Utilizing teaming is a key way to address the epidemic of teacher mental health issues stemming from stress and burn-out.
Teaching is a stressful job.
According to a survey by a teacher’s union in the UK, one in 10 teachers say they have been prescribed anti-depressant drugs to cope with the pressure of their jobs. “Teachers report turning to medication, alcohol, tobacco and caffeine to help them cope with their job, with 22% reporting increased use of alcohol, 22% increased use of caffeine and 5% increased use of tobacco to help them manage work-related stress.”
What to Do?
“Teachers can take important steps to prevent burnout. For example, overwhelming work volume can be combatted with better grading practices, effective collaboration, not overcommitting, acquiring better curriculum or using sources that make finding such curriculum fast and easy, and leveraging the right technology tools that make a teacher’s job easier.”
Teacher, or “Teamer”
I think we should replace the name “teacher” with “teamer”. It gives a better basis for where education is, and should be, heading currently. The current new T-TESS standards for teachers in Texas emphasize a team approach between teachers and parents, students, administrators, and colleagues. This is an important and very positive step, if it is done in a way that involves an encouraging and supportive role by administrators and between colleagues. Teaching is also shifting from “sage on the stage” to learner-centered, meaning the students are given a greater responsibility in their own learning. T-TESS also is putting more emphasis on technology, which can be a very effective way to minimize workload. In a way, using online resources is a teaming strategy that connects educators internationally. Grading practices that utilize technology apps (such as google forms, goformative.com, zipgrade, etc) can cut down on hours of grading as well as increase effectiveness of assessments. Curriculum is also widely available online; many free resources can be tapped into to cut down on planning time and create lesson plans/assignments. A cornerstone piece of making teaching less stressful and more enjoyable is collaboration between campus and district co-workers.
Creating a Culture of Collaboration
Having the support of your community of teachers makes a world of difference in your day-to-day work and mental health. Supportive peers allow the opportunity to “blow off steam” in a non-judgmental environment, help one feel supported and valued, divides the work-load, and provides solidarity against antagonistic parents and students. Administrators would love to do this for their teachers, but honestly the best support comes from our peers.
Many schools utilize team strategies between departments or grade levels, but with varying strategies and therefore varying success. During my years of teaching I have experienced many different methods of “teaming”, some definitely more effective than others. Here is what I have found, through experience, to be effective ways to implement collaboration.
In my first teaching assignment, teaching 7th grade, there were two 7th grade “teams”. One hallway contained a science, math, social studies, and reading teacher. The same students rotated between these teachers. The advantages of this were the teachers could meet and discuss student behavior, grades, and strategies that worked in their classrooms. Parent conferences could be handled as a team, with teachers from each subject contributing to the overall picture and, in some cases, dividing the responsibilities of communicating with parents. Teachers planned projects and tests for upcoming weeks on a team calendar to minimize overloading the students on one particular day. This also led to discussions about cross-curricular opportunities. Social team events and rewards were planned and each team adopted a theme for their hallway for the year. This gave the teachers and students a sense of community.
When I moved to another school they employed a similar team approach, with one additional teaming strategy: nominating a different “team leader” each year that acted as a liaison between the principal and team members. This cut down on the number of staff meetings and allowed teachers to discuss matters openly and honestly with their team without the inhibitions that came with speaking directly to the principal in a large open meeting. Teachers were more willing to problem solve and contribute ideas in the smaller group setting.
In high school, this cross-curricular approach is more difficult and more often replaced by departments. Lesson planning with other teachers in your department and developing unit tests saves individual teachers massive amounts of time. Even with limited teaming time, with google docs and email there is no reason for teachers to have to work individually and bear the sole burden of creating assignments, lesson plans, and unit tests if there are other teachers in the same subject.
Ways to Make Teaming Work
Time built into the schedule is the main factor to making teaming work. I have worked where teaming was squeezed in after school or during lunches. This does not work very well. Teachers are resentful of having to put in “extra” time that cuts into their off-time/family time. There are two successful ways to add time: 1) an extra conference period, or 2) every six weeks or so having a half-day where the students leave and teachers can team.
A simple but effective strategy that I’ve seen employed during teaming time was socializing and sharing food. This is a basic human connector- “breaking bread” together. Ordering lunch and eating together, simple potluck snacks, or just sharing a bag of chocolates during discussions is a simple way to build camaraderie.
Following procedures and a having a clear purpose are the main way to prevent the feeling of “just another meeting”. Set a foundation with training or discussion on successful teaming strategies, roles, and the purpose for teaming.
The largest negative of teaming, when not done well, is that teachers will feel it is wasting time or worse- spiral into a complaint session that feeds negativity. This requires nuanced social skills by the team leader when facilitating discussions. With the principal, a team teacher should identify goals to be accomplished during teaming time and professional development skills to focus on.
A primary goal during teaming should be to establish rapport– allowing teachers a time to discuss, in a safe and supportive environment, difficulties with classroom management, parent communication, organization, teaching, and assessment strategies.
A secondary goal, directed by or discussed with administration, would be professional development strategies to explore. A book study, such as Making Thinking Visible or Fundamental 5, where teachers read a small section at a time, try one strategy at a time in their classroom, and then share success and frustrations with the group will encourage professional growth throughout the year. The purpose of professional development should be to help teachers be more engaging (and thus make their teaching personally more enjoyable and fulfilling) and more effective (working smarter, not harder). It should not just be one more thing piled onto the to-do list of already overwhelmed teachers for the sake of “doing professional development”.
If possible, observing each other also provides a wealth of insights, especially if teachers are given specific teaching or classroom management strategies to focus on.
Another successful use of this time is to allow teachers to share resources that they have found and used successfully in their classroom. This procedure provides teachers with validation and reinforces their feeling of purpose and value.
The answer to our teacher burn-out epidemic?
Teaming. It is a way to enable teachers to do their job in a sustainable way. It helps them manage their work volume by dividing the load. It reinforces strategies in grading practices, curriculum, and technology tools to allow them to work smarter, not harder. It makes the job not only easier, but more enjoyable. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 puts it well: “ Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up.…” Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen automatically. A culture of collaboration must be modeled and fostered- will you be the catalyst on your campus?