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Environment: Systemic Issues

Educators and schools are embedded within a larger context of societal norms, policies, media, and other dynamic, environmental factors. In our Framework, the environmental factors that affect educator relationships include: high rate of turnovers, lack of diversity in the teaching force, various disruptions including those during and after the pandemic, the growing underappreciation of the teaching profession

Educator Retention

Educator retention can be an indicator of the quality of educator-to-educator relationships. Feeling connected to and valued by one another helps educators withstand stressors and stay in their positions longer. But high turnover among educators and leadership can make it challenging for educators to develop and sustain good relationships.

Given the high rate of teacher turnover in the US, finding ways to support educators to stay and feel fulfilled in their roles is of the utmost importance. (Achinstein et al., 2010; Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017; Goldhaber et al., 2022; Santoro et al., 2021; Walker, 2022).

Improving Educator Retention | Tips for Administrators/Leaders

  • Minimize “burnout contagion” by creating space and time to debrief after educator turnover.

  • Improve school culture and climate to increase educator retention using the relational strategies presented in the Soil section (link).

  • Empower educators by providing them with opportunities to grow and build their individual and collective efficacy.

  • Invest in educator mentorship programs.

  • Fairly reallocate the workload as best as possible after educator turnover.

How is your relationship with other educators influenced by the level of educator retention/turnover at your school?

In eight and a half years, I've had 14 administrators. The last three were because of COVID. So the school climate has not been tepid by any means. Rather, it’s like a slow boil. Everybody was already on edge and then COVID happened and that didn't do any favors to our school culture or our profession
— An educator, on the impact educator retention and turnover can have

Underappreciation

Feeling underappreciated impacts educator relationships by contributing to mental health concerns and burnout, causing educators to exit the field. Much like having a basic need unmet, it is difficult to find the time or energy to develop relationships when one feels underappreciated (e.g., not feeling valued in terms of respect, time, workload, pay, benefits, and professional growth, etc.).

Feeling underappreciated by leadership or society as a whole can contribute to a negative school culture and climate. However, although underappreciation is mostly seen as a hindrance to educator-to-educator relationships, in some cases, the shared experience of underappreciation could contribute to a sense of solidarity.

When you feel underappreciated as an educator, how does that impact your relationship with other educators?

We had a really high turnover before. I think part of it is feeling like we're not cared for or valued by the administration. We are definitely cared for and valued by the students and their families. So much that it's what carries us.
—An educator, discussing the importance of feeling appreciated by leadership

Underappreciation | Tips for Educators

  • Find a team of allies who can motivate you during tough times.

  • Protect your mental health (e.g., keep up self-care practices and establish healthy work-life boundaries).

  • Focus on what you can control.

Underappreciation | Tips for Administrators or Leaders
  • Offer fair salaries and benefits.

  • Firmly protect educators from unrealistic workloads and acknowledge when educators do pick up extra work, either practically (e.g., covering classes, sacrificing preps) or emotionally (e.g., when educators of color take time to educate White colleagues about race).

  • Provide the space and time for professional development.

  • Pay attention to signs of burnout (e.g., constantly feeling stressed, sad, or agitated when thinking about teaching) and proactively intervene.

Lack of Diversity

Pervasive system-wide issues place stress on educators and act as barriers to educator-educator relationships. Simply put, it is nearly impossible to develop and sustain healthy relationships within an unhealthy system.

For instance, the U.S. education system has long struggled with recruiting and retaining a diverse teaching workforce (Carter Andrews et al., 2019). As of the 2017-18 National Teacher and Principal Survey, public (traditional and charter) middle and high school teachers are close to 65% female and 80% White. Similar disproportionate representation is also observed at the leadership level (Perrone, 2022).

Just like a healthy forest needs biodiversity, healthy educator relationships benefit from different backgrounds and perspectives.

Think about both the diversity, or lack of it, that exists in your school. How has that influenced your relationship with other educators?

