What standards do you feel like you need to meet—however time-intensive or unreasonable—to be considered a “good teacher”?
This was the question Alexis Shepard, a 4th grade teacher in Oconee County, S.C., posed to participants in her workshop at the Teacher Self-Care Conference, held at Samuel M. Inman Middle School in Atlanta this past weekend.
Shepard, who blogs and offers consulting services through her side business, The AfroEducator, wanted the teachers to examine the norms they upheld that could lead to burnout. She directed them to a web link where they could anonymously type responses, and projected the list onto a smart board at the front of the classroom.
Almost immediately, the answers started flooding in, one every few seconds: Long, multi-page lesson plans, spend your own money on classroom supplies and activities, be a “social media teacher” with lessons that go viral, differentiate everything and make it engaging, be on every committee, never say “no” to administration.
As each new answer lit up the smart board, Shepard read it out to nods and murmurs of assent from the group. When she started teaching, Shepard said, she felt the same pressures—to show her creativity by creating every lesson from scratch, to leave the parking lot last every day and take work home every weekend to demonstrate her dedication. She wore her exhaustion like a badge of honor, she told participants.
Now, she said, “I want to live a life where that sustainability portion is the most important.”
Enter the Teacher Self-Care Conference. The two-day event, now in its third year, offers workshops on mental health and burnout, work-life balance, and strategies for navigating toxic workplace environments. “Take care of you,” the website reads. “So you can be the best version of yourself for your students.”
Sarah Murowski, a 1st grade teacher at a charter school in Fort Myers, Fla., who attended the conference, said it also provides an outlet for teachers to talk about the pressures and stress that come with their profession. “I come here to find the community of—okay, I’m not the only one,” she said, in an interview with Education Week.
Focusing on teacher well-being could have broad implications for schools. Developing social-emotional competencies, such as managing stress, could help reduce teacher turnover, experts say. And research has shown that teacher stress can also negatively affect students’ well-being and achievement.
The event, which registered 175 attendees this year, is growing as more teachers are advocating for better working conditions: higher pay, professional respect, and more support services in schools.
“It’s not just yoga and nail paint,” Franchesca Warren, the conference’s creator and a former teacher, said of self-care. Warren also runs the teacher blog The Educator’s Room. “It’s everything. It’s how you talk to teachers, give them support.”
In Shepard’s workshop, other teachers said they too felt pressure to design every lesson from scratch, make them interactive, and package materials in a “cute” way.
“I wish someone had told me this when I left school: It is okay to use the book,” Shepard told them. “It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine.”
Teachers compared themselves to their colleagues at school, they said, but also to teachers of Instagram—educators who post pictures of their organized, colorful classrooms on the social media platform. While some teachers post mainly for their friends and colleagues, others have tens of thousands of followers.
Instagram is “a gift and a curse” for educators, said Warren. The platform allows teachers to connect and share ideas. It’s also the main advertising method for the self-care conference for now, she said. But it also becomes a tool teachers use to compare themselves to others in the profession, she said—and decide that they don’t measure up.
Throughout the two days of the conference, other teachers talked about the stress and pain that they felt when administration or other teachers made decisions that they thought were hurting students.
Murowski said that she’s seen educators in her building reinforce the school-to-prison pipeline. Teachers give black students referrals, while white students get warnings for similar or worse behavior, she said.
As graduating kindergartners move up into her classroom, she’ll hear from their former teachers: “‘This is a problem child, this child doesn’t behave.’ And a lot of the time, it is with the younger students of color,” said Murowski.
Murowski has tried to discuss her anger and frustration with others, but she says she’s been told by her administration that doing so makes other teachers uncomfortable. Managing her own feelings and trying to navigate these difficult conversations with her colleagues is emotionally exhausting, she said.
Dysfunctional, schoolwide norms need to be intentionally dismantled—but it’s impossible for one teacher to do that alone, said Erin A. Browder, an independent educational consultant, in a session called “When Your Heart Says No, But Your District Says So.”
“There’s a history that was there way before you,” she said. “And a lot of times, when we’re in the funk of it, we don’t realize that that behavior has persisted for 10s or 20s or 30s of years.”
‘Our System is Broken’
Still, some educators struggled to see how time-management strategies and setting boundaries could fix the systemic challenges to teacher well-being.
“Self-care doesn’t fix anything if your system is completely broken,” said Katy Jimenez, a principal in Tulsa, Okla., over lunch in the school cafeteria on the second day of the conference. Her school in Tulsa is a recipient of a districtwide social-emotional learning grant from the Wallace Foundation, and Jimenez attended the conference with one of her teachers to learn more about how to implement SEL with her staff.
“We’re from Oklahoma. Just this last year, we walked out for two weeks,” Jimenez said. “Our system is broken, and they’re taking steps to try to begin ... to fix that. But we have decades of narratives to undo around what is the responsibility of the teacher ... Don’t complain about your pay, anything that’s asked of you, do it—do it outside of hours. That’s just a culture that’s been created. And in that, teachers have been so devalued.”
She understands that sometimes teachers have to refuse to participate in this “broken system,” she said. But as a principal, she sees how much of the school and the district relies on educators—and administrators—doing more work than they’re paid for.
Earlier that day, Jimenez had attended a session that stressed the importance of saying “no” to duties that infringe on personal or family time. Presenters told her that she, as a principal, should give up some of the tasks she had on her plate, she said.
“But then I said, ‘To who?’ ” Jimenez said, shrugging. “You just told those teachers to tell me ‘no.’ ”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.