than with teachers in my own building.” So while I suggest that Twitter won’t change your life; the people you interact with on Twitter, certainly can.
What about the teachers that don’t use social media—Y E T? We need to be keen to address isolation, or at the least, be aware of it possibly lurking in our buildings.
I feel like it goes beyond shout-outs and recognition. Those are great touches and when shared consistently, can build a positive, collegial climate. But for your teachers that are truly isolated, they likely aren’t doing the things that are getting the shout-outs or recognition. Similarly, the teachers that are continually the ones who step up, aren’t getting shout-outs or recognition because, “they always seem to get the applause.”
I truly think teacher isolation is the elephant in the room that no one wants to discuss. I mean, it’s so weird to say, “I am lonely…” Perhaps because it might only be ONE teacher and not a cadre of teachers. Maybe it’s not a problem if it’s just one. But if one child is enough, isn’t one teacher?
Here are some things to think about as you reflect on your own context.
Listen with your eyes and your heart. Most teachers that are struggling? Aren’t going to say anything. We have to be watching and sensing problems.
Teachers don’t always know what we don’t know. We have to build a sense of interdependence in our schools. Create an expert wall where teachers share their expertise from crafting those difficult emails to writing lesson plans to managing a classroom. Post this expert wall where it can be seen. Teachers then have a repository of people to lean on.
We all have challenges. We tend to celebrate the successes and keep hush (or just simply gripe!) about the challenges. It’s not how we fail or how we mess up. It’s how we get back up. If we start to open up about our challenges we may just start to see that common thread and realize…we are not alone.
Think about a blooper reel. Most of the time the bloopers make us laugh! Even if we wince or double over in pain, we laugh. Teachers have their own blooper reel. If we share our bloopers with a sense of humor—it may release some of the angst about really feeling like we’ve messed it up and our career ending.
Tell your story. Think about the teachers you work with. How much do you really know about them? When I revealed some of the major life changes that have gone on in my personal world over the last eighteen months, my colleagues were gobsmacked. Teachers tend to hide their world away instead of telling their stories. Storytelling in this manner builds compassion. Compassion is a conduit to understanding and acceptance and often a willingness to H E L P.
Engage in intellectual discourse. Walk the walk. Talk the talk. Find the JOY. You might have to find your tribe in your building to do this, but do it. I recently had a tenured teacher say to me, “You’re lighting something in me to want to DO, again.” I said, “Do?” She said, “Yes. I sort of did my thing and now think younger teachers should step up and DO. But I watch you. You DO. It makes me want to do.” I walk the walk. I bore people to tears about new books and new articles and, “Hey guess what this Tweet said.”
Do NOT lose your voice. I know. I know. It’s intimidating. But we must find our voice and sustain that voice throughout. Keep your focus on the kids and make sure your voice supports what supports them. It won’t isolate you. I promise. They’ll be talking about you for days when you leave the room. (Ahem.)
Take a reflective look—at yourself—at the others in your building. What are the parts of your educational context that make you feel isolated. What can you do to lessen that sense for yourself and model that behavior for others?
Have a conversation. When you start to discuss teacher isolation with other teachers? You will hear story upon story or instance upon instance of moments where teachers felt alone. Just breaking that seal on the issue creates a camaraderie that can be the first step in teachers feeling more connected and attached to their profession and the people around them.
The value we as educators deserve can be more than just a glimpse if we recognize, understand and reduce isolation.
We don’t let our kids suffer this epidemic in schools. It’s time we don’t let teachers suffer it either.