Zachary Herrmann is a candidate for the Doctor of Education Leadership degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is a former math teacher who researches and writes about teacher innovation. Follow him on Twitter at @zachherrmann.
Educators often talk about “student well-being,” but we rarely define the term. We know we want more for our students than just academic achievement, but most of us struggle to articulate a vision for what that more looks like, and how to work toward it.
Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, explored the concept of well-being in his 2011 book Flourish. He introduced five elements of well-being — positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment — and found that teachers who attend to those elements can improve student outcomes.
But as our goals for students become more sophisticated, so too do the demands on teachers. Surely, developing students’ well-being requires a different level of skill and expertise than teaching history or math. In fact, it might require teachers to think more about their own well-being.
If a teacher hasn’t experienced powerful collaboration with his colleagues, how equipped is he to facilitate collaborative learning among his students? Will students find meaning in their classroom experience if their teacher struggles to see the bigger picture of her teaching? If a teacher can’t relate to the joy of accomplishing a challenging task, how will he help his students understand the rewards of perseverance?
In short, can students flourish if their teachers aren’t?
If we want to develop our students in new ways, we as teachers must be willing to develop ourselves in new ways. Consequently, teachers owe it to themselves, as well as to their students, to focus on their personal well-being.
What might a teacher’s focus on well-being look like?
According to Seligman, reflecting on experiences that go well is a powerful lever to create positive emotion. Unfortunately, some staff lounges are notorious for doing the opposite — full of negative comments and horror stories. While venting may feel cathartic, engaging in routines that focus on negative experiences is not likely to help in the long run. Sharing positive teaching stories might seem counter-cultural at first. But cultures can change.
Engagement is the result of challenging work, not mundane tasks. Seligman argues that we are most engaged when we are able to leverage our best strengths toward our challenges. Whether through creativity, humor, or social-intelligence, teachers must find ways to fully leverage their strengths as they face the demands of teaching. We must recognize the circumstances when we feel most absorbed in our work. What strengths are we leveraging, and how can we bring those strengths to other aspects of our teaching?
The reality is, most teachers have few opportunities to collaborate with their peers — and that’s a significant barrier to promoting teacher well-being. School leaders and teachers themselves must prioritize creating time and space to build relationships. When teachers experience the powerful impact of these relationships on their own practice and sense of well-being, they may gain a deeper appreciation for the potential of collaborative learning in their classrooms.
Seligman describes meaning as a connection to something you believe is bigger than yourself. Most teachers yearn for that sense of meaning, but it can be challenging to find it amid the daily requirements of curriculum and schedules. Teachers should constantly consider the long term impact of their work and think about the types of people they hope their students will become. An inspiring and hopeful vision for the future can drive a teacher’s day-to-day work far more effectively than a narrow focus on the needs of today.
Teachers can feel they’re living in a Groundhog Day kind of world — the characters are different, but the plot is the same from year to year. After the initial excitement, many teachers settle into comfort and routines. But some of us settle in a bit too deep. To gain a true sense of accomplishment, a teacher has to work at the edge of her abilities. Taking risks and changing practice can be difficult, but accomplishing something challenging and new is far more rewarding that repeating something old.
Increasingly, we want our schools to be places where students not only achieve academically, but thrive as individuals. But this emphasis on student well-being places complex demands on teachers. By tending to their own growth and development, teachers can be better equipped to provide similarly powerful experiences for their students.