by Katie Raher, PhD
“What would you recommend as gifts for educators?”
…a common question I get asked and a common question I reflect upon myself.
Now down below I’ve got a list of potential gifts or gift certificates that can be wrapped up with a nice package and bow, and from all my work with educators, here’s my list of some other vital things educators really want…
#1 - Feeling that they're making a difference and being appreciated for it. When it comes to educators, one thing they all have in common is the desire to make a difference in others’ lives. Having opportunities to feel that and to be truly and deeply appreciated for their impact fills up an educator’s heart at a cellular level. Now, educators can certainly feel moments of connection and impact in their interactions with students, and those moments are generally what fuel educators to come to work in the morning… and receiving appreciation sure can go a hell of a long way too. When it comes to appreciation, the real power comes in genuine and specific expressions of gratitude – sharing a story about a time an educator really created an impact or being specific about what’s better at the school because of them. Parents, administrators, and kids themselves can write or voice detailed notes of appreciation for educators – and while teachers are certainly deserving of these notes, don’t forget about the other members of a school community that have made a difference – from the principals leading in very hard times to the School Counselors, School Psychologists, School Social Workers, nurses, paraprofessionals, office staff, librarians, janitors, cafeteria workers and more being instrumental to children’s experiences every day. Specific notes of appreciation are needed more than ever!
#2 - Feeling like their voices are truly heard and valued. Educators want their organizations to do the invaluable work of asking for and honoring their voices. This means that educators’ opinions and professional expertise are not only asked for but are genuinely integrated into decisions and action steps for their school and students – not in a top-down way but in a way that is rooted in co-creation of ideas and implementation. If what educators are requesting or speaking up about isn’t yet possible, organizations can name the constraints they are working under and ask for and use the creative solutions that educators can come up with, because educators are brilliant and some of the most creative people on this planet.
#3 - Realistic expectations. Although educators’ efforts have been heroic in many instances, especially during the pandemic, educators are ultimately humans first. They should not be expected to be martyrs or solve all of society's problems. While educators are almost always up for a challenge and are definitely dedicated to their students, they nonetheless deserve to have expectations that are actually doable within their humanity. Educators shouldn’t have expectations that lead to working hours and hours and hours beyond their contract days and years to accomplish the core parts of what’s expected of their jobs. Administrators and policymakers can stand up to unrealistic expectations for educators, including asking how any given or proposed expectations are even relevant and align with the core values of the school and organization, and if they are, how the expectations can be creatively distributed in a way that honors educators’ humanity and needs. Educators themselves can also do some intentional work that unpacks the stories they tell themselves or believe – mostly because of the martyr-based, people-pleasing, and perfectionistic narratives that are passed down to us and continually driven home in our society – and shift into mindsets that are more self-compassionate and allow for more realistic expectations from self. To support this inner work, administrators can participate in it themselves too and can also celebrate the educators on their teams who set boundaries on the amount of work they do and practice a “done is better than perfect” mindset, to help encourage a schoolwide shift away from martyrdom. Parents, whose involvement and partnerships are invaluable in schools, can share their opinions and questions in a way that recognizes the humanity of educators, such as not expecting communication responses at all hours of the day or night or within unrealistic reply time frames. To support with this, administrators and educators in the classroom can communicate realistic expectations to parents, helping them to understand that educators who are rested and well are most effectively able to support their children, since effective supports for children is something that everyone can get behind.
#4 - Their unique gifts and strengths are allowed and tapped into. One of many reasons that expectations can feel so unrealistic is that educators are expected to do so many things, to do them all well, and to do many of them in a prescriptive way. This often leads to educators not being able to use their unique and specific gifts and strengths. While it is important to implement big picture best practices in schools, the invitation is to allow educators to creatively implement those evidence-based practices in ways that light them up and feel aligned – to allow for the type of flare and flow that can happen when we honor each educator’s unique gifts and strengths. In doing so, we bring fun and well-being to educators’ work, which inherently creates a greater capacity for each educator to make an impact in their interactions with students. While schools may have collective goals, research suggests that asking individuals about what they can uniquely contribute leads to much more effective and meaningful work. Let’s celebrate the unique sparkle that each educator can bring and creatively allow for expectations to be met in ways that feel naturally more aligned.
#5 – Time! In part because of the unrealistic expectations that have been set on educators for a long time and especially in recent times, the gift of time is one of the most important items on educators’ wish lists (mine included!). Administrators can think about tasks that aren't really needed nor contributing to the school vision and take those things off educators’ plates, cancel meetings that aren't really needed and send the email instead, cover educators’ duties at recess and during the car line whenever possible, and work to rearrange the schedule to give additional prep and collaboration time. Top-level administrators can think of how to do these kinds of things for their principals as well, so the ripple effects can be felt. At all levels, conversations around what is truly needed can be had. If teachers managed to get through most of the year’s curriculum last year in only a fraction of the time, and time was generated for teachers to have more collaboration and planning, how can this be creatively done now as well? It might not be easy, but these conversations and shifts in mindset can certainly be worthwhile. Schools can also make an effort to create Covid-friendly and safe policies that allow volunteers to give their time. Not only can parents and community members with time to give be of service, but schools can also tap into the gifts of local college students or even secondary students participating in service-learning opportunities (which can also support the recruitment of future educators and development of purpose in young people). Volunteers can help lead games at recess, make copies (and potentially have the fight with a copy machine that no educator wants to have), take things home to cut out and prepare, chaperone at school events to let more teachers have a break, create bulletin boards, organize files, and so much more – all tasks that may not take a ton of time, but just enough to interrupt planning periods, prevent breaks, and lead to increasing fatigue when always left to the educators themselves. Providing help through these simple gifts of service can give educators more of the time they deserve, need, and want, to help them create the impact they want at school and the life they want at home.
