Teacher well being has been in the media a lot lately as well as many self-care ideas and strategies that we can utilise to look after our own well being.
These are all fine and well, but what I am finding more and more when working with tired teachers and managers are that these strategies are great and are something that can benefit us all…. But they don’t address some of the important issues at the heart of teacher and manager stress and burn-out.
I am talking about the unrealistic expectations that we place on ourselves and others.
Our Expectations at Leaders
Let me share this example with you:
Lani is a teacher in an early childhood centre, she has 16 children in her portfolio group and her centre requires each kaiako to be responsible for leading an in-depth internal review during the year. Lani is also completing her induction and mentoring programme towards her full teacher certification, as well as overseeing the health and safety of her room.
When she first started at her centre she used to get 2 hours a week to complete her planning, children’s learning stories, internal review and health and safety paperwork. Getting everything done in the allotted time was challenging, but through innovative thinking, self-discipline and by implementing time management strategies, Lani made it work.
During the year she has noticed that things at her centre things have changed. The centre manager has created a new assessment system with the intention that it will make children’s learning more visible and strengthening practice but is more time consuming for teachers.
Added to this, due to the changes in employment law around compulsory tea breaks the centre owner has decided to cut teacher non-contact time to one hour a week in order to mitigate staffing costs to the centre.
Lani does her best, but she is getting further and further behind with her planning and admin tasks. She doesn’t want to take her work home with her but is finding that she is having to do this more and more. The stress of this is getting to her and her colleagues and it has gotten to a point where this issue is all that they speak about with each other. This constant negativity has seriously impacted the team’s emotional hygiene. This is also causing tremendous stress and frustration for her and her fellow kaiako which is impacting on Lani’s health, her confidence as a teacher and her overall enjoyment of her job. Lani is becoming so disillusioned with teaching that she is considering leaving teaching and retraining in another field.
If you are reading this, you might feel for Lani as this might be something that you are currently experiencing as a teacher or leader in early childhood education.
I know that there might be some of you that might be thinking, well that’s just part and parcel of being a professional teacher.
This is a complex issue however, Lani’s example illustrates how expectation sometimes does not align with reality. Her manager made a well-meaning decision which was intended to improve outcomes for children. However, when we look at the above example we can clearly see that the expectations on Lani – the amount of work that she is expected to do in the time that she was given to do it, is just not realistic and in many ways, she has failed before she has even started.
We know through research that stressed out, distracted, over-scheduled teachers adversely affects learning outcomes for children, as teachers are focused on meeting compliance and admin expectations and worried about how they will do this. This distracts them from being emotionally available for children and they find it challenging to be attuned to the children’s needs.
Your Expectations of Yourself
The other expectations trap that we can fall into is trying to live up to our own impossible expectations.
Let me give you an example:
Mira is the centre manager of a large centre. Her centre is licenced for 100 children and she has twenty kaiako in her team. Mira’s role is very demanding, and she often feels like she is just treading water and putting out fires.
Often when she is busy on the floor in her centre, kaiako will come to her and ask her for advice or ask her to do things for them. Mira doesn’t want to disappoint anyone or let anyone down, so she says “yes” to everyone and all requests that come her way without considering if she can realistically follow through with all of them or not.
Mira has so much to do that she often forgets what she has promised to do, so things don’t get done. The kaiako feel frustrated that she hadn’t followed through with what she has said that she would do. They start talking amongst themselves and gossiping about how unreliable and incompetent Mira is a centre manager. They feel that she doesn’t value them and can’t be trusted to keep her word.
In the account above Mira over committed to the people in her team and then under-delivered. This caused the people in her team to lose trust in her and to doubt her integrity as a leader. Mira’s expectations and what she could realistically do were out of kilter.
Beware the “Expectation Trap”
Other “expectations traps” that we might fall into that can be destructive to us and our relationships are:
The expectation that we can control life and every situation or person whom you encounter.
The expectation that we have to be perfect or do everything perfectly and never make any mistakes.
The expectation that things, events and other people will make us happy.
The expectation that we will be or have to be right all the time, or that we will have or are expected to know all the answers like some amazing, all-knowing, all-seeing oracle.
A big one for a lot of us is the expectation that we are “superhuman” – you might know this one….
You (like me) might expect that it is realistic to run on full energy all the time, always busy always rushing- giving, giving, giving without any time to relax or to take care of yourselves.
