It’s no secret that teachers commonly face overwhelming workloads, high stress levels, and a significant risk of compassion fatigue. The coronavirus pandemic is magnifying each of these factors, and it’s clear that teachers need support. But while school districts invest enormous amounts of time and money into developing the emotional and mental health of their students, teacher support systems are often underwhelming.
Right now, countless teachers and school staff members are struggling with concerns around the health and finances of not only their own families but also their students. At the same time, they are adjusting to new ways of teaching, balancing work and home life in the same building, and facing uncertainty around what the summer and following school year will bring. Clearly, teachers need support now more than ever. This post explores some of the causes and impact of teacher stress and two strategies district leaders can implement to support their well-being
Teachers need to practice social and emotional skills
Research shows that social-emotional learning (SEL) curricula have the greatest impact when delivered by students’ regular teachers, rather than by counselors in push-in or pull-out settings. But many teachers also need support to develop the social and emotional competencies we need them to model.
In 2017, the American Federation of Teachers conducted an educator quality of work life survey that revealed the majority of teachers experience poor mental health, high levels of stress, and both mental and emotional exhaustion. This, in turn, hinders their ability to effectively support their students’ social-emotional needs. Research has shown that teacher stress can negatively impact student conduct—leading to increased instances of disruptive student behavior and lower levels of prosocial behaviors in the classroom.
Teachers Report High Levels of Stress and Emotional Strain
of teachers report their mental health as “not good” for at least 7 of the last 30 days
of teachers say their work is “always” or “often” stressful
of teachers say they feel mentally and physically exhausted at the end of the day
Common strategies well-intentioned but insufficient
Though SEL for students has gained considerable attention, support systems for teachers lag behind. Despite attempts to destigmatize mental health supports, it is difficult to find many sustained school- or districtwide services to promote teachers’ wellbeing beyond costly and often underutilized employee assistance programs. More often, district and school leaders encourage their teachers to engage in informal “self-care” by sharing some wellness strategies—such as sleep, exercise, and meditation tips—or by hosting cookie bakes and potlucks. However, these efforts tend to be inconsistent and therefore can yield superficial results.
For students to develop the intended SEL competencies, teachers need to be able to model healthy emotional regulation, focus, empathy, and problem solving, and this often requires a more systematic and consistent approach to adult-focused social-emotional support.
Jones et al., Educators Social and Emotional Skills Vital to Learning, 2013
Formalize daily “self-care” planning
District leaders can strive to improve the wellbeing of their teachers and staff by encouraging consistent self-care through the use of robust planning tools. This daily planning is grounded in self-reflection and meant to help teachers recognize their own signs and symptoms of emotional or mental distress.
These planning tools—developed by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments as part of their broader effort to build trauma-sensitive schools—serve two primary goals. First, to minimize the impact of stress by incorporating basic self-care strategies into daily routines and secondly, to encourage self-reflection to help adults recognize when they may need more formalized services, such as counseling. Also, by prompting teachers to reflect on their wellbeing and self-care practices daily, this strategy can help destigmatize related conversations.
Teachers and staff can use these self-care tools anytime and anywhere—making these resources easy to implement even in the current virtual learning environment.
Key Components of Self-Care Planning
- Increase knowledge and awareness of burnout, compassion fatigue, and related conditions
- Assess, monitor levels of burnout, compassion fatigue
- Identify, implement self-care strategies for promoting resilience and maintaining healthy work-life balance
- Stay connected to other people and groups that are supportive
Provide opportunities for teacher-to-teacher connections
The Happy Teacher Revolution is a Baltimore-based organization with a mission to create a network of teachers in support of mental health and wellness. It was founded by a Baltimore Public Schools kindergarten teacher who wanted to bring other educators together so they could reflect upon their experiences and share strategies to support one another. Educators gather for one-hour monthly meetings to discuss a different theme each month—often related to coping with stress and feelings of burnout. These convenings may also include time for mindfulness, meditation, or yoga based on the needs and interests of participants.
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EAB recently spoke with a teacher who has partnered with the Happy Teacher Revolution to learn how these convenings have transitioned to a virtual platform in the midst of COVID-19. She confirmed that a secure online video platform has maintained the integrity of these meetings and has provided a support network for teachers at a time when they need it most.
Happy Teacher Revolution offers an online training course to prepare teachers and staff to facilitate these meetings in their own schools or communities. Many teachers who’ve taken the training use the course for professional development credits as it aligns with major social-emotional learning competencies and trauma-informed frameworks.
Key Features of Happy Teacher Revolution Wellness Program
Monthly, one-hour teacher meetings
Facilitated, themed discussions
Online training provided to meeting facilitators
The organization also incorporates an ongoing support network called “Teachers Connect,” which is a free online professional development community for teachers to seek advice and share resources or strategies to address challenges they may face as educators.
Ultimately, it’s important that districts provide consistent, formalized outlets for teachers to embrace self-care and support their fellow teachers. By developing the social-emotional wellbeing of those working on the frontline each day, district leaders can empower their teachers to better serve their students as best they can.