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How to Talk to a Teacher

August 24, 2017

How to Talk to a Teacher

But how much do we really know about the reality of being a teacher? One of the biggest misconceptions about teachers is that they get the summer “off.” That’s a natural assumption, given that all of us remember, as kids, exploding like a cannon out of the school building doors the moment each school year came to a close.

The truth is the majority of teachers actually work during the summer; they need to prepare their classroom for the next school year by updating their curriculum or strengthen their practice through professional development. For many, the summer also means an actual second job. According to Richard Ingersoll, Professor of Education and Sociology at University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, most teachers need the extra money, and so, to work they go.

As a former teacher, as the proud wife of a special education teacher and through our many Widmeyer/Finn clients in the education sector, I know this firsthand.

I mention this idea about summer break because it’s so often the first well-meaning question we ask teachers as Back to School time rolls around: “How was your summer off?” Let’s consider how seemingly mundane questions may betray our own ignorance about what it truly means to be a teacher. Here are some alternative questions:

  • “How are you feeling?” Go deeper than the expected “how are you?” and its Pavlovian “great, thanks” reply. A study from Pennsylvania State University with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported high levels of stress among teachers, on par with doctors and nurses. Teaching is a stressful job with a lot of competing demands, opinions galore and the weight of the future bearing down. You know what helps? Talking about it. Having someone listen. I challenge you to ask that question of a teacher in your life and let it hang. Wait for a response and then, listen.
  • “How are your students feeling right now?” And no, this is not “how are they performing,” but simply, how are they? Putting aside political views, imagine being a kid in today’s current political climate. Schools manifest the psyche of the country in intense ways. It’s scary out there for students, families and teachers alike—particularly when it comes not just to conversations about, but the impact of, tensions and hypocrisy in the world today surrounding bullying, equity and principles of honesty and rule-following. Incidents of bullying are a sad and stark reality for anyone with the misfortune to grow up, but in the last year, Buzzfeed identified 81 incidents of bullying since the new administration took office.
  • “What supplies can I donate to your classroom?” According to the National School Supply and Equipment Association, teachers report spending hundreds of dollars of their own money on supplies for their classrooms every year.
  • “Have you had a chance to use the restroom today?” While I don’t normally recommend asking anyone about their biological functions, it is worth noting that those basic needs are not always achievable during the school day if you are a teacher. In a 2015 survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers, not having time to use the restroom was listed as a top stressor right up there with discipline.

Communications is what we do. We know the power of a well-crafted phrase, well-placed punctuation, a great hashtag. I urge you take a minute to reconsider how we each might apply that same brilliance we use for our clients to the teachers in our lives. Let me know what answers you get so I can share them and more data about the profession in future posts.

Jacqui Lipson is a Vice President at Widmeyer Communications, a Finn Partners Company.