What if we reimagined how to support educators amidst the extraordinary stress and turbulence they face in their roles and prioritized teacher well-being as a means to inspire and support well-doing for students?
Lao Tzu once said, “to care for the teacher is to love the learner.” For too long, there has been a silent epidemic plaguing our communities and schools—the alarming rate of teacher drop-out. The Commit Partnership publishes what these rates look like and the DFW loses an averages 6,500-7,000 teachers each year. When asked why they left, teachers push the following reasons to the top of the list: toxic work environments, lack of respect and support, stress, and burn out.
In 2018, Uplift Education leadership shined a spotlight on one of its schools where teachers and leaders were suffering in order to stay afloat and meet the needs of their students and families—and each other. Uplift Meridian, a primary school located in Stop 6, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Fort Worth, where only about 2% of adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and where the crime rate is 42% higher than the national average, was struggling to catch its breath as it pursued success for its students. Teachers, leaders, and staff worked hard to provide a quality IB education amidst high levels of trauma and adversity that often times proved hard or impossible to surmount. Teachers at Uplift Meridian tried harder and harder to help students feel safe and secure but neglected to pay attention to the toll that this work took on their own minds, hearts, and bodies.
Rather than sacrificing teachers’ wellbeing in exchange for student support, Uplift Education offered another choice: what if we reimagined how to support educators amidst the extraordinary stress and turbulence they face in their roles? What if we prioritized teacher well-being to inspire and support well-doing for students? Thus was born a comprehensive approach to caring for people as Lao Tzu suggested. With generous support from the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, Uplift and the Meridian staff embarked on a different kind of professional development journey that its facilitator and Uplift’s Chief Well-Being and SEL Officer Dr. John Gasko calls “not PD but HD, human development.”
In collaboration with Dr. Gasko, educators from Uplift Meridian engaged in intensive HD that focused on vulnerability as a foundation—namely teacher voice and experience as something to be listened to and responded to—and achieving transformation by creating shifts in three areas of one’s life: (1) change one’s physiology; (2) change one’s focus; and (3) change the stories one tells oneself and others. Together, educators at Meridian did calisthenics, yoga, tai chi, and body-based meditations developed by medical professionals at the UMass Medical School. Gasko taught the tools of meditation—secular approaches anchored in neuroscience and positive psychology—that created more hopeful and optimistic narratives to remind educators of their fundamental worth and that they are superheroes in disguise. By interrupting negative narratives, educators at Uplift Meridian learned how to shift the language they used on the inside and the outside to radiate joy and positivity.
The work was hard and naturally there was some resistance to the type of work Dr. Gasko introduced. It wasn’t uncommon for teachers to feel silly or question this use of their time when there were other tasks to be done. But over time, hopeful signs emerged. Some educators begin to experience what it “feels” like to not have to do one’s work while mitigating a migraine. One teacher said: “Wow! All I did was move my body a bit and regulate my breathing and the pain that I constantly feel in my jaw and the headache that persists disappeared. I like that feeling.”
This teacher impact statement shows what a profound impact this had on Uplift Meridian: “I also think [Dr. Gasko’s] sessions shifted the atmosphere of our school from being overwhelmed, overworked, and distant to empowered, intentional, and one team. I’ve gotten to know people in the school that I would have never interacted with on a personal level. I can’t wait to see what’s next!”
The data suggests that the HD work Fort Worth teachers engaged in also led to the reversal of alarming teacher and leader dropout rates at Uplift Meridian. Instead of the school leader turnover the campus sees every year, this one stayed. The teacher dropout rate fell from 40-50% to just 5%, and there were academic gains for students, too. Schools can help students and families win without losing sight of the importance of the health and well-being of its greatest resource. Teachers are the heartbeat of America and our communities. Let us throw them lifelines so they can truly show up, be present, and be more supportive to each other and to the kids they serve. Remember, to care for the teacher is to love the learner.
Author : Deekay Fox