Select Page

by Taniece Thompson-Smith, 2024 Texas Teacher of the Year

“Now this is what I want to do with my life!” was the sentence that reverberated throughout the classroom, as students loquaciously exchanged ideas about sedimentary rocks and fossil fuels.

Like a well-rehearsed flash mob production of Bethoven’s “Ode To Joy,” unexpected, but spectacular nonetheless, it was music to any teacher’s ear. So, what made this beautiful equilibrium of happiness for both the students and the teacher possible? They were both part of a school culture where they felt the support that enabled them to hone their skills and perform well.

If you spent a day uncovering scientific wonders with fifth-grade scientists, you would quickly learn that among other factors, heat, pressure, and time are critical components in the formation of sedimentary rocks and fossil fuels. Teachers also experience those same three factors. Unlike sedimentary rocks and fossil fuels, however, the teacher’s outcome is not always predictable. For those who can endure the heat and the pressure, and stand the test of time, they credit school culture as the bedrock of their mental well-being.

Heat

One of the biggest misconceptions students have when learning about the formation of sedimentary rocks and fossil fuels is that the heat comes from the sun, rather than from the core of the Earth. The converse is true for teachers. The heat they feel is typically associated with extrinsic factors such as curriculum requirements, differentiating instruction, vicarious trauma, and compassion fatigue in addition to a plethora of other obligations. Too often our teachers feel that they are standing, not just close to the heat, but in the fire. The only means of escape that they can conceptualize entails letting go of a career that defines them. The corollary of this is a disruption in the equilibrium of their mental well-being.

Pressure

Imagine a huge stack of the fluffiest pancakes that you have ever seen. I lay them in front of you, and incrementally add more pancakes, one at a time. You watch and salivate as golden beads of delicious pancake syrup slowly cascades down the sides. Just as you are about to dig in, I snatch the stack of pancakes and smash it with a brick. Dramatic right? You could even predict the outcome before the brick hits the stack of pancakes because the sudden change was so obvious. Unfortunately that’s not how pressure manifests itself in geological formations, or in our lives. It’s sometimes hard for students to conceptualize how pressure affects the layering of rocks, or for teachers to realize that they are under a lot of pressure before the full weight is on them, putting them in a mental well-being deficit.

Time

If I chanted the phrase, “Fossil fuels are nonrenewable because …” chances are students will reply, “… they won’t come back in our lifetime!” Fossil fuels are available for a limited amount of time, and so are we as teachers. Teachers invest so much of their lifespan in the classroom. Unfortunately, by the time retirement rolls around, if teachers manage to stay that long, their bodies are riddled with ailments. The unfortunate byproduct of such a situation is, once again a threat to their mental fitness.

School Culture: The Bedrock of Mental Well-being

It’s often said, “When you look good, you feel good,” Similarly, when you have authentic friendships, colleagues can endure hardships. School culture is not a solvent that allows all the issues to dissolve and us to move forward as if they never existed. On the contrary, school culture allows us to view obstacles from an eustress perspective, being able to maintain a level of tenacity and positivity despite setbacks. How do we obtain that mindset? It starts with leadership. Leadership should facilitate an atmosphere where authentic relationships and team building can flourish. Care should be taken that leadership is never transactional, or some sort of quid pro quo situation.

In kindergarten, we had a Small Moments writing unit. The smallest moment of a day was expanded with intricate detail that created an entire story. Our day is filled with a consecutive string of small moments. How leadership reacts in each of those moments inform the type of school culture that organizations facilitate. It should be a harmonious blending of transformational leadership that inspires and actualizes systemic and social change and servant leadership, which values and empowers those you mentor to hone their skills. I refer to this intricate balance of both transformational and servant leadership as transervational leadership. Successful teams normalize collegiality and have a clear mission.

In the infamous movie, “300,” when the odds are stacked against the warriors, instead of running away in futility, they stand their ground in the notorious Greek phalanx formation, with shields interlocked and spears ready to strike. The same is true of teachers. Supported teachers, working in culturally responsive schools, will always be more prepared to navigate the odds.

Teachers thrive in positive school cultures. After all, it’s not only the skillpower that defines good educators. It’s also the willpower. Show me a teacher who is skillful and willing, and I will show you a future that is educationally unwavering. School culture is the bedrock of a teacher’s mental well-being.

Vince Lombardi once said, “Teams don’t go physically flat, they go mentally stale.”

What is the current culture of your team?

What are you doing to enhance its mental fortitude?