As educators, our jobs are never really just jobs. Indeed, the work of cultivating children whom we grow to know and love is never done.
Being the glue that holds a school community together is both fulfilling and exhausting. Our decisions to leave the profession—or transition to another school or district—hit school communities profoundly, and oftentimes, with unexpected force. This is not to say that educators shouldn’t leave; transitions may well be appropriate and necessary. It’s not wrong to need (or want) to move on. However, how we move on matters. We have responsibilities to each other, our students, and the institution of public education.
If you’re thinking of leaving public education, you’re not alone. The National Education Association released survey results that show more than half (55%) of members plan to leave education sooner than planned because of the pandemic. The pandemic has poured gasoline on challenges that educators were already facing, including burnout and staffing shortages. The conflagration of need due to the pandemic has left many depleted and ready to prioritize personal well-being.
Just as the surge of employees who are leaving their roles, or thinking about doing so, should prompt organizations to devote time to learn why and act thoughtfully in response, employees would be well served to explore what leaving well means in their own context. As Christine Bader, of The Life I Want, reminds us: regardless of what you contributed up until that point, “quitting a job badly can undermine the better life you’re leaving for.”
Like so many educators, the past two years have been the most challenging of my career, and, paradoxically, in some ways the most rewarding. Partnering with scholars, faculty, and the wider school community to safeguard health and support the most vulnerable learners has brought a renewed sense of professional purpose. Nevertheless, it is the right time for me to move on as executive director of Brooklyn LAB in order to focus my attention on the needs of my own children, now seven and four.
The “right” way, in this case, means that our Board and I began to prepare for my succession in earnest three years ago, and that I’ll do whatever it takes to support a next chapter worthy of our school community (apply for the chief executive role); ease our staff, families and students through transition; and celebrate all that LAB has accomplished and will accomplish.
We educators are stewards of public institutions that matter, and our choices have ripple effects on individual lives, and, in aggregate, throughout society. Our departures from public education roles must be thoughtful, empathetic, and cognizant of the weightiness of our responsibilities and how much we matter to our communities. This piece reflects on lessons I’m learning as I strive to be a good steward.
Prioritize young people and those who will best support them.
Put children first. Children have been disproportionately impacted by COVID, resulting in social isolation, anxiety, and learning loss. What young people need, in response, are consistent, attuned relationships that build safety, trust, and belief in their futures. Pamela Cantor, M.D. Founder of Turnaround for Children, writes, “relationships are the antidote to stress and the engine for motivation and learning.” Hour by hour, educators support youth with all of their needs, from academic to mental and emotional support. As you step away, remember that you are part of a larger social safety net that relieves pressure on parents and supports students to tackle unprecedented challenges. You mean a whole lot. Transition in a way that honors your impact on individuals’ lives and this collective responsibility. If possible, maintain ties with those who’ve looked to you for support.
Cultivate colleagues. As you step away, consider whom you can encourage to lean forward. This moment provides a chance to make real progress toward building an educator workforce that better reflects the diversity of the students schools serve. Dewayne J. McClary of Digital Promise asks, “What can you do to support the next generation, which is being asked to step forward?” As you step away, can you support your school to find creative, ambitious ways to hire and promote team members whose lived experiences reflect the students and families the school serves? Monica Martinez, of the Learning Policy Institute, asks schools to consider how to do more to open “the door for a more diverse workforce.”
Prioritize how you share the news of departure.
Provide the communication your school community deserves. As you exit, identify who should be aware of this communication, in what cadence, and how each audience best receives information. Work to ask yourself how you can be attentive to the human aspects of your impending departure, including the values and needs of your school. Brooklyn LAB has hard-earned lessons about the communication that school communities deserve in times of uncertainty and stress, which are those that are collaborative, empathetic, transparent, accessible, and inclusive. When it comes to communicating your own departure, this might entail seeking input from your team, asking what your people need from you emotionally and logistically, and sharing insight into the process and timeline of your departure.
Be attentive to grief and loss. COVID-19 has been harsh and unfair. Our students, families, and colleagues have experienced tremendous loss and are navigating trauma. Our decisions to move on professionally may add to feelings of grief and sadness, or trigger anxiety. Therefore, we must consider how to navigate our departures with intention and care As Jonathan Flynn, Director of Family Engagement and Community Affairs of Brooklyn LAB, says, “During these most difficult moments, it’s important to [consider] how to best communicate with and serve our school communities.” Cecile Kidd, LAB’s Bursar, asks, “How can we depart in a manner that provides students a source of stability through the storm?” How can you be the thermostat (and not just the thermometer) for how our students and families experience transition?
Work backwards from need. Educators should cultivate empathy for students and their families, placing the needs, perspectives, and experiences of affected people at the center of transition plans. Students’ thoughts, needs, and ideas must be explicitly valued and reflected in plans. This often means asking our students how they feel and what they need from us as we prepare to depart? This type of engagement, respect, and inclusion conditions our students to better navigate change.
A successful transition reflects care and love.
Convey and express care. Students and families need educators to provide care – to show empathy, compassion and commitment to human dignity. As Paul O’Neill, an advisor to our school, has eloquently put it, “Who deserves less than everything we can do for them?” Even, and perhaps especially, in our transitions, we need to recognize that schools provide a community safety net to care for and love people when they are in a vulnerable place. We must ask how to best prepare our students to continue to thrive in our absence.
Cultivate psychological safety. Chuck Jones, Middle School Director at Brooklyn LAB, emphasizes how psychological safety is the “next frontier as we create systems of equity around race, economics, and social change in our schools.” What makes an effective transition? What impact do you want your transition to have on your students and team over the next six months? Imagine yourself one year in the future. Looking back, what would make you most proud? What three words would you like someone to use to describe you when you’re no longer in the room?
Be a steward and consider your legacy. As you depart, consider how you will sustain your own relationships with your staff, students, and families. Our school, the Edmund W. Gordon Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School, was named to honor Dr. Gordon’s wide and deep influence on the fields of education and civil rights. A research scientist, author, professor, civil rights leader, former minister, and psychologist, Dr. Gordon’s mentorship and ideas have shaped Brooklyn LAB practitioners’ approach to our work. As a school community, we celebrate “not only by his towering intellect but his warmth, compassion, and humanity,” Pedro Noguera affirms. Over the decades, which included role changes, Dr. Gordon has brought together a group of education leaders whom he had mentored individually and collectively.
By Way of Conclusion
Arundhati Roy writes, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” W.E.B. DuBois observed, “Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” Our departure plans must place our students, staff, and families’ needs at their center, which might mean that our timelines and strategies are not our personal ideal. We must prioritize empathy, communication, and responsible stewardship to ensure an effective transition that honors the incredible power of educators. To do otherwise, undermines all the good work we have done.