3 Tips to Advocate for Teachers

An apple on top of books in front of a blackboard.
(Image credit: Image by Ray Shrewsberry from Pixabay)

Now more than ever, there is a tremendous amount of pressure placed on educators and school leaders. It's no wonder teachers are leaving the field in droves, without the usual cycle of new recruits (opens in new tab) replenishing them. There are a half-million fewer educators in public schools than pre-pandemic, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

Social media misinformation and the villainization of teachers has reinforced this exodus (opens in new tab) and, as I often say in writing, on podcasts, and everywhere to critics: teachers didn't get into education because they wanted to get rich, they chose education because they love helping children. That remains true for most in the profession. An attack on teachers perpetuates the "Why should I bother (opens in new tab)?” mantra for many who had thought of joining the profession 

How can we provide teachers with the tools to manage daily stressors? Below are three simple solutions to complicated problems.

1. Shed Those Monkeys 

When a teacher feels attacked by that small percentage of critics who carry the loudest megaphones, I emphasize that, almost all the time, most of the claims are way off base. I refer to Rudyard Kipling’s poem If's (opens in new tab) first stanza. When inaccurate or unfair blame is placed on us, we have to shed the monkey on our back that tests our conscience.

By shedding those monkeys, it also liberates us from feeling like we should second guess our intentions, almost all of which rest on helping children. As a school leader, I have faced this challenge regularly and most teachers have not. They are good at what they do so criticism is rare, so when it hits, it hits hard. Primal defenses rush in and we want to defend. That is almost always the wrong response.

The angry email: We have all encountered this from someone who feels compelled to put in writing their version of a concern. Unfortunately, email is only 7% as effective as talking (opens in new tab) through an issue. Body language, intonation, and human nature are absent from email and we fight back and forth in email wars, further escalating the issue (opens in new tab). Additionally, we worry that when someone puts a claim in writing, it memorializes the inaccuracy and misdirects the truth. 

2. Finding the Proper Response 

Responding to exaggerated, or absurd accusations in a public forum with a customer-friendly approach can be effective. By shifting the conversation offline, most accusers are satisfied with your elaboration and the personal touch of speaking directly. 

Using a method such as Reply Only Twice (opens in new tab) is a tenant in keeping perspective and the monkey off our back:

1. Respond with an offer to help.
2. Get a second challenging response, offer to help offline.
3. Cease the correspondence – this is always defensible because you were on display being rational and they were not.

In much less common circumstances, a person may continue to villainize the good-intentioned educator, often invoking false legal scenarios.

Fortunately, there are wonderful legitimate resources that spell out the legal realities that are often distorted through online misinformation echo chambers.

A few quick examples:

-This students’ rights handbook (opens in new tab) from the New Jersey State Bar Association is wonderful, because the language is in laymen's terms and interprets relevant, tangible case law. Understanding that case law often sets precedent for future legal issues, a tool like this can disarm the most litigious when discussing legal issues. I often share this with students who misunderstand how their rights may be limited in some circumstances, as well as with parents to reinforce and support their efforts to manage children developing through natural phases of rebellion.

-Respecting a person's position or religious view has become an increasingly complicated yet an ethically righteous responsibility for educators. Even one's personal views may cloud our understanding of how this applies in schools. It is important to remain neutral in these matters and this resource from LambdaLegal.org does a superb job of laying out why and how educators are to permit peaceful protests (opens in new tab), such as the National Day of Silence. Regardless of opinions on the sensitive topic of gender and sexual orientation, the publication lays out the reason's school leaders and teachers cannot inhibit students from expressing their view in a civil manner. Often shifting the monkey off our back means pointing back to law and legal precedent as with this heated topic.

-Finally, resources such as the Legal One Podcast (opens in new tab)is another example of a tool educators can binge, and in which education lawyers lay out in plain terms what to be tuned into and how to respond to legal and/or hostile circumstances. One of my favorite episodes remains an interview with a judge, who discusses the traps educators fall into and how to prevent these (opens in new tab) from occurring, in non-legalize explanations.

3. Staying Monkey-Free 

Shedding monkeys is a vital part of how to manage the increasing hostility and other challenges educators face. Understanding the leverage we have in shifting communication to practical, offline methods is one important tool. Reinforcing your ethics with reminders of principled goals in helping children is another. Finally, understanding that true school law remains coherent and responsible, even in the face of misinformation often pulled out of context by internet lawyers.

School leaders are responsible to help teachers feel empowered, and protecting them against unrealistic or irrational actors or ideas is both the leaders responsibility and the teachers.

Keeping these in perspective helps the many great teachers and school leaders who are dedicated to helping all children shed their monkeys. 

Put simply, we must always ask:

 Use these methods and you will surely have shed the monkey! 

Dr. Michael Gaskell is Principal at Hammarskjold Middle School in East Brunswick, NJ, published in education journals and blogs over 2 dozen times, and author of two books: Leading Schools Through Trauma (opens in new tab) (September, 2021) and Microstrategy Magic (opens in new tab) (October, 2020). Mike presents at national conferences, including the Learning and the Brain conference (opens in new tab) in November, 2021, and FETC (opens in new tab) in January, 2022; and works to find refreshing solutions to the persistent problems educators and families face. Read more at mikesmicrominute.com (opens in new tab)