How school leaders can create a culture of mental health and wellness for teachers.
May 4, 2021
As a former teacher and school social worker, I know how rewarding—and stressful—it can be to work in schools, even during ordinary times. COVID-19 has only multiplied the many challenges educators face on the job, making it more important than ever for school leaders to pay close attention to the mental health needs of their school staff while still addressing students’ COVID-19-related trauma and mental health issues.
Since the start of the pandemic, school staff across the country have experienced unprecedented levels of stress: Nearly half of educators who left the profession in the past year cited the pandemic as their reason for leaving. Many school leaders have responded to the pandemic by doubling down on staff wellness, including self-care strategies like mindfulness, yoga, and developing healthy habits. Although well intentioned, when not coupled with efforts to reduce sources of stress, this response can put the burden on educators to solve the problem of teacher burnout themselves. It is up to school leaders to work proactively to put policies and programs in place that make teacher wellness a reality in their schools.
Think of supporting staff wellness as trying to balance a scale: In this case, the balance between the resources that school staff can access to do their job and the demands they face. As a school leader, if your only response to adding an additional job demand is to add an additional wellness resource, your scale might ultimately collapse under the weight—even if it is balanced. Instead, school leaders who want to create a sustainable culture of staff wellness must also find ways to reduce teacher workload and modify existing job demands so that teachers do not become overwhelmed.
Here are five things that school leaders can do to help balance the wellness scales of staff at their schools.
1. Take a holistic approach to staff mental wellness.
Many people in education have embraced a whole child approach that recognizes the need to address students’ social, physical, and emotional needs to promote academic performance. It is important to recognize that staff well-being is also influenced by many factors, including personal satisfaction at work; financial stability; a sense of connection and belonging; access to healthy foods, exercise and affordable healthcare; and a pleasant work space. School leaders can support positive mental wellness among staff more effectively when they invest in coordinated efforts that address multiple domains of wellness. For example, coupling workshops on self-care strategies with a reduction in staff meetings to create time in the day for staff to practice stress management and providing information about mental health benefits that are available to staff.
2. Address racial injustice.
The pandemic has highlighted—and in many cases widened—longstanding economic and health inequities experienced by communities of color. Prior to the pandemic, educators of color left the teaching profession at higher rates than their white peers and were underrepresented in leadership positions, due in large part to experiences of interpersonal and institutional racism in schools. Any effort to enhance staff mental wellness must intentionally address the needs of educators of color. It is important for school leaders to ask staff of color about their needs rather than making assumptions. Some things to look out for include whether staff of color are expected to step in to play a disciplinary role with students of color—even when they are not that student’s teacher—which places an undue burden on staff of color. It is also important to assess whether staff of color are offered leadership opportunities at similar rates to their white peers. School leaders should also work to promote a positive work environment by establishing an anti-racist school culture.
3. Invest in a robust, multi-tiered system of mental health supports.
It goes without saying that teachers care deeply about their students’ well-being. When students have unmet needs—such as food, housing, or mental health challenges—those needs can show up in the classroom through their behavior, which can be a major source of stress and anxiety for educators. And so, in addition to providing staff with adequate mental health benefits and access to care, schools must ensure students receive the supports they need to arrive at school healthy, happy, and ready to learn—which improves staff wellness and mental health, too. A comprehensive approach to mental health should equip staff at all levels with the knowledge and skills to promote positive mental health among students, understand the causes and symptoms of trauma, and identify and refer students for needed supports.
4. Ensure staff have opportunities to cultivate social supports.
Mentorship and other collaboration opportunities can enhance staff skills and create a supportive working environment. Tap-in/Tap-out—a system that allows teachers to text a peer and ask for them to cover their class for a minute or two—is a short-term strategy that allows staff to step away from a stressful moment while also creating a stronger sense of community and mutual support. School leaders can take it a step farther by occasionally taking over the role of another school staff member—not just classroom teachers—temporarily. This can give school leaders insights into the job stressors that staff are facing during the pandemic.
5. Collect data to understand what is working and identify gaps.
School leaders should start any effort to enhance staff mental wellness by collecting data from all staff—not just classroom teachers—on what they need. Such information allows school leaders to eliminate efforts that are not working and prioritize evidence-based mental wellness interventions that align with staff needs. Once a plan has been developed—in collaboration with a multidisciplinary group of staff—school leaders should collect and use data on participation, satisfaction, and outcomes to determine which efforts are achieving the intended outcomes.
Re-Envisioning Staff Wellness in Schools
School staff have endured significant hardship in the past year, and a failure to invest in their mental wellness now may leave our schools with a shortage of qualified staff in a moment of great need.
Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach to staff wellness, the five strategies listed here represent research-based approaches that can be tailored to the needs of school communities across the country. Education leaders have an exciting—and daunting—opportunity to re-envision school in this country, placing wellness promotion at the heart of that new vision.
Brandon Stratford, Ph.D., is a deputy program area director in the education research area at Child Trends. Dr. Stratford brings a strong background in youth mental health, as well as experience with evidence-based interventions to improve outcomes for minoritized youth. He has worked as a licensed independent clinical social worker (LICSW) in community and school settings in the District of Columbia since 2005. As a clinician, he has provided therapy and case management services to English- and Spanish-speaking adolescents and their families in urban areas. Since joining Child Trends, Dr. Stratford has focused on helping schools to address non-academic barriers to learning and to ensure that ALL students and staff thrive.
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The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.