This World Teachers’ Day, Educators Deserve More Than Gratitude
October 5, 2021
When teachers returned to school this fall, they entered a school year like no other. Creating lesson plans, seating charts, even First Day of School outfits, all carried much more weight, consideration, and questions as students, families, and schools continue to feel the impact of COVID-19. Communities around the country, but particularly in hard hit areas like New York City, are continuing to grapple with the lasting effects of the pandemic as students walked into classrooms again this fall - some, for the first time in more than a year. The implications for those who teach our most vulnerable students living in low-income areas have never been greater, as they now must also address some of the steepest drops in learning (especially in comparison to students' peers in high-income rural and suburban schools).
Teachers are their first line of defense once students leave home, positioned to offer protection and support to a generation of children who will quickly become our next generation of leaders. World Teachers’ Day on October 5 has become a day to celebrate teachers for all they do. However, and especially in light of the last 19 months, our educators need more than gratitude. To help uplift our most vulnerable students this year, we have to deeply support the wellbeing of those who stand in front of their classrooms each and every day.
Across the country, mental health-related visits to the emergency departments for children increased 24% and for teens increased 31% during March and April last year and teachers reported that students’ social and emotional issues were one of their top concerns as they prepared to enter classrooms. But students are not the only ones returning to school against the backdrop of the ongoing trauma caused by the pandemic, an economic crisis, and our country’s racial reckoning. During an incredibly turbulent year, teachers also had to grapple with incredible loss and uncertainty while simultaneously balancing the needs of their own families. A majority of teachers reported being concerned about social-emotional health and physical health for themselves and their families during this school year.
Without mental health and wellness support, an already stressful job can become unsustainable, leading to burnout, poor performance, and high turnover rates - all of which negatively impact student success. When educator wellness is prioritized and educators receive consistent training in adult Social Emotional Learning (SEL), teachers are better equipped to sustain their own resilience and leadership. And, research from the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine and others shows that when there is an emotionally skilled adult present, students find it easier to focus and perform better academically.
In addition to school districts incorporating SEL and mental health resources into their curriculum and professional development, the universities, programs, and nonprofits that prepare teachers to enter the classroom must also do our part. At Teach For America (TFA), all corps members receive 24/7 access to confidential counseling services at no cost through our partnership with BetterHelp. Corps members can choose to engage with a mental health counselor 1-on-1, up to 4 times a month or they can opt into group sessions. We also partner with Crisis Text Line, a service that provides free, 24/7 support via text with trained Crisis Counselors. All TFA corps members also receive training in 8 different dimensions of wellness and adult SEL, with clear connections drawn between racism and wellness issues.
In New York, we specifically shifted our focus to provide new teachers with trauma-informed training, partnering with Ramapo for Children last year to offer TFA staff, corps members, and alumni school leaders trauma and resilience-informed training to better support students and take care of themselves. We continue to incorporate lessons into first year TFA teachers’ summer training.
While these sessions are imperative, it's important to realize that teachers cannot do this work alone. More k–12 public education jobs were lost this past April than in all of the Great Recession, with significant loss among counselors, nurses, and support staff. This comes at an especially critical moment considering the catastrophic effects the pandemic has had on New York City’s students. Over half of the children in New York who lost a parent or caregiver to coronavirus in the first five months live in the Bronx, Brooklyn, or Queens and more than 300,000 children were pushed into or near poverty by the pandemic-related economic downturn. We must advocate for and invest in staffing to support a diverse student body and their growing needs.
The Department of Education’s announcement to expand access to school-based mental health supports for school communities is a big step in the right direction. The city plans to add over 600 newly hired mental health professionals, including 500 new school-based social workers. 60 borough-based social workers, 90 school psychologists and 30 family support workers will also be hired to provide direct care for students in the 270 most high need schools. With many New York City schools currently having only 1:215 guidance counselor or social worker per student, the news could not come at a more necessary moment.
As parents, siblings, and caregivers balanced the demands of their own lives with supporting kids through virtual learning this past year, we’ve all learned firsthand the hard work behind great teaching. However, teachers can only be as great as their circumstances allow them to be. Teachers need our continued support and action in providing policies and professional opportunities that strengthen pathways to better wellbeing. By fortifying educators’ social and emotional capabilities, school leaders, local officials, certification programs, and districts can band together to reduce burnout and turnover and empower teachers and their students to thrive.
Tia Morris is the Executive Director of Teach For America New York. She has dedicated more than 20 years to improving education opportunities for young people, formerly serving as a classroom teacher, founding member of a charter network, Chief Family and Community Engagement Officer for the Newark Public School system and Camden City School District, and Executive Director for Teach For America New Jersey.