From Classroom to Community
How loneliness harms your teachers—and how to help move them from isolation to connection
In her first year teaching high school, Dr. Amy L. Eva found herself lying in the dark on the cold, concrete floor of her tiny office, literally hiding from the world outside. As she shares in her book Surviving Teacher Burnout, she barely interacted with her fellow educators at all during that first year. Her principal only visited her classroom a couple of times. “I was so disconnected, and so overwhelmed,” she tells SchoolCEO. “And so desperately lonely.”
Unfortunately, if you’ve spent any time in the classroom yourself, that feeling may resonate with you. Though teachers spend much of their time interacting with students, they typically get very little time to engage with the other adults in their school buildings. According to the 2022 Merrimack College Teacher Survey, the typical teacher spends 54 hours per week working, but only two of those hours—less than 4%—are spent collaborating with colleagues. It’s no wonder so many educators feel isolated.
However, this isn’t a problem that’s exclusive to education—it’s a broader societal trend. In May 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an 85-page advisory on loneliness and isolation, declaring the issue a national “epidemic.” The research presented in the advisory is staggering. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, about half of U.S. adults said they experienced loneliness; in 2022, only 39% said they felt very close to others emotionally.
Years after that day on the concrete floor, Eva is now the associate education director at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, where she studies teacher mental health and well-being. As she puts it, “We are in a loneliness crisis.” Protecting your district from the fallout will take an intentional culture shift toward connection.
Why Teacher Loneliness Matters
As a school leader, you want the best for your employees. You obviously want them to be happy and healthy as well as productive and effective. But you might be surprised to learn just how much health and well-being are intertwined with connection.
According to research published in American Psychologist, a lack of social connection poses as great a risk to our physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Less surprisingly, loneliness and isolation also have severe effects on our mental health—but the opposite is also true. The more social connections we have in our lives, the less likely we are to develop conditions like depression and anxiety.
Fostering more social connections won’t just benefit your teachers on an individual level; it will also benefit your district. Stronger connections between teachers correlate with better outcomes for kids. According to a study from the American Journal of Education, students achieve at higher levels in schools with a strong sense of “professional community.”
Research from mental health startup BetterUp suggests that lonelier employees feel lower job satisfaction, switch jobs more often, and are more likely to quit. On the other hand, when your employees feel a sense of community, they’re more engaged and more likely to stay with your organization. In other words, if you want to address the ever-present problem of teacher retention, connection should be on your list of priorities.
“When people feel connected, they do better work,” says Smiley Poswolsky, a workplace belonging expert and the author of Friendship in the Age of Loneliness. “And they’re happier—not just in their work, but in their lives. So as educators and as leaders, you have a responsibility to try to move the needle toward connection.”
Rethinking Teacher Connections
Before you can understand how to strengthen relationships between teachers, you have to see where they currently stand—and where you want them to go. In his 2006 article “Improving Relationships Within the Schoolhouse,” renowned educator Roland S. Barth outlines what he sees as the four main types of connections between teachers: parallel play, adversarial relationships, congenial relationships, and collegial relationships.
Many teachers, Barth argues, are stuck in a state of parallel play—much like preschoolers playing side-by-side in a sandbox. They’re performing similar activities, but “they seldom interact intentionally,” he writes. “Although in close proximity for a long period of time, each is so self-absorbed, so totally engrossed in what he or she is doing, that the two of them will go on for hours working in isolation.” Parallel play is not really about connection at all; it’s just coexistence. Others are engaged in adversarial relationships: ones in which the teachers feel competitive toward one another, withhold craft knowledge from each other, or even tear each other down. Needless to say, these aren’t productive connections, either.
The other two types of relationships, however, are much more positive. Congenial relationships, Barth writes, “are personal and friendly.” Teachers with these connections grab coffee for one another, chat about their days, and give each other rides home when needed. Simply put, they’re friends. And according to Barth—and the other research we’ve cited so far—this is extremely valuable. Friends are often part of the reason we come to work in the first place. “When the alarm rings at 6:00 in the morning, the alacrity with which an educator jumps out of bed and prepares for school is directly related to the adults with whom he or she will interact that day,” he writes. “The promise of congenial relationships helps us shut off that alarm each day and arise.”
