When I think about my first year as a high school teacher, I have a strong, sensory memory. I’m lying on the cold, thinly carpeted, concrete floor in my tiny office. It’s lunchtime; my door is locked, and the lights are out. I am hiding—and I’m totally overwhelmed. The darkness provides a little comfort and calm, yet I am starkly aware of my head-to-toe exhaustion, and a deep, pervading sense of loneliness. That year, my principal visited my classroom once or twice, and I rarely interacted with other teachers.
New teachers’ primary strategy for stress management is hunkering down and working harder—rather than reaching out for help and support. We educators are often at the center of large groups every day, which requires a lot of emotional labor. “Leave your problems at the classroom door,” we’re told. (Mask your own needs on behalf of those students you love.) Perform, perform, perform.
In that sense, it’s natural to crave quiet moments to reconnect with ourselves and reboot our taxed nervous systems. Maybe, like me, you also worry about burdening others when everyone is already struggling. Yet those moments alone, if one feels emotionally exhausted, can extend into hours and days—and a greater sense of isolation and apathy. And if we’re not sharing our experiences with others, it can further alienate us.
Despite these tensions, research clearly points to the benefits of social connection. Studies also tell us that social support plays a role in lessening the impact of job demands and emotional exhaustion on teachers, specifically. Right now, we can all benefit from considering the social component of social and emotional learning. Rather than giving you a long list of time-consuming social “to-dos” to add to your “self-care” list, I want to share a few research-based, low-lift strategies for connection that are practical and feasible and can be easily integrated into an educator’s busy life.
1. Share appreciation for your colleagues
One of the simplest things you can do to feel more socially connected at work is recognize and acknowledge the goodness around you. Gratitude is a relationship-strengthening emotion. In fact, a 2022 study reveals its stress-relieving benefits to both the expresser and the receiver.
Imagine that you and a colleague down the hall are paired up for a six-minute task (designing a bike and creating a marketing plan). Next, each of you must make a three-minute sales pitch to an expressionless audience. (My heart rate is revving up just thinking about this.)
In this research study, some “expressers” simply described their day to their partner before giving their sales pitch, while others shared their appreciation for their partner. In the end, both members of the gratitude pair demonstrated superior cardiovascular responses to stress.
In other words, a little bit of appreciation for your colleagues can potentially reduce tension for both of you as you each navigate the difficult tasks you face each day.
Whether you seek out your colleagues formally or informally, simply acknowledging and appreciating each other can reduce the stress you are feeling in your body. For example (and this is sincere), “To my GGSC colleague, Mariah, thanks for calling to check in with me last week. Sharing our struggles with each other helped to normalize it all for me. And I hung up the phone feeling a little more grounded.”
For a more formal approach to sharing appreciation, incorporate a Gratitude Circle into your small or larger staff meetings. Carve out a few minutes for colleagues to say “thank you” to each other for simple kindnesses. Ask them to speak directly to the person they are thanking and to be specific: “Thank you to my GGSC colleague, Maryam, for the ’80s Spotify playlist you sent to me when I had to drive my youngest daughter to college. As a mom yourself, you know how difficult it was for me to say goodbye to her, and you know that ’80s music brings me joy. Your thoughtfulness made me feel more connected to you.”
If you could share appreciation for a colleague right now, who would you choose and what would you say? Express it, rather than just think it. That’s the key to this practice.
2. Identify your support system
Research tells us that social support, the experience of being cared for, valued, and part of a mutually supportive human network, benefits our mental and physical health. You may be comfortable sharing appreciation for someone on your team, but after a few years in and out of your COVID cave, you may also be asking yourself who is actually available for support right now.
Take five to 10 minutes this weekend to consider your people (near and far) and write down their names. Then, make a quick note of the ways they can support you. Researchers identify the following categories of social support:
- Informational support: advice or feedback (people you can ask, “How should I handle this difficult conversation with my student?”)
- Emotional support: sympathy, empathy, and an understanding of your experience (“No wonder you’re exhausted. I get it.”)
- Esteem support: recognition of your skills and abilities through compliments and validation (“You’ve got this—you’re a strong leader with a lot of grit.”)
- Social network support: accessible, online, community-based resources, including discussion forums and people available to check in and chat about your interests or dilemmas (“We’re here for you! Share your questions and comments with us.”)
When I find myself spinning at a hamster-wheel pace, I tend to forget who might be available for some quick advice (my colleague Vicki), a funny text or joke (my old college buddies, Kerri and Lisa), a walk (my neighborhood friend, Debbi), or a reassuring phone chat or Zoom conversation (my colleague Kira). Most of my people live far away, but they are out there.
