Schools, Not Teachers, Must Reduce Stress and Burnout—Here’s How
As Justina Schlund and Amanda Fitzgerald write for the American School Counselors Association’s In Service blog, school counsellors “have the tremendous responsibility of assisting young people in healing from the momentous events of the past year as well as ongoing traumas.” They argue that school leaders should place a high priority on the health and well-being of counsellors.
No doubt, however, that the stress of this interrupted school year is affecting all educators, and even in more normal circumstances, teachers are burdened by stressful and taxing conditions such as overcrowded classrooms, long hours of work, crushing workloads that they frequently carry home, and the expectation that they meet the emotional and physical needs of every student.
While many of the broader issues that contribute to widespread teacher burnout are outside the control of school administrators—class size, for example—other issues are under their control. As long as the well-being of teachers is jeopardised by challenges that are inherent to the educational system, distributing ambiguous or impracticable advise that places the onus of fixing the problem on teachers is unfair and will not be effective. The phrase “make space for yourself to restore your balance” or “find time to exercise more” should be replaced with “acknowledge your role in the problem” and “put in place the structures, practises, and time for self-care, reflection, and general well-being among educators, school staff, and school leaders themselves.”
Here are seven suggestions for how to get things started:
Teachers should be polled and listened to: School leaders at Arcadia High School, just outside Los Angeles, are developing “unconventional but extremely successful channels of support for not only our teachers but for all of our staff—certificated and classified,” writes assistant principal Michele Lew. The goal is to help teachers and staff manage stress this year.
Although it is true that the school’s leadership team did not simply “impose what we imagined would help [the team],” they did so with caution. An online poll focused on wellness was used instead, and the results were used to “listen” to what instructors and staff members were saying. As a result, the school established a support line, which school personnel can use to participate in “small check-in therapy sessions.” They devised a series of 30-minute lectures on themes such as mindfulness, positive psychology, and self-care practises that were recognised as being of interest by instructors in the study. To encourage teachers to try yoga, the school engaged a licenced yoga instructor from a nearby community to provide virtual yoga courses for staff members once a week and to lead mindfulness and breathing exercises at the start of staff meetings.
Make It Possible for Teachers to Take a (Real) Break: Teachers at Fall-Hamilton Elementary School in Nashville are experimenting with a system known as “tap-in/tap-out,” which allows them to quickly call on another teacher in the building via text message to come relieve them from the classroom for a few minutes. It provides an opportunity to quickly exit the classroom when things become overwhelming, take a deep breath, and then get back on track with the lesson. It also supports the notion that teachers are not superheroes or martyrs; that it is vital and entirely acceptable to seek for assistance; and that colleagues at the school have each other’s backs.
Stop Looking at the Clock: “Teachers put in an extraordinary number of hours early in the morning, late at night, and on weekends,” write Oregon administrators Rachael and John George for the American Society for Curriculum and Instruction’s In Service publication. As a result, these school administrators recommend that instructors be given some leeway when it comes to recording work hours and time spent in the building (or online).
They argue that if teachers “are getting their work done and are available for kids, we should call it even,” they are justified in their conclusion. When core job duties are met, “grading can take place in a coffee shop, and online inservice training can be completed in your jammies,” according to the author. “Everything is fine,” they assure you. We all know that teachers work many more hours than their contracts need ordinarily, so having that flexibility means the world to them.
Create Shared Agreements: When self-care is not a part of the school culture, it is up to teachers to carve out time and resources to care for themselves as well as their students. Schlund and Fitzgerald, on the other hand, believe that “self-care should become part of the school culture rather than a responsibility for individual staff members to seek out on their own,” as they put it. To begin, they recommend that teachers create shared staff agreements, which would allow them to have a say in setting parameters and norms for things such as how staff “interact with and listen to one another,” how they “set realistic boundaries around work,” and how they establish routines “reflecting on their own wellbeing,” among other things.
Plan for both formal and informal check-ins on a regular basis: If you often stop by teachers’ offices for a quick check-in in the morning—even for a few minutes at the classroom door—you are demonstrating to them that you are concerned enough to make the time to see how they are feeling and managing with the demands of their classroom and workload. Check-ins, on the other hand, do not always necessitate advance planning; an unplanned drop-in might be just as meaningful. According to instructor Kimmie Fink, who blogs for WeAreTeachers, “Swing by, look for something nice, and then leave [the teacher] a sticky note on their desk telling them what you noticed.”
Teachers’ Schedule Planning Time: As instructors’ duties rise, so do their work hours—time that for many teachers crosses over into personal time, robbing them of the time they badly need to rest and unwind.
During his tenure as principal of Whitsitt Elementary School in Nashville, Justin Uppinghouse devised a timetable that offers teachers regular chunks of time for collaboration and preparation while students participate in enrichment activities. Uppinghouse argues that the schedule incorporates professional development into the workday, “which eventually improves our school’s instructional capacity, student learning, as well as its culture and climate.” My team and I have been deliberate about prioritising ‘teacher time’ while maintaining focused on boosting student achievement and developing community ties, to put it simply.
Support and serve as a model Wellness: According to Katy Farber, a professional development coordinator, teacher stress levels can be on par with those of emergency department doctors and nurses, according to research. It is critical for school administrators to offer a positive example of wellness and self-care for their students. As Farber argues, “encourage teachers to take breaks from work and set boundaries—and do so yourself as well.” During the course of your workday, take a little walk outside. Practice not responding to emails after 6 p.m., and inform teachers that you will not be bothering them with emails — or expecting them to respond to emails — on Saturdays and Sundays.
Every morning before the start of the school day, carve out a few minutes from the school’s overall schedule for meditation or silent reflection. Making these few minutes intentional in the timetable, maybe by reducing instructors’ workload elsewhere, relieves teachers of their responsibilities while also sending a message to students that wellbeing is a priority in the school’s culture. Lastly and perhaps most significantly, “consider which members of your team may be experiencing substantial stressors, and make it plain to them that you respect their well-being and would like to assist them in developing a coping strategy,” Farber advises.