In 2013, the State of America’s Schools Report found that teaching is one of the most stressful occupations in the United States, tied only with nursing. This research was published eight years ago, before a global pandemic upended the education system and sent an entire generation of students home to learn virtually. Today, after a year of remote learning, teacher morale has plummeted, stress continues to be the primary contributor to teachers’ departures from the classroom, and there is widespread concern about teachers leaving the profession for good.
At the same time, we are facing a mental health crisis among young Americans, as mental health–related emergency room visits for young children increased significantly last year. Students returning to classrooms this spring are carrying the weight of new stressors, anxieties, and, in some cases, trauma that will require more attention, empathy, and emotional investment from teachers than ever before. This is especially true in communities of color that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, like East Palo Alto, California, where my elementary school, the Primary School, is located.
Focus on Building Relationships
For schools like mine that reopened our doors this spring, these two simultaneous realities are playing out in real time in our classrooms, compounded by a mounting pressure to close learning gaps. To address this complex and multifaceted challenge at my school, we have decided to start with the one thing we know is at the root of student success: relationships. We know that students can only learn when they feel physically and emotionally safe, and that their sense of safety is deeply rooted in their connection with those around them.
We made it a priority to build the support systems that teachers and staff need to create safe and healing spaces for our students. This often starts with helping them make space for their own healing.
With a comprehensive, whole-child approach in mind, it’s clear that relationships have always been at the core of education. But that doesn’t mean it’s been an easy journey. In the beginning of the year, we struggled to find the right balance of support for our students, families, and staff. What we learned—and what we continue to learn, again and again—is to ask for and listen to feedback. For example, we thought that teachers may find more professional development opportunities helpful, but they told us that what they really needed was time to disconnect, to turn off the camera, and to know that we trusted them to get the work done.
Additional Ways to Support Teachers
Offer peer coaching for teachers (without hiring new staff): When we began planning for reentry to in-person learning, one of the first things we did was create a team of wellness coaches to support our teaching staff. But we didn’t hire new people. We redeployed existing team members who had been trained in social and emotional learning and wellness practices to set up weekly meetings with teachers to coach them on addressing social an emotional challenges in their classrooms. This not only gives teachers a thought partner to brainstorm with but also gives them a consistent connection with a peer who can provide encouragement and validation as they navigate new challenges.
Provide regular space for teachers to step back and reflect: Teachers won’t always ask for help or even know that they need it. It can be a big challenge for busy teachers to find time to stop and recognize how they are feeling. Since our wellness team had a regular touch point with each teacher, they could help the teachers carve out time to process their own emotions and challenges. Having this time to step back gave them the space to reflect, address their own struggles, and work together with a trusted teammate to identify what they might need to work through them.
Set clear boundaries and let Teachers fill in the blanks: There were so many things this year that felt out of our control. On top of that, teachers had to navigate new curricula, new expectations, new teaching methods, and new technologies. This made it understandably frustrating for teachers to adjust and adapt. When our administrative team was able to set clear boundaries and expectations, and let staff choose how they accomplished them, we saw a huge jump in willingness, trust, and morale.
Let teachers support students by sharing their own healing activities: One of the most important questions our wellness team asks teachers during coaching sessions is: “What do you do when you feel stressed to help you decompress?” Whether it’s listening to music, drawing, cooking, or doing yoga, there’s likely a way to incorporate it into the classroom. This can give teachers a regular daily outlet for their own stress and help expose their students to new types of restorative activities that can help them heal, too.
While many schools are only at the beginning of the reopening process and have much more learning and growth ahead (especially as we look toward the fall), working to support teachers is a critical investment in our community. By giving our teachers and students the space, time, and support they need to process their own emotions, we know we can recover and heal together.