Reading “What Leading with Optimism Really Looks Like” in Harvard Business Review, written by Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan, and thinking about how to keep staff morale up during this time of isolation and challenge. The coronavirus shutdown of schools presents a crisis for educational leaders. Teachers have to move curriculum and instruction online, without the opportunity for in-person training on the mechanics of this project, let alone professional development around the greater conceptual differences of teaching remotely. As a result, they experience the anxiety of accessing online instruction and lessened success with units designed for in-class instruction and crudely moved online. Some students will struggle more than others, and teachers have lost many of the tools they use to support those kids: small-group pull-outs; staying after class for extra help; touching base in the hallways, lunchroom, or in extracurriculars to keep kids motivated. Students will approach teachers for troubleshooting help, adding to their frustration and further distracting them from focusing on lesson design & delivery. Teachers & staff are motivated by working with kids and helping them solve problems, so these struggles are deeply undermining.
Worst of all, the simple lack of time spent with kids is chipping away at teachers’ feelings of positivity. We got into this line of work because we enjoy working with young people. Sitting in a classroom, chatting with kids–whether it’s part of the lesson or before or after class–you hear what they’re going through, what they’re thinking about, what they’re interested in. Remote learning has taken most of those opportunities away for casual interaction, and its lack is sorely felt. On top of that, the staff are missing time spent with each other. Sharing stories with your team, eating lunch together and “talking shop”, touching base in the copier room; our entire support network is either missing or greatly reduced. Add to this the anxiety about reduced budget outlooks in public education and layoffs in area towns, and stress levels are rising. As a result, strategies to boost optimism are greatly needed at this time!
The article is based on work being done in a hospital, which shares many of the challenges facing teachers. Both are a care industry where client-professional relations can “snowball” in either direction: negative mindsets can lead to bad interactions and poorer outcomes, while positive attitudes can open up huge benefits. The hospital’s network was also facing a budget crunch, creating the same job security worries as teachers are now feeling.
The article helpfully tracks data showing a rise in feelings of connection and motivation, but also highlights that the most effective programs were integrated into the routine. If something feels like a one-off, or something that will fizzle, it’s less likely to impact people’s impressions. If it becomes routine however, it builds confidence that the “team” matters. The authors point out the added benefit that routines are easier to keep running, even in times of stress.
Successful initiatives also involved the staff in developing the programs. This addresses one of the common foibles when a group tries to “cut and paste” initiatives that have been implemented elsewhere, and are surprised when they get different results. The authors assert that the advance work lays a foundation within the culture of the team, and I also think the collaboration tends to bring the values and priorities of the team to the surface. Ideally, this results in initiatives that organically reinforce the strengths and assets of the group.
The need for optimism in the teachers’ workspace is clear, and the challenge is how to initiate active programs for positivity while schools remain shut down, now for the summer as well as the coronavirus. Reinforcing the importance of the team will be helpful, so any effort to initiate programs to support optimism will send that message. Routines will also provide a sense of stability, even if they are newly-implemented, and will become something teachers will look forward to.
Another approach may be to investigate pro-social programs we can implement to motivate students. In the event that the next school year starts with at least some portion of instruction online, anything to help build community is important to make kids connect to the school and their new teachers. Programs that can be implemented schoolwide but that are enacted by teachers will also help to foster those relationships, while supporting teachers in feeling that they are closing gaps in their students’ emotional lives. In the end, the goal is to foster a sense of belonging to cope with the challenges of isolation in remote learning. If that can also fulfill a sense of efficacy, that will further buoy teachers in facing this challenge.