Empowering Adults to Support Each Other at the Beginning of a New School Year: A Conversation with Authors Emily Parrelli and Lisa Dewey Wells
Empowering Adults to Support Each Other at the Beginning of a New School Year:
A Conversation with Authors Emily Parrelli and Lisa Dewey Wells
Emily Parrelli and Lisa Dewey Wells are Responsive Classroom consulting teachers and contributing authors for the forthcoming Empowering Educators series (Emily worked on Empowering Educators for Grades 6, 7, 8; Lisa worked on Empowering Educators for Grades K, 1, 2). Responsive Classroom had a chance to sit down with them to discuss how these resources can be used early in the school year to help adults in the school work together to benefit everyone in the learning community. Here is some of what we learned.
There are some clear advantages to having all adults in the school on the same page, most notably that it creates consistency for students. What is an underrated benefit of having adults working together?
LDW: When people are in sync, that eliminates any undertone of uncertainty; people know what their roles are. That level of transparency and clarity helps people know what to do and what to expect, and I think that breeds a certain level of trust.
I also think a lot about the wellness and mental health of the adults in the building. When there’s a strong culture among the adults, there is a level of comfort when things are tough in your personal life because you know you have colleagues you can lean on or who you know will just stop to check in. People need good people around them whom they can talk to about the stress in their lives. I think that that is an important piece because so many teachers are so isolated during the course of the day.
EP: Something I feel is really underrated is perspective, especially in middle school where we share students. Getting to have a different perspective on children from the adults in the community is really helpful. Sometimes the way that I view a child might be influenced by things like my relationship with them. I might feel more forgiving of that child when I need to be a little stricter, or maybe I’m harder on them because of the relationship I have with them outside of the classroom. Also, I think that students respond differently to different adults, and so I’ve gone to colleagues to ask, “Hey, I know you have a good relationship with this child, what is your perspective on this thing that’s happening in my class?” You get a more realistic picture of a kid when you come together as an adult community to talk about them.
Empathy is a central theme throughout the Empowering Educators series. What are practical ways educators can show empathy for other adults – both fellow educators and students’ parents and caregivers?
EP: I think it’s important to remember that the adults in the community are all stakeholders – not just teachers, but administration, parents, and other staff members in the building. We can show empathy through acknowledgment; we do this with students, but we should also do this with adults, too. For example, if a colleague is complaining, instead of going down the rabbit hole with them you could say something like, “That sounds really difficult. I’m sorry that you’re dealing with that.” I think as adults, and especially as teachers, we always want to offer up solutions, and sometimes that can be received as dismissive: “Your problem is not really that big a deal so let me just tell you how to solve it.” Offering up questions is often much more productive because they may just need to voice what they’re feeling. We can show empathy and care by asking questions like, “So what are you going to do?” “What do you want to do about that?” “What will help you?” I think those questions keep the ball in their court. Oftentimes they just need an opportunity to voice their feelings, and so asking questions can express a lot more empathy than giving a list of solutions.
LDW: I think something that is hard for a lot of people, particularly during the pandemic, is just assuming good intentions. People are stressed, and they might not use the kindest language. Assume people are working from good intentions. I think simply stopping to ask people, “How are you today?” and pausing to check in goes a long way. I’ve talked to teachers at other schools who do virtual happy hours. Colleagues in my school get together outside and go walk at a big park and don’t necessarily talk about school. I talked to other schools where faculty meetings happen outside or the school sets up additional tables outside so teachers can eat lunch together, mask off, and connect that way.
The Empowering Educators series also discusses what to do when emotions run high between adults. Can you share a recommendation for navigating these situations?
LDW: I think we have probably all lost our temper, especially in the last year, and I think a recommendation is not being so proud that you can’t just apologize for what you said. That is hard, especially in the school setting with a parent. But we have to do it: when you make a mistake, you need to just say “I’m sorry, you caught me off guard” or “It’s been a long day and I wasn’t my best; let me try again to explain myself.”
EP: The key thing is to remain calm, cool, and collected and to give yourself some time to be able to respond in a way that’s going to maintain the professionalism in the room. Parents are going to respond emotionally because this is intensely personal for them, but we need to maintain professionalism. Responding in kind is not going to be productive and it’s not going to help keep focus on the issue at hand. If we keep a focus on what the work is – and the work is teaching children – then we’re always going to make the right choice.
I had a colleague who once put it this way: you’ve got to know which wave you can surf and which one you should dive under. So, know what is important, and everything else be willing to let go.
How can self-care practices support how adults work together?
EP: When we talk about this in workshops, I tell teachers that self-care is also group care. You can think of cogs in a machine: if one of them is weak then the whole machine is going to start falling apart. We also say, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” In education especially, we’re givers. We are giving of our time and our energy to help students to be successful in and out of the classroom. We need to be able to take time to fill our own cup so that we can continue to pour into them.
LDW: There is such pressure in teaching and parenting to take care of other people. The truth is, if you’re out of gas, you’re not going to be able to help people for very long. Self-care looks like something different for everybody. It doesn’t have to be anything super luxurious. It is something intentional that you do just for yourself. For some people it’s walking the dog or reading a book. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but we all need some space to process and to recover. When you don’t, it shows up in the way you interact with your kids or people in your personal life. I was one of those people who was going and going and going, and I ended up with two autoimmune diseases that are the result of long periods of stress that were not managed well. And I am by no means unique or unusual.
Along with the other authors who contributed to this series, you both shared fascinating personal stories. Is there one anecdote you would like to highlight, or one you would like to share that didn’t make it into print?
LDW: I messaged a bunch of parents of kids whom I stay in touch with to say, “If your kids have memories of first grade, please share them with me.” So, there’s one story in the book about Carson, a former first grade student who is now a sophomore in college. He remembered that I let him roll around on the floor to write, which to me seems like a thing I would let any first grader do, but he recalled that that was what made it feel okay for him to try to write. It was really hard for him, so he would draw these pictures of bugs and imaginary things, and I would write the words. Fifteen years later, he still remembers that. It feels like very normal first grade stuff, but those are the things that stick with kids. There’s so much power in those small interactions we have with them and in really listening to them.
EP: Last school year we had an unusually high number of people who had to be out of the classroom for various reasons – either they had to be quarantined or they were sick with COVID or, later on, they had to leave in the middle of the day to go to their vaccine appointment. We never once had an issue getting classes covered. Everyone was immediate in their response; we always had coverage. I just thought that was so wonderful. We all sensed that this was something we were in together and that, despite all the craziness, we were going to come together as a team and support one another. We knew that we weren’t going to get through this alone and that we needed one another.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.