I try to help people see bigger context. There aren’t that many of us and people still don't understand affinity groups. Like, “Why do they exist? It's just minorities. Why does the LGBTQ need their own room and space?” But people don’t see how much harm can be done in a hallway. So we need to congregate in safe spaces to heal each other and be stronger when we come out. I pick and choose my battles because I'm a minority in the space, but I also know my voice matters.
—An educator, discussing the importance of diversity and affinity groups at school

Note: Lack of diversity can become fertile ground for discrimination and bias if educators and leadership are not proactive and intentional about fostering inclusivity. Lack of diversity can also create a sense of isolation for educators whose backgrounds and identities are underrepresented or marginalized. While educators can commiserate and bond over less-than-ideal circumstances, there is a risk of developing a stress-induced culture of venting, competing for resources, spreading negativity, etc.

Lack of Diversity | Tips for Administrators and Leaders

  • Take individual responsibility for fostering inclusion and creating a welcoming environment for all educators.

  • Commit to anti-racist hiring policies.

  • Use The Education Trust’s Educator Diversity tool, and review your state’s educator diversity data and policy profile.

  • Use The State of the Teacher Workforce (Learning Policy Institute) to learn how your state ranks in factors that reflect and influence teacher supply and demand (e.g., compensation, working conditions, school resources).

  • Retain educators from marginalized backgrounds by uplifting, empowering, and amplifying their strengths.

  • Critically evaluate if workload (including emotional work) is equitably distributed across educators.

  • Encourage affinity groups as safe and healing spaces for educators who share a common background or identity.

Chaos

The weight of disorder and chaos pulls educators away from having the time and energy to foster relationships. The state of chaos, as we intentionally define it, is a structural obstacle to educator relationships, rather than any individual educator's fault. Often, structural chaos requires a response from leadership. Appropriate reaction at the leadership level can lessen the impact of chaos on educators, whereas a lack of appropriate action can frustrate educators and magnify the challenges of building healthy relationships in such conditions.

A particularly important element of chaos introduced during the course of our study with educators was the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority of educators mentioned COVID-19 disrupting education and relationship building (e.g., Pressley, 2021), but in some ways, the pandemic might have also brought communities of educators closer together as they figured out how to cope and adapt amidst a challenging collective experience.

What are some structural disruptions that you face and how do they affect your relationship with other educators?

People don't know each other as well because they didn't have bonding opportunities. We didn't get to complete all of our professional development together. This year was even more separate because we did things virtually. And if you don't know someone, there can be a loss of assumption of best intentions from coworkers. So people are more quick to anger.

—An educator, on how inconsistencies and chaos can negatively impact relationship-building

Chaos | Tips for Educators

  • Advocate for what you and colleagues need to re-establish school norms.

  • Buffer the impact of uncertainty and disorder by keeping communication transparent and honest.

  • Lean on other educators for support when facing structural obstacles.

  • Be patient with yourself and other educators.

Chaos | Tips for Administrators and Leaders

  • Ensure educators feel physically and psychologically safe at school.

  • Work to understand, address, and meet the needs of educators to help restore stability.

  • Reiterate and clarify roles and expectations for the school community.

Community Connection

Each educator's experience in the broader community influences how they interact at school. Schools that provide opportunities for educators to connect to broader, more diverse community spaces will see educator relationships grow. In some cases, however, a school’s connection to the broader community might negatively impact E2E relationships, such as when contentious families cause friction between educators.

Community Connection | Tips for Educators

  • Create a map of your connections to the broader community (families, community centers, external partnerships, local businesses etc.).

  • Discover and uplift the cultural assets (rich histories, legacy events) already in your community.

  • Organize professional development and/or service initiatives that build connections with local organizations.

  • Encourage educators to socialize in local art spaces, greenspaces, etc.

  • Collaborate with parents/guardians in authentic ways that respect each family’s unique culture and needs.

What are some ways to foster your relationship with other educators beyond the school walls?

I work in a school that's 25% Native American, so right before school starts is powwow season. A lot of us go onto the reservation to the powwows. The Native American mentors in my school share free Ojibwe classes. They haven't started yet, but I'm going to go to those. I hope some of my colleagues will go as well, and then that will be something outside of school we're working towards together.

—An educator, on how embracing the different community cultures can build relationships