Teaching has always been a challenging job. I know because I come from a family of teachers—my dad and my brother have 60 years of classroom experience between them. So I’m familiar with the early mornings, the late nights, the pressure to keep up with an ever-changing field, and the emotional load of carrying the sorrows (and joys!) of 30 new young people every year.
But the pandemic created a new level of challenges for educators across the country, which impacted their emotional and mental health. A recent RAND Corporation study found that, in fall 2020, nearly 60% of teachers reported burnout as a major concern—up from 25% earlier in the pandemic. A number of factors contributed to this rise, including having to learn new technology skills on the fly, concerns about students who were suffering (physically, socially, academically), and juggling their own caretaking responsibilities for their families amidst the pandemic.
Although rising vaccination rates among teachers and students means that the 2021-2022 school year will be more hopeful, the mental wellness of teachers cannot be turned back on like a light. However, there is much that districts and communities can do to prioritize teacher mental health—both now and this fall.
Here are three strategies schools can apply to care for teachers’ mental health:
1. Keep mental health in the conversation. A silver lining of the pandemic has been the normalization of openly talking about mental health and mental health struggles. Make space in professional development sessions, staff meetings, and public forums to talk about the collective trauma of the pandemic on educators and students and how to promote mental well-being.
2. Look for ways to build and sustain teacher relationships. Research has shown that teacher satisfaction is partially tied to peer relationships. To intentionally sustain these relationships, school leadership can use the Relationship Mapping Strategy with teachers to identify and match teachers with peer support networks.
3. Encourage work/life balance. It is important to make space for educators to heal and recover from the burnout they’ve experienced. These cultural shifts start with school and district leaders setting expectations and boundaries (e.g., parents shouldn’t expect to hear from teachers outside of school hours).
A few weeks back, I heard a teacher say, “My tank is running low, but it’s not empty.” Educators are no strangers to challenges, but they need support. Let’s look for ways to fill up their emotional and mental health “tanks,” so they can continue to support our nation’s students.
Click here to learn more about strategies to support students’ and teachers’ social and emotional well-being.
Rachel Pascale is an associate project director at EDC. She designs trainings and other learning opportunities for multidisciplinary school and district teams for the Massachusetts Social and Emotional Learning & Mental Health Academy.