Or we expect that we have super immunity and we are never going to catch a cold or a virus or need a sick day. Not only this, but we put ourselves down for being “weak”, getting tired or needing a bit of recuperation time.
I was extremely disheartened and saddened to see a Facebook poll recently where the question was asked of early childhood teachers: “Do you feel that you can take time off when you need to when you are sick?
There were about a hundred respondents and most said “No”.
Now I know what this feels like and a few years ago I probably would have said “No” too.
From my own experience, I know that I would have answered “No” because I didn’t want to let anyone down. Or, if I would have taken the time off and I would have been so wracked with guilt about not being at work and would have phoned my centre several times a day to make sure that everyone was okay. I know now how counter-intuitive this as to why I would have needed the time off in the first place….
Yes, my expectations of myself were out of whack. Thinking about it rationally now, I realise that I deserved to take time off to meet my needs and that there were amazing teachers in my team who were perfectly capable of running things smoothly while I was gone. I know now that my worrying while I should be resting and ringing into the centre was not only damaging to my wellbeing but that I was also sending a message to my teachers that I didn’t trust them or doubted their capability which was not my intention.
I can now see that I was a victim to some more subtle (but equally destructive) unrealistic expectations. I am talking about my expectation that I could control every situation, by not taking time off from work or phoning into the centre while I was away. I was also of the disillusioned expectation that I by being a martyr, I could control people’s perception of me.
Kindness and compassion starts with how we treat ourselves. You are person first with human needs, however our unrealistic expectations stop us from tuning into our bodies and meeting these needs for ourselves. When we treat ourselves badly we unknowingly perpetuate a cycle of unrealistic expectations self-abuse through our role modelling.
When our expectation doesn’t align with reality this erodes the love and passion that most of us felt when we started teaching, breaks down our confidence (we all want to do our best), our self-esteem and ultimately we pay the price with our health and wellbeing. We are losing great teachers and leaders in our profession because of this.
So what can we do about it?
Now I am not saying that you shouldn’t have high expectations for yourselves or those around you, what I am saying is that we need to check to see if our expectations are realistic. Here are some ways that you can achieve this:
Be realistic – Consider, “can this task realistically be done in the allotted time?” This applies to our expectations of ourselves and others. Be honest with yourself and others. We are all human beings and we need to have balance in our lives order to stay healthy. We are all given the same 24 hours and there is only so much that we can realistically do.
Before you make changes think them through – how is this going to impact on you or the people in your team? Will you be able to give your kaiako enough time to accomplish this?
Also consider how realistic your expectations are on individuals, bearing in mind that we are all at differing stages of our professional journey as teachers and we have varying strengths, skills and abilities. Encourage open and honest feedback with-in your team. Let your fellow teachers know that it is okay to say if something doesn’t feel realistic and that you are open to creative ways to overcome barriers.
Work smarter not harder – Do you or someone in your team have the mindset that things always have to be done a certain way because that’s the way it has always been done? Or, do you promote a learning focussed culture where teachers are encouraged to think outside of the square and come up with simpler, smarter ways of doing things? Is there a way that we can support each other to be more efficient with our time and energy? Can we use the same bits of paperwork in multiple ways? Are there apps or computer automation systems that we can use that can make our lives a bit easier?
Prioritise – If you have a lot to do try listing your tasks in order of priority. Or if you are short of time ask yourself, “what is causing me the most pain?” or “what is the smallest thing that I can do that is going to have the biggest impact?” and do this first.
Beware of self-imposed stress – So often we play the mind-reading game were we presume to know what other people are thinking of us and this can create self-imposed stress. I know how difficult this next line is going to be for some of you… but, stop worrying about what other people think about you! The majority of the time it isn’t even real it is just our perception.
Set boundaries and say “No” – I know that this can be challenging for all of us “people-pleasers” out there. I feel your pain! You might not like saying “No” as you feel that you are letting people down. However, the truth is if you say “Yes” and you can’t deliver you will let people down anyway. I am not telling you to stop helping others, but I am advocating for being realistic and selective of what you say “Yes” to.
If you are truthfully being honest with yourself you can’t and shouldn’t do everything for everyone. This behaviour can rob someone else from an important learning experience and you of your emotional and mental health and can be another source of self-imposed stress.
Perhaps it is time for a bit of introspection – how realistic are your expectations of yourself and others?
I would love to hear your story and some of the things that have worked for you.
Until next time,