“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship. “—Brené Brown
There’s no denying the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the education community. After months of virtual schooling, the return to in-person learning brought with it new challenges for students, teachers, and leaders. Trauma from the pandemic, pressures around learning loss, a continued need to quarantine for some, and new regulations for mask-wearing and social distancing forced educators to rethink most of what we’d known about teaching and learning. And while the worst fears regarding the impact of the Great Resignation on the education sector don’t seem to be coming true, educator morale may be at an all-time low, and educator stress at an all-time high. Teacher attrition is not a new reality, but the post-pandemic climate currently contributing to teacher stress certainly is. The question now is: how we can recruit, support, and retain effective teachers at a time when there are more demands on teachers than ever?
Human beings derive strength and sustenance from connections, from feeling seen, heard, and valued. So, it seems logical that for teachers and leaders to overcome the stressors of the job, they need to feel more connected—to students, to their colleagues and school community, and to the work of education. While there are many things legislators and district leaders can do to facilitate these connections, much of this work happens in individual school buildings. We, as school leaders, have a responsibility to do more, to supplement or temper district-level initiatives so we can make teachers feel supported and connected in these three areas.
Reclaiming a Culture of Connection
Teaching requires educators to engage in sharing their practice, both inside professional learning communities and within the everyday culture of the school (such as in the hallways or at lunchtime). The pandemic altered opportunities for sharing, forcing teachers to temporarily isolate from both their students and their colleagues. As a school leader through this time, I have seen that this isolation has continued for many, even after most schools returned to in-person learning. Educators have found themselves feeling more alone than they had before, struggling to adapt to new ways of teaching. Add to this isolation the emotional trauma the pandemic caused both students and teachers, and it’s no surprise teachers report increased levels of stress, depression, and fatigue some two years later (Hargreaves, 2021).
Concerns about the mental health of teachers and staff translate directly into concerns about the mental health and well-being of students because teachers feeling safe and supported is a key element of student learning and success. Teachers who are stressed are less effective and more prone to burnout. To try and combat stress and burnout, district leaders have touted “self-care” as a solution, but self-care can’t solve the problem. In fact, as one education journalist observed in a recent podcast, many teachers report they feel too burned out to engage in self-care activities (Cardoza, 2021).
Since state- and district-level support for students is currently centered around initiatives that mitigate learning loss and help them overcome trauma, teacher support is often focused on training for how to implement such initiatives. However, as a school leader in an urban district, I’ve found that during both the height of the pandemic and the return to in-person schooling, what teachers needed more than anything else was to feel connected. And while I cannot deny that we all need more training in how to address the academic and social-emotional effects of the pandemic on students, I’ve seen that the way forward requires us to address the human and emotional needs of teachers before the academic ones. The good news is that school leaders have the ability to create conditions that nurture connections in three key areas.
It’s well-known that students who have strong relationships with their teachers are more engaged academically and exhibit more positive behaviors. Given that student behavioral challenges and feelings of ineffectiveness are key causes of teacher stress, lessening these two issues could certainly help ease teacher burn-out. Ideally, as students become more successful academically and behaviorally as a result of strong relationships with their teachers, teachers too will experience higher levels of satisfaction.
It comes down to teacher efficacy. Teachers who believe that they have the skills and capacity to affect student performance are less likely to feel stress, anxiety, or frustration (Pedota, 2015). Teachers who build strong relationships with students create a culture of learning that is more conducive to student (and teacher) success.
How to Strengthen Teacher-Student Connections
Two strategies work particularly well for building strong connections between students and teachers: the EMR procedure and the 2×10 strategy. EMR refers to the idea that for classroom relationships to be effective, they must be established, maintained, and restored as needed. This three-pronged approach to classroom relationships has been shown to increase academic engagement by 33 percent and reduce disruptive behavior by 75 percent (Cook et al., 2018). Opening circles are a great way to practice the EMR approach, as they establish the familiarity and sense of safety that relationships often build upon. An opening circle typically occurs at the beginning of the day. Students and teachers sit in a circle, and the teacher introduces a question to be answered. This might be a getting-to-know-you question, align to content being taught, or address an issue that has arisen. Opening circles are collaborative, and all students take an equal role. Using such circles regularly can help establish, maintain, and restore relationships between teachers and students as well as between peers.
