Teachers are more stressed and burned out at work than other working adults. How can school and district leaders support them?
After all, it’s a problem that has significant consequences for the health of both the workforce and the student population. Research shows that when teachers are stressed, the quality of their instruction, classroom management, and relationships with students all suffer. Students tend to be more stressed when their teachers are, too, and teachers who are stressed and burned out are more likely to want to leave the profession.
Alison Smith, a former teacher who’s now a resilience coach and the founder of the Thrive Designer, and Erika Collins-Frazier, a staff health and wellness specialist at the Phoenix Union high school district in Arizona, spoke about this challenge—and possible solutions—during an EdWeek online forum earlier this month.
Here are three recommendations for administrators that came out of the discussion. You can go deeper by watching the full video embedded below.
1. Take things off teachers’ plates
“The primary barrier to teacher well-being is the amount of things that need to be done for students, … because student needs are so high,” Smith said.
A few years ago, she said, she would remind teachers to lower their expectations and not feel obligated to have a Pinterest-worthy classroom. But now, social media is no longer the main reason why teachers are stressed, she said—there are simply too many things that need to be done.
“Now we’re talking about what, of all the good things to do for students, do we need to de-prioritize for the moment,” Smith said. “That may be different teacher by teacher, depending on their students’ needs, and so being able to actually have those kinds of conversations is a really authentic and powerful way to communicate to a teacher that you care about their well-being, and actually help their stress levels.”
2. Give meaningful acknowledgment and praise
An EdWeek Research Center survey found that more than half of teachers say that more acknowledgment of their good or hard work from administrators would support their mental well-being.
Smith said principals and other school leaders have to learn how to give feedback and praise that gets at the heart of the work teachers are doing.
“‘I see you really working hard to meet the needs of your students; I see you trying to find new resources that are going to engage them,’ is a way different compliment than, ‘Hey, pizza’s in the breakroom, you guys are doing a great job’—especially if at the end of that email, you’re like, ‘By the way, have your grades in by 5 [p.m.],” she said.
But school leaders are also overwhelmed, Collins-Frazier said. When they’re also not getting praise or recognition, they might forget to give it to their staff, she said.
It’s important that administrators model taking care of their own mental health and practicing self-care, the panelists said.
3. Validate teachers’ experiences and feelings
Collins-Frazier said she’s seen an uptick in teachers experiencing compassion fatigue and secondary trauma, as a result of the influx in student needs.
Districts must create space for teachers to talk about how they’re feeling, she said: “It helps to be seen and heard.”
Individual therapy is also important, Collins-Frazier said. She’s one of two staff therapists in the Phoenix Union district, and they work to tailor resources to teachers’ exact needs.
“Just throwing blanket things out there is kind of disrespectful to that person, and that’s when they start feeling like, ‘Oh, this is just lip service, and it doesn’t really mean anything,’” she said. “It begins to take on meaning when they have the input, and we’re turning their words into tangible, actual assets.”
After all, Smith and Collins-Frazier said, to maintain an ongoing level of care for students, teachers need support.
“We have open hearts and bleeding hearts for students, and so compassion fatigue is going to happen—that means your heart’s in the right place,” Smith said. “There are some really heartbreaking things that come across our classroom doors. To be able to stay openhearted to that, that just means we have to take care of that heart every once in a while.”