What about you? Who is in your circle—in little ways and bigger ways? If you find yourself struggling to identify your potential supporters, now is a great time to consider reaching out to (re-)establish a few connections.
3. Call, text, or meet one person this week
Friendships can give us greater purpose and meaning, better health—and even longer lives. However, when you’re busy (and tired), they require a little planning and a commitment to show up. One of the best strategies we have in our wellness toolkit is something called behavioral activation. It comes from the world of cognitive behavioral therapy, and it’s annoying (when one feels exhausted and grumpy), but it works.
Behavioral activation is doing “the thing”—even if you don’t feel like it—which often leads to a more positive emotional state. For example, getting up and going to that exercise class with your friend or accepting your colleague’s invitation to meet for drinks—even though you’d rather be on your couch watching Netflix. No doubt you can think of a time when saying “yes” to social connection lifted your spirits and even energized you.
So, don’t wait for an invitation. Take a few minutes to reach out to at least one person this week (e.g., a text, email, phone date, a cup of tea or coffee, a walk after school—whatever works for you). And if you’re feeling extra motivated, make a commitment to nurture one specific relationship over the coming month. Schedule time to meet (online, phone, or in person).
Consider the following: Who will you choose to connect with during the week (or across the month?) Why? What did you notice in yourself before, while, and after you reached out? How does this experience influence your motivation to continue pursuing social connections?
Whether you choose to nurture a relationship inside or outside of work, keep in mind that teachers’ working relationships at school can be the most effective at preventing burnout. A recent study indicates that educators who perceived more social support from colleagues (rather than friends and family) had lower levels of burnout and greater emotional intelligence. Why? Perhaps because our colleagues are best at helping us solve work-related challenges, the researchers suggest.
However, we may also feel more connected to colleagues who share similar experiences because we can understand each other’s work struggles—big and small—from the pile of grading in front of us to an unjust and ineffective discipline policy. Further, we can validate those struggles while affirming each other in moving forward to address them.
More importantly, if we can experience a “we’re all in this together” sense of team support and belonging, we are likely to feel more empowered and less stressed.
4. Join a supportive community
If you’re struggling to identify people in your support network at school, you might also consider joining a wellness group for educators. It’s likely to involve a monthly commitment of one to two hours a month—but it’s an investment in the kind of “meeting” you can look forward to. And studies suggest that when teachers participate in groups that feature well-being practices, including mindfulness and other strategies for navigating emotions, they report improvements in personal well-being and their ability to provide more emotional support in their classrooms.
Over the past few years, large, energized teacher-support programs have been growing in number. For example, Happy Teacher Revolution promotes the mental health and wellness of teachers by preparing educators to lead support groups in their own communities. Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education helps teachers handle their stress and rediscover the joys of teaching in a range of different group settings, while the goal of the Transformative Educational Leadership Program is to cultivate the inner transformation of educational leaders in service of outer transformative change in the field of education.
You may also be aware of communities of practice in your area. According to educational theorist Etienne Wenger, who coined the term, “communities of practice” are “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” When you are part of a community of practice (as a social learning system), you can “share your experiences and knowledge in free-flowing, creative ways that foster new approaches to problems.” In fact, Wenger and researcher William B. Snyder claim that the strength of a community of practice is that it can be “self-perpetuating.” As members share wisdom and generate knowledge, they “reinforce and renew” their passion and expertise.
Further, because teaching is not a solitary activity, both research and theory suggests that we can gain a stronger sense of self-efficacy—that “I can do this!” sense of ourselves—when we accept and receive collegial support. In fact, when teachers strongly identify with their school and feel a sense of teamwork, they tend to find their workload more manageable, which lowers stress. In other words, we need each other to move forward with confidence and hope.
At the Greater Good Science Center, we are excited to be hosting a new monthly community of practice (CoP) focused on educator and student “wellness.” Launching this January, our CoP’s purpose is to envision, experience, and co-create learning communities that are caring, compassionate, and connected. We have three primary goals: to deepen our understanding of social and emotional well-being, to experience greater well-being as adult learners in community, and to share ideas and best practices for supporting our students, colleagues, and ourselves. We invite you to check out our invitation and learn more.
As a co-facilitator of our new CoP, I still reflect on my concrete-floor moments as a new teacher. I remember the sense of alienation (and the driving perfectionism) that knocked me down. I still encounter lonely and overwhelming moments, but I also know that we educators can’t do this work alone.