The 2×10 strategy was originally highlighted as a way to change the behavior of challenging students. The idea is to spend two minutes interacting with each targeted student per school day for two weeks, for a total of 10 interactions per student, to get to know that student at a more personal level. However, I believe this strategy is far more effective when used proactively to establish a personal relationship between the teacher and all students. Spending two minutes with each student during arrival, recess, lunch, or after school, on a rotating basis, can significantly improve both class culture and student behavior.
Connections to the School
Feeling connected at the school level requires that educators feel a bond with both the mission of the school and the people who work there. Collective efficacy—teachers’ collective belief that they can make an impact on the achievement and success of all students and that their school has the personnel and resources needed to ensure student success—is important here. Evidence of collective efficacy significantly impacts teacher motivation (Donohoo, 2017). Teachers are more likely to stay in a teaching position if they feel they are truly making a difference within the school and having an impact on students’ learning.
The social nature of teaching means that there is a consistent connection between strong teacher collaboration and improved working experience—and improved experiences lift outcomes of all kinds within a school. However, to be successful, collaboration at the school level must be genuine, characterized by the assembly of true professional learning communities led by teachers and facilitated by competent, compassionate leaders. The goal is to engage teachers in “rigorous processes of collaborative inquiry that identify and resolve students’ problems with learning and well-being” (Hargreaves & O’Connor, 2018). Only when such inquiry happens and leads to improvements can collaboration contribute to educator efficacy and thus well-being.
How to Fuel Schoolwide Connections
There is a delicate balance between facilitating collaboration at the school level and forcing it. But there are things leaders can do to help create collaborative conditions. First and most important, leaders must model a collaborative mindset. This means having a willingness to collaborate with both our peers and our teachers, in a way that is seen. Principals can model collaborative practices for teachers by engaging with them in the same way that we expect them to engage with their colleagues. Professional learning communities are an ideal place to do this.
At my school, one of the ways leaders model collaboration is by working directly with teachers inside these communities, serving as a member of the collaborative team rather than as a remote supervisor. To prepare for this participation, administrators spend a considerable amount of time examining data and learning the curriculum (inside our own administrator learning community) so we can pose questions, push thinking, and model for teachers the inquiry and problem solving required for successful PLCs.
One strategy we’ve found valuable within these collaborative spaces is deliberate lesson practice. Teachers take turns “practice teaching” a particular lesson to each other, with specific focus on portions of the lesson that require teacher modeling or questioning. Such practice allows teachers to anticipate misunderstandings (their own and the students’), receive feedback, and adjust instruction accordingly. This has been critical in helping us bridge the learning loss gap. Our school’s benchmark testing data (measuring mastery of grade-level standards) for the end of the period during which we used this lesson practice indicated significant growth across English language arts and math. I have also observed how it has shifted the culture of our teams toward a true sense of shared responsibility and collective efficacy.
Secondly, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years as an educator, it is that not everyone can work with everyone. Strategic team placements are essential for effective collaboration at the school level. Teachers need to be able to collaborate in grade-level and subject-specific teams, which means that the right teachers need to be teaching the right grade levels and right subjects. Moreover, while strong collaborative processes and a schoolwide vision all staff believe in can help overcome minor differences among individuals in favor of getting essential work done, the work itself is far more effective, and teachers far happier, when they are working alongside people that they respect and like, and who they feel respect and like them. When these conditions are met, teachers typically seek out their own opportunities to socialize and collaborate with their colleagues, outside of any administrator-scheduled time. At the same time, I think it’s also worthwhile for leaders to encourage broader teacher gatherings, whether outside of the school day, for a faculty lunch, or in some fashion.
