Let’s unveil the framework for building a school culture where teachers thrive, not just survive.
It was an April day I'll never forget. I did my usual tasks: making copies, grading assignments, and hoping the internet wouldn't go out. But I knew this Friday was different because it was my last day as a teacher.
I loved my classes. I loved my students. My district was supportive.
So why was I leaving so close to the end of the school year?
There is a perfect storm of exhaustion and trauma plaguing our educators right now. Teachers feel stressed due to the conflicting demands they face from parents, administrators, and the community. The pandemic's aftermath has only amplified this, leaving teachers and students struggling to find footing.
Let's face it: teacher retention is at its most challenging point.
But amidst this chaos, there's a glimmer of hope for administrators from the world of psychology: The PERMA model.
What is the PERMA model?
Created by psychologist Martin Seligman, the PERMA model is a framework designed to promote overall well-being in individuals. It comprises five core elements: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments.
The PERMA model is evidence-based and resulted from extensive research conducted in positive psychology. It has been around for several years and has been widely studied and implemented in various contexts, including education.
The PERMA model provides educators with a comprehensive approach to enhancing well-being and satisfaction. This ultimately leads to a positive and productive school environment.
Ready to ignite the spark of PERMA in your school or district? We'll dive deeper into this transformative framework.
Positive emotions: cultivating joy and optimism in teachers
The "P" in PERMA stands for positive emotions, the lifeblood of a flourishing workplace. Positive emotion goes beyond the concept of simply being happy. It encompasses a range of emotions such as hope, interest, joy, love, compassion, pride, amusement, and gratitude.
Incorporating positive emotions into one's daily life can profoundly impact thinking patterns and behaviors. According to Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, positive emotions can be cultivated and learned to improve overall well-being.
How can administrators go beyond pizza parties and pep talks to ignite positive emotions in their teachers?
It's common for students to receive recognition when they achieve an academic or athletic goal. But teachers rarely get such recognition.
Why not create a wall of wins for teachers, where the school can showcase what wins the teachers had every month? Or host events—like a coffee hour or a cookout—to celebrate teachers. Remember, small victories can fuel the momentum for bigger ones.
Let's bring the spirit of playfulness to the entire staff space. Imagine a playlist curated from teachers' favorite hidden gems and classic bangers, blasting every morning to energize the hallways.
Or picture a dodgeball showdown between the Science Olympiad champions and the history department.
These playful activities can do more than inject some fun. They can boost morale, build community, and foster collaboration across departments.
Instead of hunting for flaws, what if school administrators focused on celebrating the strengths of their teachers?
Research shows that positive feedback boosts morale and fosters growth and innovation. Praising a teacher for crafting an engaging lesson might build their capacity more than focusing on a minor lesson detail.
Constructive feedback can still play a role, but a strength-based approach can help unlock teacher potential.
Positive emotions are contagious. Administrators can create a school culture where joy is always present and motivates teachers to be dedicated.
Engagement: where passion meets flow
The "E" in PERMA represents engagement, where teachers become so absorbed in their work that time seems to melt away. In the "flow" state, you meet challenges with focused energy, and work feels effortless.
This flow state occurs when there is a balance between the challenge of the activity and the individual's skill or strength.
Research has shown that using character strengths can increase flow and well-being. Dr. Martin Seligman found that intentionally using strengths in new ways increased happiness and decreased depression after six months.
How can administrators cultivate this elusive state in teachers?
Give teachers autonomy in their lesson planning. Let them tailor units to their strengths and passions, incorporating their expertise and creativity.
Empower them to experiment. Provide professional learning opportunities to learn about innovative teaching methods and practices and allow for controlled risks. For instance, if your French teacher wants to teach food vocabulary using real food, why not encourage them?
Create opportunities for teachers to share best practices. Organize peer-to-peer learning sessions, professional learning communities, or online forums. Leverage tech for virtual "lesson swaps," curate resource libraries, and incentivize sharing with micro-grants for innovative practices. Unleash collective wisdom!
Promote teamwork within departments and grade levels. Encourage joint projects and shared problem-solving. You could encourage cross-disciplinary projects, like bringing history and literature together through a historical fiction unit—foster collaboration, not silos.
Create dedicated areas for teachers to brainstorm, share ideas, and work on projects together. These spaces can be informal, like cozy lounges, or more formal, like well-equipped meeting rooms.
Organize "Genius Hours" or dedicated time and space for teachers to pursue personal projects related to their teaching practice.
Support the use of technology, like generative AI, to enhance their workflow and reduce administrative burdens.
Autonomy, collaboration, and the right environment can nurture engagement among teachers. As a result, schools can reduce teacher burnout, increase performance, and ultimately boost student success.
