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Resilient Wellbeing in a Chaotic Education World

Story Highlights

  • COVID-19, economic turmoil and racial tensions create perfect storm for K-12
  • Leaders can help their teams express confusion, frustration and anxiety
  • Gain resilience and renewed wellbeing by creating coping mechanisms

The current state of education is in a reactionary mode like never before. Only two months ago, 44% of U.S. public school teachers said they did not know what their school’s teaching and learning situation would be this fall.

Despite administrators’ best efforts to overcome the latest roadblocks, there’s a perpetual (albeit understandable) confusion nagging at teachers and staff accountable for student success. This results in growing tension and frustration with their leaders.

What once worked no longer works — the “rulebook” for the game of education has completely changed.

Three colliding pandemics — the COVID-19 crisis, an economic recession and escalating racial tensions — have created a perfect storm for not only the wellbeing of students but also that of the leaders and teachers accountable for their progress.

Says Dr. Michelle Farmer, Director of Leadership Development for Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia, “Our leaders and teachers are experiencing higher-than-average levels of stress as they launch a new school year amid a pandemic and the outcry against all types of injustice.”

How to Build Engaged, Thriving Schools in the Age of Crisis

Where does this leave our education leaders in the near and longer term?

First, short term, this is painful, uncomfortable and soul tiring. For leaders tempted to push away their negative emotions, Gallup Senior Scientist Arthur Brooks reminds us that “exposure to negative emotions makes us stronger.”

Those who face these difficult emotions head-on experience a sort of “stress inoculation training.” On the contrary, for those blocking out the bad feelings, it’s easy to develop an “emotional allergy” that makes it even harder to face stressful times both today and going forward.

In other words, leaders, stop running from the pain. Model for your teams how to name confusion, frustration and anxiety. While uncomfortable, building this muscle personally and organizationally is critical to building resilience and trust, which is at the center of thriving schools and school systems.

What once worked no longer works — the “rulebook” for the game of education has completely changed.

Employees are aching for the kind of proactive, resilient leadership that produces thriving wellbeing. In early April, just 52% of U.S. employees could strongly agree that their organization cares about their overall wellbeing. This was down to 45% by August. To fully focus on employee wellbeing and embrace it as a core aspect of their school culture, leaders must be comfortable addressing head-on when the reality of a situation is far from thriving.

Longer term, in a world where change and disruption are the norm, perhaps this year will inspire leaders to develop coping mechanisms that are built to last — which can propel the wellbeing of our schools and school systems well beyond the “moment” of 2020.

For instance, school leaders can shift teachers’ focus from managing their weaknesses to developing their strengths. Atlanta Public Schools’ strengths-based strategy includes sending personalized letters to each principal that both name the tough realities around them and remind them of their amazing individual leadership strengths to thrive in the chaos.

Travis Norvell, Program Director of Strategy Management for Atlanta Public Schools, describes the boost that comes from such intentionality. “Leveraging (their) strengths, particularly during times of stress, creates energy and excitement to overcome and excel. The simple act of reminding our staff that they have overcome challenges in the past.”

Boost Hope and Wellbeing With a Focus on Strengths

Education leaders can also develop a proactive coaching mindset to regularly check in on their team members’ wellbeing. They can support employees by having meaningful conversations and asking important questions. Are they thriving, struggling or suffering? How are their relationships with friends, family and the other teachers? Where are they at financially? How do they feel about their career? How are they staying physically healthy?

Yet, awareness alone isn’t enough. Helping employees to develop and use their strengths at work every day creates resiliency mechanisms for dealing with the chaos.

“Leveraging (their) strengths, particularly during times of stress, creates energy and excitement to overcome and excel. The simple act of reminding our staff that they have overcome challenges in the past.”

Finally, by setting an example for self-reflection, system leaders pave the way for sustainable and decentralized models in which school-level staff members support each other’s resilience and growth.

Such thinking has been modeled at Gwinnett County Public Schools, where teachers receive support from their principals and district leaders to focus on increasing self-awareness and managing stress to avoid reaching an internal boiling point.

“Leaders are working extremely hard to model support and care during this time by helping teachers, students and their community manage change. Social-emotional support is not only a student aspect of our work, but it should also be used to help care for our teachers,” Farmer says.

Education leaders, there is hope ahead. While we may never go back to “normal,” through a hopeful lens we see a resilient, thriving future built on our individual and organizational strengths — which, like muscles, are toned through the adversity and stress of today.

When leaders adopt this lens, so too do teachers, students, families and communities. It starts with real conversations that embrace the painful realities of today and moves to building coping mechanisms to thrive well into the future.

Create a more thriving, hopeful future in education:

Author(s)

Janet Gibbon is a K-12 Consultant, Gallup Education.

Katie Lyon is Managing Director, Gallup Education.

Tom Matson is Senior Executive Leadership Strategist, Gallup Education.

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