School leaders, are we giving teachers mixed messages about “self-care”? Here are 3 ways to get it right.

Today, I called a teacher to ask how she was doing. Halfway through the conversation, she stopped me and confessed, “I was dreading this phone call.” When I asked why, she said, “Because there are so many things I know I haven’t done yet, and I thought you were going to ask me for them.” I said, “I literally just wanted to make sure you were okay. That’s all I wanted to know.” The relief I heard in her voice overwhelmed me.

During the pandemic, something I’ve heard a number of times is that leaders sometimes talk with teachers about “self-care” in a way that doesn’t feel genuine – like it’s an add-on to their to-do lists rather than the foundation of everything they’re doing. I want to share what my coaching conversations with teachers have taught me about how we can shift our tone and get these conversations right:

Avoid combining wellness check-ins with any other type of check-in.

We have to be intentional about what truly checking in with a teacher sounds like. When teachers get an email from their principal or coach saying, “I hope you’re doing well in the pandemic. Also, don’t forget to do X, Y or Z by Thursday,” it doesn’t feel genuine. Teachers feel like the line checking in is only there to check off a box.

When we talk about self-care, we need to make sure we’re not just clearing the way to ask something of them. When we call to ask a teacher how they are doing, we shouldn’t ask them for anything. We should just listen. 

Reaffirm or rebuild trust by listening to teachers’ fears.

I tend to lean toward optimism, but optimistic messaging isn’t what a lot of teachers need from leaders right now. School openings and vaccine rollouts are in different phases, and teachers have had a range of experiences in this pandemic. Unfortunately, some of the messaging around schools has led to distrust, with teachers feeling like their lives and health haven’t been valued by leaders. 

Last week, I talked with a teacher who shared that she has lost three people to COVID, and that she’s currently caring for a terminally ill friend. She also said I was the first person at work with whom she’d shared her pandemic experience, because no one else had asked. As the school leader, you may not be able to change the situations teachers are facing or take away their fears, but by asking and listening, you can build back trust.

Ask for less – and offer more.

It’s a hard balance: As leaders, we support adults who are doing a very important job on behalf of our students – and we need to be able to hold them accountable to what they’ve been hired to do. At the same time, if we don’t offer a more human side right now, we are at risk of losing teachers from the profession altogether. 

I recently made a commitment not to ask teachers for anything for a couple weeks: I’m only going to ask how they’re doing and how I can help. By setting those boundaries and communicating that I’m here to help, I know I’m going to take better care of teachers’ well-being – which means they’re going to be better able to support their students.