4 Ways School Leaders Can Offer Compassionate Leadership to Teachers Right Now

Anitra Cook is a middle school assistant principal in Farmville, NC. Follow her on Twitter at @ap_cookie.

My school district is one of few in North Carolina that launched the school year in person, using a hybrid model. When the announcement was made that we would be working in the building rather than just virtually, it caused a lot of anxiety for teachers.

My principal and I decided that building the strongest school community possible this year would mean focusing on our teachers’ mental health first. Sometimes, we’re so student-centric that we forget to see the adults in our building – and, in this moment, adults are struggling.

The truth is, investing in teachers is a way of staying student-centric. We need to make sure that we work to meet teachers’ needs so they can turn around and meet the needs of students. There’s a lot we can’t control as school leaders right now, but we can control the type of leadership we bring to our communities. I want to focus on offering compassionate leadership.

4 things we can do to be compassionate leaders for teachers:

We can be present when teachers express their fears and make ourselves available in concrete ways.

Leading through a time like this calls us, first and foremost, to listen. We have to be empathetic about what’s happening. There are a lot of people in our communities going through hard things. Some might have lost someone to COVID-19. Others might be high-risk themselves, showing up to work because they can’t afford to stay home. These can be serious situations. Dire situations. So, dismissing fears or insisting that everyone stay upbeat isn’t the way to show empathy.

We have to expect that teachers are going to have hard days. Maybe a child sneezes in class, and it activates a teacher’s fears and derails their comfort level. They might just need a break. I want teachers to feel like they can reach out to me and say, “I need a moment.” I have no problem stepping in for them and saying, “Of course you can take some time.”

We can show that we care about teachers’ safety and health.

We made sure that we directed some funding toward PPE this school year. We stocked up on masks and cleaning products, and if anyone asked for a shield, we made sure they had it. We’re also keeping our teachers’ lounge stocked with water bottles. 

Does this solve all the problems or take away all the anxiety? No, of course not. And do some teachers want to use their own masks and water bottles? Of course. But this is a concrete step we can take to send a message: We can’t fix it all, but we’ll do what we can to take care of you.

We can create schoolwide norms that allow space for checking in.

Our counselors have led our school in implementing morning meetings in our classrooms. These offer a 10-minute window every day, in which everyone has a chance to connect by answering fun questions or sharing something about their feelings. It’s not all positive. Sometimes, both teachers and students will express what they’re afraid of.

Talking things through can’t calm all fears, but the meetings are a way to create some space and give everyone some air by acknowledging the emotional trauma that a lot of teachers and students are bringing into the building. It gives people a chance to release some of what they’re holding in, and that makes it easier for teachers to transition to a focus on learning.

We can be mindful of our role as the building’s emotional thermostat – and take care of ourselves accordingly.

I read Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain, and I always hold on to what she says about teachers being the “emotional thermostat” in the room. If the teacher is at a level 10, the kids are a level 10.

And when it comes to the whole school, we leaders are the ones setting the emotional thermostat. So, if I can always stay a cool level 2 or level 1, the staff will adjust more easily to stressful situations. If I’m in panic mode and I’m always angry, I think they take on those traits, too.

I do what I can to radiate positivity and calm and patience, and that means I have to take care of myself first. My principal and I do a reflection every day, and one of the questions we include is “What is going right?” It helps us ground ourselves and find that calm.

When I go home, self-care for me is a nap. A nap can just clean off what happened earlier in the day, and then I can connect with friends over Zoom, enjoy a really good dinner – whatever I need to do to cope and feel ready for the next day.

I try to remind myself that what’s happening this school year is bigger than me. This is an overwhelming time. It is a lot. It is hard. But if we can accept that we can’t control the future, if we can adopt a hopeful tone as we approach plans – even when we can’t see the end result – then teachers and students are going to have positive experiences with us this year.