I remember when I was a new mom. My husband had returned to work, and I spent all of my time with this relentlessly demanding (lovable!) little baby. He never slept, so we were together all the time. Never in my life did I have less time to myself. And never in my life have I been so lonely. I longed for adult conversation, and wished I had more time during the day to share the joys, sorrows, and hard work of parenting.
Teachers seldom, if ever, get to close an office door and work quietly. They spend less time alone than many other professionals. Teachers are surrounded by relentlessly demanding (lovable!) children throughout their work day. And yet, teaching can be lonely. According to a 2012 study by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation, teachers spend only about 3 percent of their teaching day collaborating with colleagues. With whom can they share the joys, sorrows, and hard work of teaching?
School leaders may not spend their days surrounded by children in quite the same way, but they also struggle with loneliness. As the chief brand ambassadors for their schools, leaders rarely feel they can talk about what’s going wrong. With whom can they share their doubts, frustrations, and insecurity without putting their school’s reputation (or their own) at risk? At a community event, when others share “the crazy thing that happened at work this week,” school leaders remain silent. Because the crazy thing from that week’s work likely involved someone in the audience’s family.
This loneliness comes at a steep price. A study published in 2011 found that “greater employee loneliness led to poorer task, team role, and relational performance.” It concluded that an employee’s work loneliness triggers emotional withdrawal from the organization, decreasing her level of commitment. We know the statistics on attrition and turnover for school teachers and leaders. It is costly for our communities, for our institutions, and for our children – not to mention the professionals themselves!
So what can we do to address the painful and toxic loneliness of education? Well, first we need to admit that we have a problem – and that it isn’t one that should be swept under the rug. Then we need to think about allocating resources (I mean time, money, and effort) to allow education professionals time to connect with one another. It is not a luxury for leaders to have a coach or to attend conferences with one another. It is not wasteful to allot time for teachers to co-plan, meet as PLCs, or attend conferences. It is a lifeline.
And if we’re serious about our schools’ sustainability, we’ll get serious about the sustainability of the professionals who make our schools thrive.