After an exhausting fall and perhaps the most needed winter break in living memory, educators everywhere are looking for a new chapter in 2021. To begin the road to recovery from the impacts of the pandemic, district and school administrators must focus on supporting teacher wellbeing and building a more sustainable working environment during the second half of the year.
EAB researchers have found that efforts to support teacher wellbeing typically fall into two categories: Fun or relaxing events organized by teachers within the school – think wine and painting nights – or expensive employee assistance programs (EAPs). Unfortunately, individually organized events rarely have lasting impact on teacher wellbeing, while EAPs are both expensive to run and frequently underutilized due to societal stigma around admitting to mental health concerns. Measurably reducing symptoms of burnout among educators will require solutions that find the middle ground: consistent, structured support programs that are widely utilized and affordable to operate at scale. Perhaps more importantly, these must be paired with improvements in management practices and working conditions to address the underlying causes of widespread burnout that were present long before the pandemic.
Broader conversations about sustainable teaching practices will grow in the coming weeks, but below we have outlined steps that are currently within a superintendent’s locus of control and can be enacted to better support teachers and staff right away.
Start with a structured plan for self-care
The first theme to emerge in our research involved a four-step process:
- Educate teachers on the signs of burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondary traumatic stress
- Equip them with a comprehensive list of the activities that can help to prevent burnout
- Ask them to make a monthly plan for prioritizing their own wellbeing
- Pair colleagues as Wellness Partners to hold each other accountable to their monthly plan
Administrators can facilitate this process through providing an initial, 1-hr professional development session to initiate the steps above, then reserve 15-minute slots in monthly staff meetings for staff to check in with their Wellness Partner. You can find the materials needed for this work in Section Two of EAB’s Supporting the Wellbeing of Teachers and Staff Amid COVID-19.
Create facilitated discussion groups to enable collective processing
Structured, facilitated group reflection has been proven to reduce symptoms of burnout among professionals in high-stress occupations, including health-care workers. Peer support networks are also a common element of mental health programming among leading organizations across the country. Happy Teacher Revolution, a Baltimore-based organization focused on reducing educator burnout, trains district staff to facilitate peer discussions around 12 Choices to Step Back from Burnout. If you would like to start this work without engaging another organization, you can find a guide to building facilitated discussion groups in Section 3 of Supporting the Wellbeing of Teachers and Staff Amid COVID-19.
When launching a district- or school-wide program of peer discussion groups, be sure to incorporate two key elements:
Build a culture of trust-building management practices
The two sections above provide a systematic approach for building an ongoing culture of evidence-based self-care among teachers and staff, but burnout is not just an individual problem – it is an organizational issue.
The Mayo Clinic lists six potential causes of burnout: Lack of control; work-life imbalance; unclear job expectations; dysfunctional workplace dynamics; extremes of activity; isolation or a lack of social support. We have seen each of these factors at play among teachers this year and each can be directly influenced by team and organizational management. It is therefore crucial to establish a collection of deliberate practices that every administrator should integrate into their daily interactions to improve morale and employee wellbeing across the school or district.
Paul Zak of Claremont University has conducted extensive research to understand which management behaviors lead to measurable increases in levels of trust and cooperative behavior. His research also found that organizations in which leaders consistently exhibit the eight behaviors he identified also exhibit dramatically higher levels of energy, engagement, and retention among employees. The behaviors identified by Zak each increase levels of oxytocin (the “trust hormone"), serotonin, and dopamine in the blood and have been shown to help counteract the effects of stress-related cortisol.
- Recognize Excellence. Zak’s research showed that recognition must be tangible, unexpected, personal, and public to be effective.
- Induce “Challenge Stress." You might think that nobody needs additional stress this year, but the point here is to help employees to focus on objectives that require effort but are also achievable. The experience of repeatedly experiencing success is key.
- Give people discretion in how they do their work. Showing employees that you trust them is perhaps the most effective way to gather their trust in return. However, many teachers also have reported feeling overwhelmed when given too much latitude this year. We’ve found that the key lies in understanding where to simply provide an objective and when to provide a limited set of options.
- Enable job crafting. This boils down to providing clear opportunities for employees to participate in larger projects and strategic objectives.
- Share information broadly. Be sure to always clarify why a decision is being made, how you have factored in employee concerns, and what you are asking recipients to do.
- Intentionally build relationships. Best practice is for administrators to set regular, individual check-ins with each teacher and be sure to show concern for both their personal wellbeing and professional concerns. Principals often have too many direct reports to make this feasible, so consider leveraging grade-level chairs, department chairs, and teacher leaders to ensure that every teacher receives direct administrative support.
- Facilitate whole-person growth. Providing opportunities for teachers and staff to connect and learn about non-work-related issues can help to maintain a sense of humanity through challenging times.
- Show vulnerability. Clarify what you don’t know and ask teachers for help in achieving specific objectives. There is perhaps no better way to demonstrate reciprocal trust and build engagement across a district.
Zak’s management behaviors are proven to have a positive impact on employee morale and wellbeing at any time, but numbers 1, 3, 5, and 6 align directly with requests we have seen on district surveys from teachers this year. As a result, we have now seen a number of districts use Zak’s list as a checkpoint during leadership meetings through this crisis to ensure they are building a positive environment during this difficult period.
The items detailed in this article won’t solve every cause of burnout. There are no silver bullets this year. But each recommendation is proven to have a measurable impact on wellbeing and morale. When woven together, these practices will help to create the conditions for a successful and more sustainable spring semester as district and school leaders build a path to recovery from the impacts of the pandemic.
Essential Practices for District Leadership Through the COVID Winter
Get strategies for ensuring district safety and student well-being this winter from our on-demand webinar