Teacher Wellness

8 Ways to Create a Supportive Work Environment for Teachers

Improving teachers’ work-related mental health requires a commitment to transforming their workplace culture.

May 9, 2024
Ridofranz / iStock

How can school leaders create an environment where teachers feel supported? Many teachers are stressed and burned out and experience work-related mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety. These struggles lead many to leave the profession, creating a downward spiral that is critically impacting the quality of public education. The more teachers leave the profession, the more challenging the job is for those who stay behind.

Addressing this problem takes more than well-intentioned gestures, such as annual care packages or single-day well-being fairs. Instead, school leaders need to create and sustain a safe and supportive work environment every day of the school year. This involves changing structures, policies, and practices that impact teachers’ daily lives to address some of the root causes of stress. The goal is to foster and sustain a work environment that is more welcoming and conducive to personal and professional growth.

8 Steps to Create a Safe and Supportive Work Environment

1. Start with educators’ voices. Trying to address educator well-being without educator voice is a losing proposition. The first step for creating a more supportive work environment is to engage staff in discussions. Staff’s input and insights will help you develop a road map. Ask your staff to develop a list of glows and grows pertaining to their current work environment. The glows are the structures, policies, and practices that are working for them now—you want to keep those! The grows are recommendations about changes they would like to see. As you lead this activity, it’s good to emphasize the need for realistic and sustainable changes. 

2. Encourage and enable self-care. Much has been written about the importance of self-care among educators. If you ask teachers, they will tell you they know how to care for themselves; they just don’t know when, given all the responsibilities they juggle. In a safe and supportive work environment, teachers are provided encouragement, time, and space to care for themselves. This includes encouraging teachers to develop a self-care plan and share their plan with a colleague who can become their accountability partner.

3. Share the responsibility of caring for students. A large source of stress among teachers, particularly at the elementary school level, is carrying the enormous burden of their students’ well-being. Your staff may suffer from compassion fatigue—physical and mental exhaustion caused from caring for others who are suffering. This happens when teachers are overwhelmed by the care they provide to students who themselves struggle with mental health challenges. To address this, adopt a coordinated approach to supporting students’ well-being among teams of teachers and counselors to reduce the burden carried by a single educator.

For example, using Multi-Tiered Systems of Support to promote student well-being will help your staff identify struggling students, work with student support teams to identify additional supports, and share the responsibility for caring for students with colleagues.

4. Promote relational care. An important element of a safe and supportive work environment is one in which educators feel supported by their colleagues. Education leaders can support relational care by creating opportunities for educators to feel supported and in turn support their colleagues. These can include building formal or informal mentoring programs, allocating time for regular collaborative planning, and enabling teachers to observe each other as a way to share best practices.

5. Maintain open and consistent two-way communication. In a positive work environment, staff feel trusted, respected, and informed. Nothing says trust and respect more than putting in place mechanisms to communicate with staff and to allow staff to communicate back to school leaders. You can do this through a combination of formal mechanisms, such as weekly newsletters, and informal mechanisms, such as being visible and available to teachers in staff lounges and at departmental meetings.   

6. Create efficient systems and processes. A critical factor impacting educator well-being is time—or rather, time scarcity. Ensuring that the systems and processes that educators are required to be part of are as efficient as possible can save educators precious time. For example, schools form a wide range of teams, committees, and task forces for different purposes. Each effort involves regular meetings, which in turn can suck time and energy.

Use a tool, such as this Working Smarter Matrix, to examine the work that each group is doing and to reduce duplication of efforts, eliminate groups that are not high priority, and maximize staff time. Other examples of efficiencies include using data management systems that allow educators to quickly look at multiple data sources at once, storing useful documents on well-organized and easily accessible online folders, and beginning to explore AI solutions to reduce the staff’s tasks.

7. Promote a culture of appreciation. Your supportive words and actions are invaluable. Launch and sustain mechanisms to demonstrate appreciation and encourage staff to demonstrate appreciation to each other. For example, highlight staff achievements and actions every day by having an online “thank you” book, where you share notes for staff and staff write notes of appreciation for each other. It is important to keep in mind, though, that the goal is to create an ongoing culture of appreciation, not to isolate expressions of appreciation to specific events or times of the year such as end-of-year celebrations.

8. Offer pathways to professional growth. In the business world, it is widely known that professional development can boost job satisfaction and employee engagement. The field of education is no different. Professional learning can help your staff build confidence and increase excitement at work. In addition, offering opportunities for professional growth says to staff that your district is willing to invest in them, creating a stronger sense of belonging. And of course, teachers’ professional growth also benefits students.

Fostering professional growth can vary from offering formal opportunities, such as professional development workshops, to creating professional learning communities that can sustain learning and give staff time to connect with each other. Other examples of professional development include shadowing or externship opportunities to learn from colleagues with different roles. 

These eight critical steps toward a safe and supportive work environment take time, effort, and organizational changes. Though challenging, they are worth it. Furthermore, they are all interrelated—they all involve making a cultural shift toward attention to individual needs, positive relationships, and a sense of community. Successfully achieving these cultural shifts has the potential to promote educator well-being, retain amazing educators in schools and in the profession, and ultimately strengthen public education.

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