For Our Students, For Ourselves

Lee Dieck (September 2020)

Several years ago, I was talking to a friend who was really struggling at work.  A highly motivated professional, he was finding himself increasingly unhappy and couldn’t figure out why. Knowing there had been some major changes in his work environment, I started asking him some questions based on a work quality inventory I’d become familiar with through my work in self-determination theory.  It went something like this:

“At work, do you feel that you have some voice/control over what happens to you and your work?”  Answer: “No–I have no control over some of the most important aspects of my work.”

 “At work, do you feel like you are with a group of colleagues that you can relate to; do you feel a sense of belonging with that group?”  Answer: “No–there’s no one that I know well or who knows me.”

 “At work, do you feel challenged? Do you feel like you are growing in your field and moving forward?”  Answer: “No–except in rare circumstances, it feels like I do the same thing over and over again.”

This exchange helped me understand why he was so unhappy, and it helped me explain to him some possible reasons for his discontent.

Richard M. Ryan along with Edward Deci and others have researched basic human needs in the context of self-determination theory. This theory is at the “heart” of Heart of Character. Humans need to feel that they have the ability to pursue their passions, their purpose, with voice and choice.  They need to be in honest, authentic, caring relationships. They need to feel that they are challenged at a level that promotes growth, not discouragement. Autonomy, Belonging, Competence.

As I considered the past six months, and the challenges all of us who are educators have needed to face, it occurred to me that for many of us, our pursuit of these basic human needs has been disrupted. The abrupt shift to on-line/remote learning left many adrift, in an uncomfortable and unfamiliar environment.  We have been separated from our families, our colleagues, and our students.  The work that needed to be done to adapt left many with little choice but to do what we needed to — the “have-to’s” Rich Ryan talks about, as opposed to the “want-to’s.”  That we are still facing these obstacles months later is a reality we deal with daily.

These feelings aren’t unique to teachers. The administrators in our schools have borne a huge burden–doing their best to manage the feelings of trustees, parents, students, and faculty in uncharted waters where no absolute right answers are available.  They have felt the often-conflicting needs of all of these groups, and the ones I know have worked tirelessly to meet those needs.

The good news is that most educators I know are highly motivated to do the work they do. We feel our work matters, and this gives us a sense of purpose that gets us through many of the obstacles we face. In the early days of this pandemic, many of us thought first of our students, and how we could make sure their social emotional needs were still being met in remote learning. My suggestion is that we turn that same lens on ourselves.  Even in this new environment, we should strive to preserve our basic needs by devoting some time to things we are passionate about, by intentionally cultivating relationships, and by acknowledging that some of the aspects of on-line learning can be discouraging.  It’s important to acknowledge that meeting those needs is as important for us as it is for our students and to the extent we do that, we can actually make the student experience better.

Look for the bright spots where you can:

  • When you learn a new on-line application, celebrate that, and don’t feel that you need to conquer them all.
  • Have virtual coffee or lunch with a colleague regularly and invite others in.
  • If at all possible, pick up that hobby that you’ve loved at other times in your life (painting, playing an instrument, sewing, knitting).
  • For those of you who are teaching your own children at home as well as your students, acknowledge that these conflicting demands are not your fault–just do the best you can and find colleagues you can commiserate with.
  • Adopt a mindfulness practice; consider meditation or yoga.
  • Take “walk breaks” whenever you can.
  • Celebrate small victories–you’ve worked hard for them.

Above all, remember that your well-being matters. Our world is considerably brighter for the effort you put into educating students, so be sure to prioritize taking care of yourself, too.

Categories: self-determination