I walked into a teacher’s classroom today that I’m coaching in Texas. This is her fifteenth year as a high school physics teacher, but her first in this district. It was easy to see that she was feeling a bit overwhelmed, a fact she confirmed a moment later. She is frustrated by the lack of lab equipment, the money that’s coming out of her own pocket to give her students valuable simulations in place of the labs, and almost zero collaboration among her department. My job going in there today was to lead her through some technology integration reflection, revisit goals, and plan next steps. I couldn’t do that without first listening to her heartaches. In a thirty-minute meeting, she mentioned three times that she didn’t know how much longer she’d be there. My goal for the morning shifted a bit, to first valuing her as a person and a teacher by letting her share her thoughts.
It’s no secret that burnout happens to teachers. Here’s the thing with this particular teacher, however. I think her frustrations could all be alleviated with a trusted group of colleagues to walk through this year with her. It doesn’t sound like anyone (team members or administrators) has taken the time to build a relationship with her. She’s staying at school to offer extra help to students until 6:00 at night. She’s finding and planning rich instruction for her students, sharing it with her colleagues, but receiving no help in return. She’s feeling undervalued, and alone. As I walked out of our meeting, I stopped at her door and said, “I know that I don’t work for your district, and I live in another state, but if you need anything, feel free to reach out. And, if you just need to vent, I’ll read your email.” She smiled. She thanked me. And then she took a big breath to mentally prepare herself to teach the next group of students walking into her room.
I’ve worked in many schools in this district, and I’ve never gotten this feeling of a lack of collaborative spirit before. It makes me wonder if it’s specific to her building, or even just to her department. I’m thankful that she’s a strong teacher because I’m confident that her students are still receiving robust instruction in her classroom. But what happens after this school year? So much of this could be alleviated quite simply by a peer reaching out and caring. I often write about the importance of administrators building relationships with their teachers, and about teachers forging relationships with their students. But what about teacher-to-teacher relationships? Those are just as important. We need colleagues to bounce ideas off of, to celebrate with when something amazing happens in class, and, yes, even to complain to every once in awhile to maintain a functional level of sanity. While I don’t work in just one district anymore, I am so appreciative of my colleagues that span the entire nation and beyond. If I didn’t have other educators to collaborate with, my practice would suffer, my professional development would lag, and my mental outlook might not be as positive.
Just like I always tell my own children when a new student moves into their class, “Be a friend. You have no idea how difficult this transition probably is for them.” When a new teacher, staff member, or administrator begins working in your building, be a friend. Take time to get to know them. Offer support, advice, or a listening ear. Those small gestures could be what keeps them doing their job well and staying in the field of education, and will make you a better educator, too.