Teachers have always felt like the balance at work was tenuous: It often feels like there is insufficient time, too many changes, and too many students with complex needs for one teacher to handle alone. Yet teachers generally found a way to persist and maintain their physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
This past year, things felt different. Prognosticators who imagined the year would be easier than the previous one were sadly mistaken. School shootings. Security threats at school board meetings. Covid fatigue. Insufficient pay. Insufficient support. As teachers struggle with the combined weight of these issues, it has led to a greater physical, psychological, and emotional imbalance for our nation’s educators than ever before.
There are real costs to the stress that teachers are currently experiencing. In the National Education Association’s November 2021 teacher survey, 55 percent stated that they were more likely to leave the profession early, up from 28 percent in July 2020. Ninety percent of teachers in the same survey stated that they perceived burnout as somewhat or very serious. The RAND 2021 State of the U.S. Teacher Survey found that, compared with the general population, a higher percentage of teachers reported frequent job-related stress and depression symptoms.
To establish and maintain a highly effective teaching staff, we must acknowledge that management practices profoundly affect our educators. As important as instructional leadership is, it will not resolve teachers’ professional imbalance between job demands and available resources. Emotional leadership, or leadership that tends to the social and emotional well-being of adults in schools, is explicitly aimed at balancing job demands and resources so that teachers can experience a state of well-being at work. Emotional leadership might help address the current state of imbalance for teachers.
The Demand-Resources Equation
Consider an equation that places job demands on one side and job resources on the other. When job demands outpace job resources, imbalance emerges, negatively impacting teachers. For instance, increased stress levels can lead to decreased job performance, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment. All of those factors raise the potential for increased burnout and attrition, which flow downhill to impact children.
Job demands this year included teaching children as well as stressors like awareness of school safety or the potential consequences of using a controversial book. Potential resources, in this context, include intangible supporting dynamics like time, job control, social support, or supportive leadership. When resources are lacking, teachers are more prone to stress and begin to experience burnout.
The long-term consequences of imbalance are pervasive and expensive, both economically and personally. Imbalance costs school districts directly for physical and mental health treatment expenses; in the long term, imbalance becomes even more expensive due to increased insurance premium costs, diminished productivity, and turnover.
Creating a Better Balance
Kenneth Leithwood, a leadership professor at the University of Toronto, identifies four school leadership “paths”: the rational, organizational, family, and emotional paths. The first three relate to leaders’ investing time and resources in instruction, operations, and relationships. The emotional path, however, is rarely addressed. Emotional leadership brings increased balance by centering the emotional path, tending to the emotional needs of the community that can result from the stresses of job imbalances.
So, how might an emotionally attuned leader work to balance the demand-resource equation?
Subtracting demands: First, as leaders, we need to learn to subtract. It is easy to believe that we need to add more programs to address some of the deficiencies from the past few years. Our leadership brains tell us overwhelmingly to add, but this mindset increases demands on teachers’ time, focus, and energy. Instead, school leaders need to think longer-term and consider subtracting demands in the following ways:
- Decrease demands on a teacher’s mental energy. As a school campus, focus on achieving one essential school improvement goal, like getting all students back on grade level. Then, see whether that focus has a greater impact than if you were focusing on four to six goals. From an emotional leadership standpoint, this strategy can decrease stress and burnout and increase teachers’ sense of efficacy by minimizing the need to juggle multiple priorities.
- Reduce demands on teacher time. Audit each demand placed on the teachers that does not directly impact the essential goal you identified above, and suspend it for a time to see what happens. Look at all your meetings, reports, and testing dates and ruthlessly ask, “If we didn’t do this anymore, would it hurt our students?” If yes, keep it; if no, pause it. You can always add things back in. You are trying to free up time for teachers to feel like they have more control over their lives. For instance, allow teachers to use their planning times for actual planning as much as possible. Again, from an emotional leadership standpoint, this strategy can decrease stress and burnout and buffer teacher time for more focus on students.
- Explicitly state what is not important. This clarity is key: After you reduce the number of goals for teachers, you must also clarify what teachers do not need to worry about completing. Providing focus means not just reducing the number of demands you make on teachers but also making plain which previously held demands can now float off their radar.
Increasing resources for support: After subtracting demands, consider increasing resources if the equation still isn’t in balance.
Return as many decisions as possible back to teachers, especially when it comes to their students. Job control is the largest factor that helps teachers feel satisfied with their work. From an emotional leadership standpoint, giving more control back to teachers can help develop more trust and job satisfaction.
Research has shown that teachers need supportive leadership to build trust, self-efficacy, and motivation. Leaders must learn to support these common emotional needs most frequently mentioned as important to teacher well-being. These can be supported by leaders who learn how to recognize when they are low and build them through leadership actions such as reinforcing the meaning of being a teacher or helping them manage stressful situations.
Teachers may be in the midst of a great resignation, and there is little mystery why. Teachers have led unbalanced lives for too long, and administrators have neglected to provide tools for balancing job demands and resources. By subtracting demands and supporting teachers with more resources, school leaders can increase the satisfaction and commitment of teachers to their profession.