Margaret Golden is the education community manager at the Greater Good Science Center. She is the coauthor of Teach Our Children Well: Essential Strategies for the Urban Classroom and editor of Teaching and Learning from the Inside Out: Revitalizing Ourselves and Our Institutions.
Based out of UC Berkeley, the Greater Good Science Center studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society.
Greater Good’s education program brings “the science of a meaningful life” into the lives of education professionals and the students they serve. Their website for educators, Greater Good in Education, is a free online resource offering hundreds of research-based strategies to support school communities.
In July, they will open up a new online community of practice for educators and school leaders called Honoring the Teacher’s Heart: Well-Being Practices for School Change. In four virtual sessions, they explore the science of well-being and help educators build positive well-being through experiential practices, breakout discussions, and research-based takeaways. The first session will begin on July 12, 2023.
In this Q&A with Catharine Hannay, founder of MindfulTeachers.org, Golden discusses teacher well-being and how to create positive learning communities.
Catharine Hannay: Over the past few years, there’s been a huge increase in awareness of the need for teacher self-care. At the same time, there’s been a lot of backlash against being told “you need to take care of yourself” when the working conditions are so stressful and unsustainable. What are some ways administrators can support teacher well-being without adding even more pressure?
Margaret Golden: Most importantly, administrators should understand that self-care for teachers isn’t about spa days and pedicures, although those can be nice! True self-care involves listening to your body, quieting your mind, slowing your pace, savoring awe, reveling in joy, practicing gratitude, and spending time with people who listen to and affirm you. Thinking about how these practices can be part of the school day, part of the curriculum for both students and staff, is the key to teachers’ well-being.
We know that when we practice self-care like this it is also extremely beneficial to those around us. We are much more likely to respond with care and concern to others when we take good care of ourselves. Teachers (and staff) spend so much of their time attending to and responding to the needs of others, that it is essential that they regularly practice self-care so they can show up calm, centered, and enthusiastic for their students.
There are so many ways that administrators, from district superintendents to school principals, can support teacher well-being. Just as we ask teachers to be role models for students, administrators need to practice self-care, too. When administrators show up centered, rested, and calm, it makes an incredible difference for their staff. When they are approachable, listen well, and set healthy boundaries, it sets the tone for everyone at the school.
Administrators can also structure the school day so that teachers have regular opportunities to reflect on how they are doing and work with their colleagues to support meaningful change in their schools. If we want teachers to be good listeners, administrators need to listen well to them. Staff meetings, grade-level meetings, and professional development should include opportunities for teachers to share openly and honestly about their lives and work, and experience joy, awe, and wonder together.
Anything that can be sent in an email or a bulletin should be! Protecting teachers’ time is so important. Just like their students, teachers need kind and supportive feedback.
When teachers feel seen, supported, and celebrated, they are much more likely to keep honing their craft and bringing their best selves to work.
CH: There’s a lot of tension in U.S. public schools these days because of disagreements over what to include in the curriculum. Do you have any tips for improving communication among stakeholders with opposing views?
MG: We would go a long way toward improving communication by providing opportunities for people to focus together on what they want for children, rather than on what they don’t want. When we frame the conversation that way, we are much more likely to find shared hopes and dreams, giving us a place from which to start working toward a common goal.
We could also teach people how to deeply listen to one another without trying to fix, persuade, or change opinions. When we see one another in our common humanity, it is more likely that we can bridge our differences, create societies where everyone belongs, and cease the constant othering of one another. The GGSC Bridging Differences Playbook provides great resources for getting started.
CH: In Teach Our Children Well, you list “the seven essential features of a positive classroom community”: rapport, tradition, pride of place, a sense of belonging, a standard of personal best, academic engagement, and support to independence. Could you give an example of a classroom community that embodies these features?
MG: What underlies all of these features is the importance of relational trust. In a classroom where teachers build rapport with their students, they get to know them as individuals—their hopes and dreams, as well as their fears and failings. Classroom traditions can provide time for students to learn about and celebrate one another, to value and appreciate differences, and develop empathy for each other’s life experiences. Morning meetings, singing together, reading aloud, author’s chair, end-of-the-day reflections, and family nights are a few wonderful traditions that come to mind.
Students develop pride in their classroom when they see themselves reflected in the physical space. When we invite students into the curriculum by displaying their names, photos, and work, we offer reminders of how important they are to the class community. When the furniture is arranged so they can collaborate, and find quiet nooks to work independently, students come to trust the space as a place for them to enjoy, learn, and grow.
A sense of belonging is created when we cultivate positive relationships between students, and share control of and responsibility for the care of the classroom. Holding regular, structured class meetings to make decisions, solve problems, share feelings, and explicitly teach social skills goes a long way toward developing a sense of belonging in the classroom.
We know that when students feel that they can rise to the level of their teacher’s expectations, they are much more likely to do so. Helping students to take charge of their own learning by giving them many opportunities to reflect on their work, make changes to improve, and set goals for themselves provides the necessary scaffolding for them to achieve at higher and higher levels, both academically and socially.
CH: Your book Teaching and Learning from the Inside Out focuses on the Circle of Trust® approach developed by Parker Palmer and colleagues at the Center for Courage & Renewal. In a nutshell, what is a “Circle of Trust” and how can it help educators?
MG: A Circle of Trust (since renamed as The Courage & Renewal Approach and as practiced by facilitators prepared by the Center for Courage & Renewal) is a space where participants are invited into a communal process based on a set of principles and practices to engage their deepest questions in a way that welcomes a movement toward inwardness even as it connects them to the gifts and challenges of community and to their work in the world. Using these Touchstones as agreements or boundary markers, the following six paradoxes create a space that:
- is open and bounded
- is hospitable and charged
- honors the voice of the individual and the voice of the group—individual threads of meaning and the collective “tapestry of truth”
- honors the personal stories of participants and the archetypal stories carried by the wisdom of the poetry, song, art, movement, and stories introduced by the facilitators
- supports solitude and surrounds it with the resources of community
- welcomes silence and speech
A Circle of Trust provides educators rest, renewal and re-engagement with their identity and integrity. In a time of solitude and community, there is opportunity to speak from the heart and to listen as others speak from theirs. Reflection on thought-provoking, heart-inspiring essays, poetry, and art invite engagement in honest self-reflection while encouraging an increased capacity to listen to oneself and to others more deeply.
CH: How do you personally practice mindfulness and self-care, and how has this evolved over the years?
MG: As a young child, I was quite social and loved interacting with others, but I also sought out times of quiet and solitude to read, wonder, and ponder questions of purpose and meaning. Growing up, I immersed myself in different religious and spiritual traditions—from west to east and back again, seeking the way to happiness.
It wasn’t until about 20 years ago when I was going through a particularly difficult time, that I began a regular yoga practice to soothe my mind and calm my body. Around this same time, I found my way into my first Circle of Trust where I began to understand the power and strength of my own inner knowing. I was introduced to a communal practice there called a Clearness Committee—modified from a practice developed by the early Quakers. It is both a disciplined form of mindfulness and a powerful practice in compassion.
These days, my ongoing practice is a combination of sitting meditation, yoga, mindful walks in the hills near my home, and practicing moment-to-moment awareness. Whenever I find myself caught up in thoughts—judging, reacting, or ruminating—I take a few deep breaths and rest back into the present moment. I call it “coming home.”
Along with eating well, trying to get enough sleep, and spending as much time as I can delighting in the presence of small children, these practices help me to navigate all of life’s inevitable joys and sorrows—and embrace being fully human.