Strengthening Connection to the Profession
Teachers who know their “why” and remain connected to it are less likely to feel anxious, frustrated, or burned out. Teaching is hard work. To do it for a sustained period of time and thrive you have to feel connected to the work of teaching. You have to love it. This love generally falls into three categories: a need for community and collaboration, a love of learning and acquiring new knowledge, and a sense of purpose, vision, and mission about the practice of educating children. Educators must experience and re-experience each of these types of “love” for teaching over the course of their careers if they are to feel sustained.
Leaders must find ways to ensure a purpose-driven culture exists, both at the district and school level. In organizations where there is strong attention to purpose, people are three times more likely to stay (Schwartz & Porath, 2014). And as the pandemic has made clear, it’s in times of crisis that people most need to believe in a sense of purpose and mission. Ironically, it’s in these times that faith in a purpose is most challenged.
How to Connect Teachers to Their Purpose
Teachers cannot be thought of as just employees. It is important that we treat teachers as the professionals they are. If we want teachers to feel connected to the purpose of teaching, we must include them in relevant decision-making processes at the school level. This means tapping teachers to be part of appropriate and meaningful decision-making committees. These individuals might not be key decision-makers per se, but they will have power to carry the voice of their team to the administration.
Research by OECD has found schools and systems that had the most success recovering from the pandemic had established collaborative working groups or committees—to make decisions about how to approach teaching during various phases of the pandemic—that included strong teacher participation at all levels (Hargreaves, 2021). These committees were both already existing and created in response to the pandemic. Embedding teacher participation into such working groups affirms the value of teachers in leading the work of developing and improving how the school serves students, not just carrying policies out. It also gives teachers a greater stake in the bigger picture of their work. In addition, connecting more teachers with important decision-making processes automatically creates more buy-in, which makes implementation of key decisions much easier.
Purpose is closely linked to an individual’s “why.” Most educators have a sense of why they chose teaching, and helping teachers remember that reason is another way leaders can ensure a purpose-driven culture. Moreover, allowing teachers the space to share their own personal mission in some way, such as by encouraging them to post a phrase reflecting that mission—perhaps on their computer, on their classroom door, or on their ID badge—connects teachers to the work and profession. Sharing our missions also creates a sense of community.
Good Teachers Are Hard to Keep
In the wake of a global pandemic and the attending challenging working conditions, the impact of burnout, stress, and frustration on teachers and students is unignorable. Good teachers are hard to find, grow, and keep. To do so, we must attend to the heart of teaching—the connections that exist between teachers and students, teachers and teachers, teachers and their leaders, and teachers and the work of teaching.
Michelle Hope is an assistant principal in a K–5 elementary school in Memphis, Tennessee. She has extensive teaching, district-level coaching, and school leadership experience.
Cardoza, K. (Host). (2021, April). “We need to be nurtured too: Many teachers say they’re reaching a breaking point.” [Podcast]. Special Series: The Coronavirus Crisis. NPR.
Cook, C. R., Coco, S., Zhang, Y., Fiat, A. E., Duong, M., Renshaw, T. L., et al. (2018). Cultivating positive teacher-student relationships: Preliminary evaluation of the Establish–Maintain–Restore (EMR) method. School Psychology Review, 47(3), 226–243.
Donohoo, J. (2017). Collective teacher efficacy research: Implications for professional learning. Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 2(2), 101–116.
Hargreaves, A. (2021). What the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us about teachers and teaching. FACETS, 6(1), 1835–1863.
Hargreaves, A., & O’Connor, M. T. (2018). Solidarity with solidity: The case for collaborative professionalism. Phi Delta Kappan, 100(1), 20–24.
Pedota, P. J. (2015) How can student success support teacher self-efficacy and retention? Clearing House, 88(2).
Schwartz, T., & Porath, C. (2014, June 1). “Why You Hate Work.” The New York Times.