Increasingly, schools are returning to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in order to better understand how to support students. As anyone who has taken an introductory psychology course knows well, Maslow’s psychological theory is a five-tier model of human needs, depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. From the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the needs include: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. The theory is applicable to education in that schools must address students’ most basic needs if they expect learning to take root, particularly for schools working with students who live in poverty and who may have experienced trauma within broader systems of inequity.
But what about the teaching professionals who work directly with these students? How does their experience fit into the pyramid? I would argue that a significant cause of our country’s increasing recruitment and retention problem, including teachers of color, is our lack of focus on this question. I would also argue that schools can’t afford to simply go in order up the pyramid, prioritizing one section at a time. It all needs to happen at once, urgently. If school leadership focuses too much on one section of the pyramid alone, it will lead to dissatisfaction (or an exodus) due to the neglect of others.
Further, within each section, teacher needs are highly differentiated. There is no substitute to knowing your teachers and investing time into continuously adjusting your approach to serve their dynamic needs and motivations. Just as we can’t expect students to learn when their shifting human needs go unfulfilled, we can’t expect teachers to deliver high-quality instruction and effectively lead increasingly diverse classrooms if their own psychological needs are not prioritized. And we certainly can’t expect them to do it forever, in the same way.
The “teachers as superhuman” myths and the pervasive “growth mindset” ideology that assumes that hard work and sheer determination can overcome structural barriers further obfuscates an obvious truth: teachers are human beings with complex identities, needs and emotions. We already know that the teacher is the most important variable in the student achievement equation.
Therefore, failing to focus closely on teachers’ human needs amounts to educational malpractice. We can invest all we want in teaching evaluation systems, coaching systems, professional development, and mentorship. If we fail to take a more comprehensive view of our teachers as multifaceted professionals deserving of the same love and care that we advocate for on behalf of our students, we will not solve the growing recruitment and retention problem in American schools.
Below is a list of questions school leaders should consider at each step of Maslow from the teacher lens:
Does the school culture and work expectations promote healthy sleeping habits for employees?
Are teachers able to complete the majority of their tasks during the school day? Are sufficient breaks built in?
Are teachers expected to be “on call” outside of work via email and phone? When?
Do teachers have access to healthy lunches and snacks inside the building?
Does the school have clean water sources and bathrooms?
Does the school have space for exercise, both inside and outside?
Does the school have reliable and adequate heating and air conditioning?
Does the school have sufficient sources of natural light?
Does the school have a cleaning service that minimizes the spread of illness?
Do teachers of color have support? What are those supports? Are they emotionally safe?
How does race, class, and white privilege play out in your school community?
Do teachers have access to quality health care benefits, including mental health care?
Are salaries and raises sufficient for teachers to afford safe housing that promotes individual and family stability?
Does the school have the appropriate staff and/or community partnerships to keep the school safe?
Has the school communicated and practiced emergency plans sufficiently?
Does the school have efficient and effective security systems and communication channels in case of emergency?
Does the school have clear systems and procedures to address a wide range of student behaviors?
Does the school have a system and procedure to address issues of workplace harassment?
Is school leadership aware of the ways in which micro-aggressions and power dynamics play out in a school environment and do they consciously work to eliminate them?
Does the school offer any therapeutic services for teachers on site?
Do all levels of teachers feel appreciated, including new and veteran teachers?
Do teachers have authentic connections with one another beyond forced mentorship?
Are there norms of staff communication, including ways forward when disagreements arise?
Does the leadership team help to foster a family atmosphere?
Do teachers feel valued and cared for, particularly when they experience challenges?
Do teachers feel that their voices are valued, heard, and incorporated?
Is feedback delivered from a place of respect and care?
Does the school leadership and school culture value diversity and explore issues of identity and race, including ways to foster diverse teaching and leadership recruitment pipelines?
Does the school leadership and school culture acknowledge and recognize the existence of implicit biases and actively work to combat the effects of this reality?
Does the school leadership and school culture consistently work to eradicate systems and policies of oppression and inequity, including those that may directly affect teachers and the students they serve?
Does school leadership honor the perspectives and voices of teachers of color, while being careful not to tokenize or cause stereotype threat?
Do teachers feel respected as employees but also as human beings?
Are teachers recognized for outstanding achievement in a way that is individually motivating?
Do teachers have the space and structures in place to learn and grow as teachers and leaders?
Do teachers feel that they are trusted as professionals?
Do teachers trust that if they make a mistake, it will be viewed as a learning opportunity?
Is feedback individualized and meaningful?
Do teachers feel they are free to voice disagreement with leadership without fear of retribution?
Can employees earn bonuses for exemplary work performance?
Is teacher professional development individualized, self-selected, and authentic?
Are the knowledge and skills of the curriculum connected to a larger purpose and worthy of study?
Do teachers have adequate lesson preparation and collaboration time throughout the school day and week?
Do teachers feel a connection to a larger purpose than themselves?
Do teachers see how their specific goals intersect with the larger mission of the school?
Are teachers predominantly intrinsically motivated?
Do teachers feel that the work they do aligns with their values and principles?
Do teachers feel they have the autonomy to use their passion and creativity to design?
Do teachers feel there is room to create a legacy within this space?
Do teachers feel they are consistently overcoming meaningful challenges and moving closer to mastery of their craft?
Do teachers feel that their sphere of influence expands, even marginally, year after year?
Do teachers feel they are free and able to be their complete selves while at work?