But the best connections teachers can have, in Barth’s view, are collegial relationships: ones in which teachers actively collaborate, support one another professionally, and work together to improve their craft. “Schools are full of good players,” he writes. “Collegiality is about getting them to play together, about growing a professional learning community.”
More than likely, all four of these relationships show up in your schools. Your ultimate goal is to minimize parallel play and adversarial relationships, while maximizing congenial and collegial relationships.
Strategies for Strengthening Connections
So how do you move the needle toward more collegial and congenial relationships? Here are a few practical ideas.
Show them why it matters.
As you know, teachers already have a lot on their plates—and making more connections is probably not at the top of their to-do lists. In the 2022 Merrimack College Teacher Survey, when asked which one task they’d spend more time on if they could, 29% of teachers listed individual planning and preparation, and 28% listed actual teaching time. Unsurprisingly, things like professional development, administrative work, and after-school events fell much further down the list.
This is indicative of something good. Your teachers want to spend the bulk of their time on the most important part of their job: educating students. However, this means that if you want them to buy into building connections, you need to show them the value of doing so.
If you’ve spent any time studying adult learning, you know that adults are most engaged with a lesson, task, or activity when they understand why it’s relevant to them. How will building relationships with other teachers help solve the problems they’re facing in their classrooms? How could it help them become better educators?
For two high school teachers in Massachusetts’ Falmouth School District, connection and collaboration have revolutionized and enriched student experiences. In 2013, AP Art teacher Jane Baker approached AP Literature teacher Lauren Kenny with a problem. “The AP Lit kids didn’t think that art students should get college credit for making artwork, which seemed easier to them than writing papers,” Baker tells us. The two educators decided that making their classes work together would dispel that misconception. “The goal was to create mutual respect through shared experiences,” she says.
Thanks to a grant from the Falmouth Education Foundation, Baker was planning a trip to take students to the Outer Cape to study the seal population there. She invited Kenny’s class to tag along. All students were asked to respond to the trip both in words and through art, eventually creating beautiful visual poems that incorporated seaweed paper from the beach. The trip was a rousing success.
Ever since, Kenny and Baker have collaborated on yearly grant projects that have taken students all over the Cape and beyond. These trips allow students not only to explore connections between these two disciplines, but to gain hands-on experience with broader topics like climate change. Plus, “each of these projects gives the kids an opportunity to work with students that they don’t typically have classes with,” says Kenny.
Normally, these two teachers wouldn’t have class together, either—but they treasure this unconventional partnership. “I am the only teacher of AP Literature, so there’s no one to plan with, bounce ideas off of, or commiserate with,” says Kenny. “However, this collaborative relationship with Jane connects us professionally, mentally, and emotionally. I can lean on Jane for anything, in or out of our professional partnership.”
Collegial relationships like this one are the reason to commit to a culture of connection. They can’t be forced, but given the right environment, they may emerge. “It would not make sense for an administrator to tell particular teachers to just work together,” says Baker. “But if they foster a collaborative gathering of minds and encourage teachers to work out curricula based on ideas and solutions to local issues, then people in disparate groups are bound to start collaborating.”
Incorporate time for connection into existing meetings.
As you move toward more connection, it’s also important to consider your teachers’ already overwhelming schedules. “Teachers are regularly told that they need to engage in self-care practices, but teachers don’t have much time to do anything for themselves,” Eva tells us. “It’s not helpful to tell them to add self-care to their to-do lists.” So instead of adding more meetings or after-school events in order to foster connections, carve time for relationship-building out of the meetings you already have on the calendar.
How exactly do you do that? First, consider what aspects of your meetings really require people to be together in a room—and which ones don’t. “A lot of times, when we get people together, the PowerPoints and packets and PDFs come out—but a lot of that content can be delivered virtually,” says Poswolsky. “When people are actually together in a room, that should be a time to make a new friend, to talk about their goals for the year, to get to know each other on a deeper level.”
Of course, your weekly meetings can’t—and shouldn’t—become purely social events. But taking just a few minutes in each meeting for connection can help teachers build community and relationships without adding more to their plates. For guidance on how to do this, Eva points to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, better known as CASEL. She encourages people to incorporate CASEL’s Three Signature SEL Practices into all their meetings:
Welcoming activities. “Welcoming and inclusion rituals are a wonderful way to start every meeting,” Eva says. This can be as simple as an open-ended icebreaker question. “Start off a meeting with people answering prompts like, Describe your perfect day, or, If you were an athlete or performer, what would your walk-on song be?”