#6 – Empathy and caring relationships. When educators are feeling chronically stressed or overwhelmed as a result of isolation, challenging behaviors in students, unrealistic expectations, demoralization, or a multitude of other reasons, they deserve to be surrounded by support from others. They deserve to be heard and seen, and told, “You are not alone. It's not just you. So many of us are having a hard time right now.” When they share their stories of exhaustion or frustration, they not only need someone to listen and hold space for it, but they deserve to be believed, acknowledged, and validated. Educators at all levels can be part of the collective care that is very much needed in schools right now, and administrators need to carve time and space to ensure that educators’ psychological safety is a top priority. If creating more structured groups for empathy and collective care within your school is hard to come by at this point, because everyone is feeling fatigued and can’t add one more thing to their plate or a variety of other reasons, helping educators seek help outside of the organization can be powerful. Therapists and other mental health professionals through resources like Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are of course a great resource that can be offered and can be a beacon of healing. Additionally, finding more affordable options to be held and connected in group settings can be invaluable as well, especially until educational institutions and educators themselves are adequately compensated for their time and efforts. Constant Love and Learning provides a number of possible and affordable means to give people the empathic and caring community they need, including an ongoing educator well-being membership, as well as coaching for leaders wanting to cultivate more healing systems from the start.
#7 - Space for complete resets when needed. Chronic stress has been plaguing much of the education profession as of late, with overwhelm being the most common word shared during feeling check-ins I’ve facilitated during professional development with hundreds of educators this past year. Sometimes, extra time to get things done isn’t enough. When overwhelm has taken over, the nervous system needs a more complete reset and the spaciousness to do so. One way to accomplish this is through mental health days. These should be encouraged whenever needed to prevent and treat fatigue, overwhelm, and burnout. Although the problem of finding subs is a reality in many schools right now, having strategies in mind to prevent sub shortages as a long-term problem can help people hold onto hope. Schools and organizations can create funnels from colleges and universities as well as from parent and community volunteers who may be interested in turning their enjoyment in the classroom into paid work. Furthermore, schools and districts can facilitate more effective training for subs, so that they are independently prepared to support in classrooms, without the need for detailed sub plans. In doing so, teachers can actually take much needed mental health and sick days without the stress and worry of having to create sub plans. In addition to mental health days, schools can create and fund opportunities for educators to participate in support groups, healing circles, and restorative retreats where they can take sacred space to reflect and connect within and with like-hearted educators. In addition to monthly options for such community and sacred space for soul care, Constant Love and Learning provides occasional retreats, such as the ReclaimED and RechargED Virtual Retreat coming up on January 22, 2022, which provide the container for a deep and restorative reset. Whenever schools work to create or fund offerings for restoration and space to honor educators’ wholeness, it can be helpful to avoid mandatory attendance and rather make them optional, allowing educators to honor their unique voices and preferences and take needed space within their time constraints at school and home.
#8 - Basic human needs. With this, we’re talking about the basic levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy here. Educators want a living wage and adequate health insurance that lets them put a roof over their head and food on the table and feel the basics of wellness without having to work a second, third, or fourth job. On top of being able to buy their families and themselves enough to eat, they want to be able to eat at a normal pace while at school, meaning there is time to eat more than a protein bar and actually taste their food rather than just having to gulp it down at hyperspeed. Within the school day, educators want to be able to use the restroom when they need it rather than having to hold it all day and be given a badge of honor for doing so. If educators don’t have enough time to pee when they need to in the school day, schools have got a systems problem and need to figure out a way to help educators get this most basic need met. Additionally, educators want to feel safe coming to work every day, meaning they can benefit from policy makers passing common sense gun laws and funding adequate mental health and social service support within and beyond schools, and parents modeling and teaching respect to students in such a way that harmful and unsafe Tik Tok challenges wouldn’t even be a thing any child would consider. Parents can not only teach respect for educators but also write to their school board and legislators to advocate for livable wages. When many of the other items on this wish list are provided to educators, such as realistic expectations, appreciation and respect, caring supports, and the gift of time, educators are more likely to nourish themselves in whatever ways they need on a daily basis to feel calm, centered, content, confident, and creative, which in turn will enhance their capacity to show up fully for students for the short- and long-term. This is something that should be on all of our wish lists.
So, which of these are on the top of your wish list? What else would you add to the list?
Because so many folks have asked me what I recommend for educators, in terms of tangible gifts that can be wrapped up in a package or placed in an envelope, I also offer some possibilities down below.
Gift Ideas that Can Be Wrapped:
What are your favorite gifts to receive, dear educator?
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