Why We Need to Support Teachers Now

Kevin Baird stresses the need to address teachers’ and students’ well-being to enable success

1. When researching Whole (Whole: What Teachers Need to Help Students Thrive [Miller et al., 2020]), what surprised you about your findings?
We were looking for examples of schools “outperforming their zip code”—places where the community was viewed by outsiders as rife with poverty, violence, or other societal challenges and yet the schools were thriving. We were aware of research on stress and well-being from the last MindShift book, The Healthy Workplace Nudge (O’Neill, Williams, and Miller, 2018).

The findings, once we stepped back to make sense of them, were stark. Schools which first addressed the social and emotional needs of teachers enabled more effective student intervention. Also, prioritizing student emotional well-being first resulted in ongoing acceleration of learning. End of story.

2. How do the findings help us understand the impact of the current situation, with remote and hybrid learning?
We have known for years that “self-efficacy”—teacher self-confidence and student self-confidence—are two of the most important elements for teaching and learning. COVID has injected a mixture of chaos, fear, anxiety, and for many a significant level of trauma. Equity begins with social-emotional stability.

Students who have a self-confident, socially and emotionally well teacher will have better outcomes. Students who experience learning that supports their social and emotional well-being, which supports their feelings of confidence and self-efficacy, will have better outcomes.

For obvious reasons, many educators have been focused on “how do I learn new tools like Zoom or Google Classroom?” Many districts have been focused on feeding students, distributing laptops, and working to close the online connectivity gap. The next step is not delivering content. The next step is attending to the social and emotional well-being of our teachers and our students. “Do teachers and students feel successful? Are they set up for success?” These should be our next urgent set of questions.

3. What did you discover about how teachers’ overall well-being impacts student learning?
Teachers are the fourth most stressed occupation in the U.S. That is a fact. A well-known and documented statistic. Teacher stress is rising. That is also a fact. It is a well-known and documented statistic.

I wish our discovery was revolutionary, but honestly—when you step back from the problem and observe it from a distance—the findings are common sense.

Students have to be emotionally ready to learn. The primitive part of the brain—the amygdala, which regulates “fight or flight”—hijacks our ability to think deeply and critically and to concentrate. The person who most impacts student readiness to learn—who calms them, supports them, focuses them, attends to their immediate emotional needs—is their teacher.

No human—teacher or otherwise—has unlimited emotional resources to do that work. It’s like lifting weights at the gym. Eventually the muscles get tired. If I walk into my workout having lifted weights for eight hours already, I won’t have any strength left. If a teacher walks into the classroom concerned about how to pay their own bills, concerned about their administrator harshly evaluating them, concerned about anger from parents, or violence from students, or how to use new technology that was just dropped into their lap, etc., the teacher’s self-confidence and emotional reserves are already used up.

4. How can schools and districts do a better job of supporting teachers to promote the best outcomes for students?
Commit to teacher and student success by enabling it instead of demanding it—because the reality is you cannot adopt, mandate, legislate, evaluate, or assess into existence effective teaching and learning.

We have to understand that teaching and learning is a team effort between teacher and student, and we need our team members to take the field in the best shape possible. An interesting by-product of focusing on teams that support each other is the integration of skills that are critical in today’s economy. Win–win.

A few pearls of wisdom:
1. Stop forcing students to “sit in front of” content that is beyond their zone of proximal development. Adopt a competency-based model that allows students to engage with content at a level of difficulty within their success zone and allow them to master each level before moving on. The research behind competency-based approaches to learning is vast and definitive. Students build self-agency and self-confidence and accelerate their own learning capabilities. When teachers increase self-confidence and self-efficacy, they improve the effectiveness of their practice.

This is the primary design principle behind precision differentiation experiences like Achieve3000 Literacy—guaranteed student skill acquisition, success, and self-confidence. By helping teachers know each of their students’ individual reading levels and automatically assigning the just-right content at the just-right time, the platform supports the instructional needs of both teachers and students. In addition, because the platform uses the Lexile® reading measure to track student growth, everyone can celebrate students’ success.

2. Prioritize culture of learning over curriculum content. Look at every high-performing school—the small schools, the private schools, the schools like those we found in Whole and highlighted in our prior book Humanizing the Education Machine. The culture of the school, which begins with the culture of the classroom, is one that prioritizes how every student feels and how every teacher feels. Evaluate programs through a lens of caring and confidence building, not scope and standards.

3. If you measure something, measure social-emotional well-being—multiple times a day—for teachers and students. This is not difficult; there are inexpensive tools that can be used to do it. I personally like Rhithm (https://rhithm.app). Constantly and continuously check in on the health of the teacher and student team.

Reframe the conversation from “us vs. them” to “one boat, one team.” This begins with the boat. Standardize tools that are broad, flexible, and allow teachers and students to have a wide variety of experiences. I like Achieve3000’s Actively Learn (www.activelylearn.com) as a broad digital learning environment. Once you decide on the boat, enable the classrooms to focus on what is important for teaching and learning—the student/teacher teams.

5. Your co-author, Rex Miller, is a futurist, and the MindShift Collaborative is about solving “audacious problems.” What can schools become in the future?
I have a new favorite phrase: “COVID chrysalis.” The events of 2019 and 2020 will no doubt change us. The question is—what do we want to become?

We are at the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution. Schools are just now starting to look up and realize that the horizon has changed. “College and career readiness” has shifted dramatically. The SAT and ACT are declining; more students are opting in to new postsecondary learning and training experiences. The workplace is changing at a pace we can barely comprehend. From remote work to the gig economy, the impact of automation and AI—the world we are teaching our students to succeed within after high school is shifting more rapidly than ever. Schools can catch up—but it means aligning to the future of work, not the standards and practices of the past.

The surprising news—what we found in Whole: What Teachers Need to Help Students Thrive—is that the alignments and priorities required for effective teaching and learning are the same as those needed for success in the modern and emerging workplace. Humanizing our approach in schools is the key. By putting teacher and student well-being in the center of the circle and surrounding them with a focus on opportunities for success, creativity, individual exploration, and self-discovery, we lift up all boats. We ensure “no child is left behind” and “every student succeeds” by starting with the teacher. Every teacher is a well person, a cared-for team member, and a confident adult excited to meet the emotional needs of students so they are ready to learn. Then we let these incredibly committed, talented, caring professionals do their thing—wrapping each student in experiences where they succeed, where they find confidence, and where they unlock their passion and purpose.

The learning will come. Young people are eager to grow, to experience new things, to explore. Give them tools to do that safely and successfully, and watch them thrive.

Kevin E. Baird ([email protected]; @KevinEBaird) serves as chair at the nonprofit Center for College & Career Readiness and is a Wingspread Scholar, a Beinecke National Scholar, and a past member of the Secretary’s Circle of Phi Beta Kappa. Kevin is also a member of the Achieve3000 (www.achieve3000.com) academic cabinet as chief academic officer. He is a noted leader in accelerated human development and one of the world’s first researchers to use neuroscience technology to measure learner engagement. He holds patents focused on applied predictive analytics and is co-author of Whole: What Teachers Need to Help Students Thrive (2020); see www.habitat4heroes.org.

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