Engaging practices. “These can include pair-shares and brain breaks,” Eva explains—moments throughout the meeting to process what’s being discussed with others. If you’re asking participants to split into pairs or groups for these short discussions, be sure that teachers who are new to your district aren’t being left out of the loop. You might tap a few of your best culture ambassadors to intentionally include their new peers.
Optimistic closure. Make sure the meeting ends on a positive note. For example, you might ask your participants to share one takeaway or action item that they’re excited to try out.
The beauty of these practices is that they infuse your meetings with social and emotional connections without taking much time. Incorporating all three would only take about five minutes total—and even then, they’re spread out in one- or two-minute chunks. But little by little, these simple moments can go a long way toward building stronger personal (congenial) and professional (collegial) relationships among your teachers.
For more tips on building these SEL practices into your meetings, check out CASEL’s SEL Signature Practices Playbook.
Create more opportunities to share craft knowledge.
According to Barth, one of the best ways to build more collegial relationships is to promote the sharing of best practices. This is an effective way to combat the inertia of parallel play, as well as adversarial relationships. “Once the exchange of craft knowledge becomes institutionally sanctioned, educators no longer feel pretentious or in violation of a taboo by sharing their insights,” Barth writes. “A new taboo—against withholding what we know—replaces the old.”
Of course, your teachers probably already have a few official outlets to share best practices—professional learning communities, for example. But the more official opportunities you create for teachers to share their knowledge with one another, the more they’ll do so unofficially on their own time as well.
To try this out in your schools, you might put a twist on a private sector strategy. At stock advising company The Motley Fool, employees often conduct short classes for colleagues on topics they know a lot about—bartending, DJ’ing, sewing, just to name a few. “We’ve had incredible fun and incredible effectiveness going out to [employees] and saying, Hey, is anybody really good at something and would be interested in teaching others?” Chief People Officer Lee Burbage tells Harvard Business Review. “Tapping into your employees and skills they may already have that they’d be excited to teach others…That makes for a great class and creates an opportunity again for them to progress and grow and meet new people.”
As is, this strategy would help you build more congenial relationships with your staff—but focusing it on craft knowledge will kick it up a notch, into the realm of collegiality. Why not center a professional development session around “lightning talks,” where teachers give crash courses on techniques or strategies they’ve mastered? These topics can be super specific: things like “How to Use QR Codes in Your Instruction” or “Supporting Introverted Kids in a Discussion-Based Activity.” This kind of talk gives you multiple wins: Teachers learn more about each other, they come away with new techniques to try, and they may even discover potential opportunities for collaboration.
Model these relationships yourself.
Like any culture shift, this pivot toward connection starts with you. As Barth puts it, “You can’t lead where you won’t go.” This opens you up to a potentially difficult task: admitting that even you, as a leader, need connection. “I would encourage leaders to be open about their own struggles with loneliness,” Eva says. “When we’re lonely and isolated, we think that we’re the only ones feeling this sense of desperation. The more we know that others are struggling—and that even our leaders are struggling—the more we burst that bubble.”
Your teachers also need to see you engaging in these connection activities yourself: participating in pair-shares, answering icebreaker prompts, and attending those lightning talks. If you don’t prioritize connection, your staff likely won’t, either.
As a leader, your relationships with your staff members will be different than their relationships with one another—so it’s also important to build connections with other leaders, even those outside your district. And the truth is that when you model these relationships, no one will benefit more than you. “Leadership is so profoundly isolating,” Eva says. “It can be even more isolating than teaching students. So to find that collegiality and personal connection with other superintendents or other principals is powerful.”
Of course, connections don’t happen overnight. It will take time for your staff members to build these congenial and collegial relationships. So be patient. These strategies won’t create instantaneous connections, but they will lay the groundwork for a culture where organic relationships can grow.
Melissa Hite is the editor of SchoolCEO. She can be reached at email@example.com.Subscribe below to stay connected with SchoolCEO!