No matter what industry you work in, workplace challenges can and will arise. They may come in the form of conflict with co-workers, goals that appear unachievable, or more unpredictable avenues such as the sudden onset of stress or, worse, burnout.
In all these challenging situations, however, you can apply specific skills to overcome them. Leah Shmerling, an educator, journalist, author and trainer for more than 25 years, shares these skills in her latest TTA instalment Mentoring and Development – Dealing with Workplace Challenges. We sat down with Leah to discuss how educators of all experience levels can adopt these skills and use them to become high-level achievers.
Resolving conflict constructively
Leah’s four-part ‘Mentoring and Development’ series focuses on a range of skills teachers need to be the best educators they can be. But it’s ‘Dealing with Workplace Challenges’ that is arguably most useful to modern teachers. In a profession that has seen increasing numbers of graduates and young teachers leave the industry within their first five years, Leah believes teachers must understand how to resolve conflicts positively, as well as overcome challenges like time management.
“We’ve all got the same workplace challenges associated with time,” Leah says. “But how are we able to manage that time? How are we able to adapt and be flexible? It’s here that we need to look at work-life balance.
“Conflict resolution is also one of my favourite topics, because how do we resolve conflict? It’s the word constructive that I always add in. We learn how to resolve conflict constructively in the course because we need to manage stress. And when we talk about managing stress – because life is so busy – what do we do with it? How do we look after ourselves?
“We go through an assortment of skills, including the gift of feedback. Most people are not always willing to give that open and honest feedback, and especially to receive it. That’s why it’s called the gift.”
While Leah began her teaching career in the TAFE system in the mid-1980s, it was her foray into writing that opened her up to a whole new world of education. And through that writing, she recognised just how crucial empathy is to the entire teaching process. Not just being able to empathise with students, but with co-workers who are perhaps struggling with their own challenges and stressors. Empathy is a core element of her TTA course and one she believes can help teachers reach their full potential as educators.
“We cannot assume that teachers naturally have interpersonal skills. It’s a skill that must be developed. Importantly, you need to be able to listen. As a teacher, it is not only about giving information, but hearing what students are saying to you. What’s their body language, what is their emotional constant regarding that message? It is through listening skills that we develop empathy.
“So, all of the sudden, it’s reversed roles – you put yourself in the shoes of another person. As a teacher, you must be able to do that incredibly naturally. Most people are not very good at being open and honest, because we are socially constructed. We may think we are good at it, but we’re not. Maybe because people aren’t sufficiently praising their life.”
Leah’s top tips
- Teachers must be passionate: “Without passion, you will never last as a teacher. You must be passionate about anything you ever do in your life. Because your passion shows. If you want to get up in the morning, if you want to enjoy life, if you want to inspire others then you have to inspire yourself first.”
- Be thorough and prepared: “When I write, I don’t just write one draft. I do what it takes and there are no shortcuts. If you want to succeed in the workplace, you have to do what it takes to produce good-quality work. I also think you have a responsibility to make sure you have the latest, updated information.”
- Build rapport with those around you: “You absolutely have to build rapport with your students, but also with your colleagues, with your clients. And you build rapport by understanding them. You need to understand their needs, their challenges. Ask yourself, ‘What are their difficulties?’ And then, ‘What can I do about it?’ If you want to develop your relationships, take it to that next level that goes beyond just empathy.”
In all things, Leah wants to remind educators of her life motto: “Enjoy the process.”
Learning to forgive and move on
Leah has certainly seen her fair share of workplace challenges over the years – from her time as a TAFE educator to working as a journalist at the Herald Sun and even creating professional development programs.
Because of this, she has some career advice for teachers young and old about how to address and overcome workplace challenges.
“People are not always very good at forgiveness. But when you have workplace challenges, you need to forgive yourself when you make errors. You also need to learn how to forgive others, and then be professional about it. Also keep asking yourself, ‘What can I learn from this and how can I grow from it?’
“Sometimes that hurts like hell, but if you really take those life lessons on board, over the course of your lifetime you will be a wiser person. You will be a responsible person. You will be a lot more empathic when you understand your role in a situation.”
You can sign up for The Teacher Wellbeing Toolkit on the TTA website.
Praise for Leah Shmerling’s TTA courses
“The ‘Mentoring and Development’ course provided a good range of tools in order to provide understanding to my own approach to mentoring. Additionally, it offered other insights via reflective activities that supported how I might best provide for fellow teachers I work with and alongside.” – Michael Cunningham, 5 stars