The story of thriving in schools is written with teachers first.

The Stress

From the vantage point of a school leader, it is clear that professional educators often live under the haunting weightiness of the work.  We face children struggling with learning, changing family structures, disabilities, trauma, poverty, and a sea of challenges found in every classroom, including a system that often beats down on them like a mallet on a drum’s skin.

The statistics are staggering–among all occupational groups, teachers experience the highest amount of daily stress in the school year tied with nurses and higher than physicians (Markow & Pieters, 2012).  It seems that the work of teaching has us in “fight-or-flight” mode and our nervous systems in “do-or-die.”  A 2016 report, Teacher Stress and Health, found four main sources of teacher stress: school organization, job demands, work resources, and teacher social and emotional competence.

Unafraid, as a school leader, I continue to ask myself questions.  I adjust the above stressors in the organization.  I support the growth of each member of the team.  Finally, I am insatiably curious about thriving, looking for clues in my research and experience.

Photo by Shubham Sharan on Unsplash

The Truth

I conclude that the teacher needs to be well because it is the teacher’s social-emotional competencies that influence student and classroom outcomes.  How well a teacher feels shapes the pulse and pace of the classroom, the ethos of learning.  Truthfully, it is deeper than the pedagogical stance or the practitioner’s experience or expertise.

Parker Palmer writes poetically about the teacher and students and subjects,

The heart is the loom on which the threads are tied and the tension is held…”

Educational leaders could easily see the structures of schools and the needs of students, overlaid with the ideals of play, wonder, and delight in the classroom.  Nussbaum (2010) made a related case for play, claiming it is the antidote for anxiety.  She explains how play connects the experiences of vulnerability and surprise to curiosity and wonder.  So, do we need to cultivate delight to unlock well-being for both teachers and students?

An Idea

Five years ago, we implemented an all-new process of inviting teachers to engage in an intentional, backward-design, self-care planning process.  It begins with the humble questions, “What does thriving look like?”   And, “What do you want to feel like in June?”

Each year teachers complete the “Self-Care for Teachers” proposal due in the first six weeks of school.  The spirit of the proposal is to encourage reflection and to define intentions around thriving.  More recently, we have added the additional step of reflection at the end of the year.

The Results

The anecdotal results were notable.

The teachers began with candid reflections on flourishing like, “Thriving looks like enjoyment and happiness versus just getting through.  In June I want to feel relaxed and content with how the year went and confident that I did my best.  I want to look forward to the summer off, but not feel like I will collapse on the last day.”  In the proposals, I heard teachers consistently acknowledging the continuum between routine and wonder.  They took ownership of the distinctions.

Also, teachers defined realistic expectations, like “Thriving means having some time every day to play with my kids, weaving in the occasional date with my wife, and a sit-down with a  cold drink and a favourite book now and again.”

Even more personalized expressions emerged from another teacher in our building.  One educator with a particularly challenging assignment asked to combine her professional development plan with her self-care plan, giving primacy to self-care for a whole year.  It was a profoundly healthy self-advocacy and I eagerly accepted her proposal.

The Conclusion

Remarkably, this is the same process I enter into as a parent!  I need to be resourced and thriving, so I can show up for my own children.  There is significant overlap here between parents and teachers: both need self-care.

So, I conclude with Parker Palmer,

“We can survive, and even thrive, amid the complexities of adulthood by deepening our awareness of the endless inner-outer exchanges that shape us and our world and the power we have to make choices about them.”

You can read more about our Learn Forward commitment to Self-Care in the following posts:

The Trajectory of Education – From Busyness to Mindfulness

Move From Stress to Rest

The Courage for Self-Care

The Courage to Rest

And sign-up here so you won’t miss another bit of nourishment from Learn Forward, including our FREE Self-Care template releasing in October!  Let’s reach for thriving together!

For the sake of the children,


P.S. Have you read my book for parents and teachers, it’s all about thriving!

Last year, I authored the case study of our Learn Forward™ foray into considering the self-care of teachers and it was published in the text, Perspectives on Flourishing in Schools.  This post is an adaptation from that publication.