The year was 1986.
It was, surprisingly, a cold day in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center.
Adults and children from all over the country were on the edge of their seats for what they were about to witness: Christa McAuliffe becoming the 1st teacher to enter outer space, along with 6 other astronauts from NASA.
The countdown ensued-”T minus 10.9.8.7.6. We have main engines start. 126.96.36.199. And Lift off. Lift off of the 25th space shuttle mission!”
The ground shook as the spaceship separated from its base. The nearby crowd erupted in cheers and applause.
73 seconds later, those cheers turned to screams.
The rocket boosters veered off to the left and right. Then, a giant explosion and ball of fire in the middle. Debris began to fall through the sky as a nightmare became a reality. The Challenger had exploded and all 7 astronauts were dead.
Why did the Challenger turn into a disaster? It was the O ring in the right rocket booster.
Because of the low 53 degree temperature, there was a break in the ring. It let out pressurized burning gas into some of the hardware and external fuel tank.
In essence, fire spread and the result was catastrophic.
A LEADERSHIP LESSON FOR PRINCIPALS AND SUPERINTENDENTS
If you are a school or district leader, a big part of your summer is visioneering and prepping for the upcoming school year-hiring, budgeting, scheduling, and mission statements.
This year, I encourage you to plan with the Challenger Disaster in mind. There is a lesson in leadership to be learned from this tragedy:
You can’t reach a big goal if your staff isn’t built to withstand the conditions.
NASA and the spaceship were not prepared for the change in weather. Similarly, there may be many teachers in your school who are very passionate, but not fully equipped for the education climate ahead of them. Many of us start each school year with big dreams to reach the stars and we end up in flames a few weeks after blast off. It’s been estimated that up to 50% of us quit within the 1st five years of teaching.
Think about the fiscal cost of consistent career casualties-the cycle of recruiting, hiring, and retraining teachers.
Burnout is expensive, time-consuming, and debilitating for school leaders and the overall goals in education.
So how can an administrator create a more survivable and sustainable working environment?
A CONTROLLED BURN
For the Challenger, the problem was caused by an uncontrollable fire that spread and consumed it.
In a school setting, if you want your spaceship to make it to the stars, it’s going to be because of your teachers. You have to help contain burnout.
So that’s the solution to the problem of teacher burnout-a controlled burn.
I truly believe we should begin looking at teacher development more expansively. There are a lot of PD’s out there to help teachers become better teachers, but none that help teachers live better lives. We should care as much about the wellbeing of teachers as we do students, because the two are intertwined.
As school leaders, you can help teachers set boundaries this school year so that they can continue to soar with kids. This can be done by helping them pursue effectiveness and happiness in every domain of their life, not just in teaching. There are 4 domains in all:
- Social happiness, when you have a network of connections that includes your spouse, children, friends, fellow teachers, boss, and students.
- Career happiness, when school is meaningful and enjoyable. You feel like you are using your gifts to serve others and contribute to a cause bigger than yourself.
- Physical and emotional happiness, when you are getting enough food, sleep, exercise, and time for thought.
- Financial happiness, when you can provide for yourself and your family. You have a positive mindset about money, and you are smart about spending, saving, and investing.
HOW THE BALANCED TEACHER PATH BOOK AND PD CAN HELP
This is a deeply personal book, where I confess my own battle with burnout, depression, anxiety, and a prescription drug addiction, which ultimately landed me in rehab at the end of the 2014 school year after serving as the North Carolina History Teacher of the Year in 2013.
The meat of the book gives practical strategies I learned from recovery and research that could help any teacher. A few of the current favorites teach readers how to…
- avoid vampire teacher attacks
- be Wonder Woman and not Superman
- swallow feedback from the principal
- take family field trips
- deal with discipline issues quietly
- find your teacher flow
- reclaim your recess
- survive the zombie teacher apocalypse
- set up a ‘step below’ budget plan
I’m getting testimonies from teachers and administrators across the country who calling it an all-time favorite and using it as a spark for life change. It’s restoring health, marriages, finances, and improving teacher effectiveness. It’s keeping teachers in the classroom with a smile, and happy teachers make happy students.
If you are interested in purchasing The Balanced Teacher Path, it’s available at Barnes and Noble and on Amazon. My publisher is running a discount on bulk purchases if you want a copy for every teacher at your school or in your school district.
DISCOVERY, NOT THE CHALLENGER
Once Christa McAuliffe made it into orbit, she was planning on using videos to teach students about outer space, from space. Tragically, she never got the opportunity.
Looking back, there may have been some teacher casualties under your leadership, some school years that were disastrous and out of control for you and your staff. You had several teachers quit or transfer. Your proficiency or growth scores dropped dramatically. The achievement gap widened. Discipline issues skyrocketed, etc. etc.
Whatever the failures were in past missions, if you help your teachers with work/life balance now, you can give them better odds to withstand adversarial conditions and carry out the school vision in the future.
Almost 3 years after the Challenger exploded, the Discovery Space Shuttle was launched from the same site in Florida.
As it neared the point in the sky where the Challenger took a turn for the worse, I imagined the astronauts and NASA staff flash backed to that devastating day in 1986, fearing they would fail again, but the spaceship kept soaring. It kept climbing higher and higher, all the way to space.
Why? For starters, the weather was warmer. Also, technological adjustments had been made. Lessons had been learned and applied. Essentially, they were now built for the conditions they faced.
As the school leader, you are at the helm. You are in charge of the controls. Teachers are on your spaceship. There’s students, too.
My hope is that your upcoming school year will be your Discovery, and not your Challenger.