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Dr. Megan Sweet is a single mom who has been in education for more than 25 years as a teacher, school administrator, and school district leader. She co-hosts The Mindful Schools Podcast and The Awakening Educator Podcast, and recently authored “An Educator’s Guide For Using Your 3 Eyes”.
According to Dr. Megan Sweet, the big dream in the field of education is to have schools that are more inclusive and empowering to students. Currently in the U.S. there’s a lot of systemic racism and low access to opportunities for students. This is a direct reflection of what’s happening in the rest of the world. In addition, white supremacy convinces teachers and school leaders that they must be constantly in work mode. But if educators and students share their stories with others, then there can be a movement of bringing awareness to these issues and inspiring change.
Teachers Deserve Much More
What Dr. Sweet sees in this country is that educators are not of high importance or not a priority to the authorities in society. She says this is evident from the lack of respect, the low pay, not giving them a voice at the table, and other factors. Teachers are the backbone of a well functioning community. So when they suffer, you will see the ripple effects. But when all teachers are heard, respected, and given enough resources to shine, the whole system of education will blossom. So how do we make this happen? Dr. Sweet believes in the idea of doing inner work as well as making changes on a school-level.
First, we have to be able to uproot our own ingrained beliefs, biases, and privileges and ensure that we are not passing those on to our students. Taking better care of our needs and wellbeing is the next step since we can’t pour from an empty cup. As humans, we are wired to pick up moods, body language, and other cues. If you are teaching from a state of being stressed out, everyone in class will feel that. The environment no longer feels safe and it’s much harder for their minds to focus on learning. Another thing that can trigger this effect is when a student feels excluded or “othered”. When it’s all laid out, it’s quite clear that focusing on what you can work on within yourself actually does affect those around you. Once we are successful in that phase, we can work with others to take on those larger scale issues. This is not to say that teachers aren’t doing enough already. There is so much great work that goes into our day to day roles. Following these tips aren’t meant to add more to our plates. In fact, it’s shown that these things can set us up for more rest and more time.
Get Back to Self Care
Dr. Sweet recommends filling this extra time with something that does not feel like work to you. Get back to doing activities you love without the guilt. When we do things that bring us joy, we don’t resent our work because it’s no longer “preventing” us from these activities. In addition, it’s simple to connect back to your breathing in the busiest times of the day. Tapping into that mindfulness is so helpful for self-regulation. When you’ve reached the end of the work day, remind yourself to step away. Leave the work at work and come back to it at another time. These are all centered around self care and why it’s so important. Self care is a habit many of us have fallen out of and it’s time we jump back in with eagerness.
“We need to actually be unapologetic about leaving work at work. There’s always going to be work to do. It never stops. So learning to step away and learning to unplug, disconnect, and have our own lives...it’s fundamental.”
Unlearning What We've Been Told
Dr. Sweet recalls how a few years ago, a school district was having their welcome event for the start of school. At the event, two principals shared their strategies on how they create highly effective school teams. One of the principals stated that they would intentionally not consider hiring any teachers who prioritized taking care of themselves and having boundaries in place. Indeed, this is an outrageous remark. But the reaction was just as surprising. All the other school leaders broke out in applause after hearing this. Unfortunately, this is further evidence that we are taught that our own wants, needs, feelings come last if we want to be a teacher. But this should not have to be the norm. It’s heartbreaking to see teachers and faculty overworking themselves to exhaustion just to prove their worth.
Therefore, it’s important that we talk about what school leaders can do for teachers and faculty so that they don’t get pushed into this unhealthy zone. It’s critical you as a principal or leader unlearn that belief that was ingrained so that you can stop the cycle. Then model that behavior for teachers and encourage them to take those breaks and streamline processes. Over time, you’ll find that teachers become even more efficient and productive once they are more satisfied and taken care of.
Thanks for reading! Continue the conversation below in the comment section and join our community of educational visionaries on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Until next time leaders, continue to think big, act brave, and be your best self.
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Do You Tell Kids the Whole Truth?
We all tend to use a different “filter” when speaking to kids versus adults. When you were young, you probably remember adults sugarcoating topics for you too. In a way, it makes sense because children and young teens are still developing their emotional regulation capacity. Many people want to keep children protected from having to deal with the kind of fear, worry, and loss of innocence that they deal with. The problem is, it can be hard to reach consensus on how much information we should share.
Why We Shouldn't Keep Students in the Dark
I believe that avoiding hard topics at all costs is not the way to go. Refusing to acknowledge traumatic events and topics does not give your student a chance to understand why and how such things could occur. It’s important to emphasize the fact that students can easily pick up on cues when something is wrong. Research shows that by age 2-4, children are already aware of social constructs and internalizing bias around identities like race and gender.
“If we avoid it, there is this inherent thing that students will pick up, which is saying that something is wrong with people who deviate from the mythical norm—this idea of a white cisgendered male who is heterosexual, who is Christian, who is middle-upper class, etc.”
Knowing that, you can be the one to help students navigate conversations that bring up all these emotions like fear or anger or sadness. Does that make you nervous? Even as an adult, you may still experience all the same emotions and uncertainty. I know I do. Many issues today do not have clear answers and there is still so much progress to be made. Despite this, we will march forward because justice requires us to commit and show up as best we can. In order to do the work well, I suggest you create some space in your class time that you use to foster better relationships with students. Making eye contact, asking questions, being willing to learn about another culture—these are all things within your power.
We Won't Let Discomfort Get in the Way
Secondly, I’ve seen discomfort hold back white teachers and principals from engaging in these talks. Bringing up these topics as a white person can feel very uncomfortable because we either don’t want to be labeled as “racist” or “biased” or we don’t want to face the guilt that comes up from facing our own privileges and roles in these systems of oppression. If I’m being completely honest, it’s inevitable that you will get it wrong. You may not correct a "microaggression," you may say something that causes harm, you may forget to give students a voice in something. And it will be okay as long as you are willing to own up to them and continue to learn from these mistakes. You don’t need perfection in this work, you want progress.
“We want to be mindful when we invite students to talk about things, that can be traumatic for them or that are based in historical trauma, that that can be harmful. It can be if not done well...But what we want to talk about today is: How do we move forward with this work, enabling us to have these conversations in a way that is generative, perhaps even healing, and not increasing trauma for students?”
When Sharif El-Mekki read an article written by a white educator that posed the question “Are white teachers still welcome in non-white charter schools?” He decided to respond with his own article which said “Yes, anti-racist ones and those striving to be anti-racist. The only prerequisites: they must understand, contrary to what some insist, that we do not live in a post-racial society, they must be able to handle candid feedback, even about their colorblindness and racism.” El-Mekki also brilliantly pointed out the false dichotomy in the article that claimed you can either be an effective teacher or an anti-racist one. In reality, you need to be practicing anti-racism to be an effective teacher (and leader).
Traumatic topics need to be addressed using an approach that supports students. When opening up these topics for discussion, allow emotions to come up without censoring them. Allow personal experiences to be shared. Validate students’ identities. Students who may not directly relate to that topic can talk about what they can do to support students who have experienced this trauma. If all of this feels like a lot, don’t worry, you will improve over time. By committing to anti-racist practice and taking informed risks (e.g., starting these important conversations), you’re going to see so many benefits in your students, their achievements, and your own personal development.
Continue the conversation below in the comment section and join our community of educational visionaries on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Until next time leaders, continue to think big, act brave, and be your best self.
Lindsay is a educator and leadership coach who helps teachers develop engaging project-based curricula, fosters student and teacher voice, and works to advance racial and gender equity and culturally responsive practice.