Relationships: building bridges with teachers
The "R" in PERMA stands for relationships, the bedrock of any thriving community. In school, fostering strong connections among teachers goes beyond mere collegiality. The focus is building a supportive network where educators feel understood, valued, and empowered by each other.
Research shows that social connections are essential for our mental and physical health. Humans are naturally social beings who do well when we feel connected to others.
Positive relationships are essential in both personal and professional lives. Building good relationships with colleagues, bosses, mentors, and supervisors makes work more enjoyable and rewarding. This can lead to higher job satisfaction and overall happiness.
How can administrators weave this web of belonging?
Create safe spaces for teachers to share challenges, frustrations, and successes without judgment. Encourage open dialogue and active listening.
Organize regular staff gatherings and retreats to build genuine connections and promote team spirit without forcing participation. Nobody likes mandatory fun.
Implement flexible work arrangements and policies that respect teachers' personal lives. Life can be hectic. Allow for flexibility by creating schedules with co-teaching arrangements, where one teacher can be present in the classroom while the other works remotely.
Recognize and address compassion fatigue. Many educators, especially post-pandemic, are suffering from compassion fatigue, which is emotional exhaustion from prolonged exposure to others' suffering. When a teacher wears many hats, and one of those hats is a social worker, it leaves them more susceptible to burnout. You can provide employee assistance programs, on-site mindfulness resources, and even trauma-trained therapists.
Let's also push for policies like reduced workload, mental health PTO, and clear guidelines for handling stressful situations. Strong relationships don't happen overnight. It takes conscious effort and a genuine desire to create a culture of trust, collaboration, and support. Building these connections allows administrators to establish a work environment where teachers feel at ease.
Meaning: Discovering purpose in education
The "M" in PERMA stands for meaning, that deep sense of purpose that elevates a job beyond a paycheck. Seligman suggests that knowing your work matters to something bigger—a community, a cause, a future—is what it's about.
When teachers find meaning and purpose in their work, they're more likely to stay focused and resilient.
How can administrators help ignite this flame without falling into the cliché "remember your why"?
Articulate a clear and compelling school or district vision. Define your school or district's purpose beyond standardized tests and quotas. Show teachers how their work directly impacts students' lives and contributes to a larger societal good.
Highlight how individual roles contribute to that vision. Show teachers how their specific subject, grade level, or extracurricular activity is crucial in shaping future generations.
Provide opportunities for teachers to contribute to school decisions meaningfully. Invite them to participate in curriculum committees, professional development selection, and strategic planning.
Support teacher-driven initiatives that align with their passions and strengths. Let them champion special projects, pilot programs, or community outreach initiatives.
Meaning transcends spreadsheets and rubrics. Administrators can cultivate fertile ground by igniting a shared mission and making teachers feel their contributions matter.
Accomplishment: Where success fuels the fire
The final pillar of PERMA, accomplishment, is about feeling a sense of progress in your work. The satisfaction of achieving goals, overcoming challenges, and witnessing the impact of your efforts is what matters. But for teachers, this feeling can be elusive, buried under mountains of paperwork and ever-shifting expectations.
Accomplishments are crucial to people's overall well-being and sense of fulfillment. When we set goals and work towards them with dedication, we experience a sense of competence. This increases our self-confidence and motivates us to overcome challenges and complete tasks.
How can administrators help teachers reclaim a sense of accomplishment?
Move away from top-down, standardized goals. Involve teachers in setting measurable, student-centered objectives that align with their passions, skills, and community. For instance, you can provide flexible templates that help teachers translate their aspirations into SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) objectives. You can also organize sessions where teachers, in collaboration with administrators, brainstorm student-centered, community-relevant goals.
Focus on making progress instead of seeking perfection. Recognizing and acknowledging the ongoing effort and progress is crucial for maintaining motivation and morale. For example, you can utilize charts, journals, or digital dashboards where teachers can monitor their own growth and celebrate small wins.
For teachers, meaningful accomplishments are essential antidotes to teacher burnout. Witnessing their students' progress, mastering new teaching techniques, or creating innovative learning experiences are all powerful motivators. These successes can boost teachers' resilience, empowering them to tackle challenges.
Investing in PERMA is investing in the future
Building a school or district environment where the PERMA framework can create tangible results is ongoing. It requires commitment, collaboration, and a willingness to learn and adapt. But the benefits are worth the effort.
Teachers will be slower to burn out, and you'll see them stay in the classroom with more joy and purpose. Take it from a burned-out teacher who still believes change is possible: PERMA could build the future we all wish for.
Together, we can create a future where teachers thrive, not just survive.
A former Spanish teacher who is currently based in the Washington DC metropolitan area. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Spanish Language and Literature from la Universidad del Zulia and a Master's degree in Spanish Linguistics from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her interests include SEL education in the world language classroom, theater, and finding ways to make the world a less scary place.Explore more related to this author