Administration & Leadership

Schools, Not Teachers, Must Reduce Stress and Burnout—Here’s How

Educators’ health and well-being should be prioritized in school culture; school leaders can help create the conditions for that. 

February 11, 2021
Bob Daemmrich / Alamy Stock Photo

School counselors are “shouldering the tremendous responsibility of helping young people heal from the momentous events of the past year and ongoing traumas,” write Justina Schlund and Amanda Fitzgerald for ASCD’s In Service blog, and school leaders, they say, should prioritize counselors’ wellbeing.

But there’s no doubt that the stress of this disrupted school year is impacting all educators, and even under more normal circumstances, teachers are besieged by stressful, taxing conditions like overcrowded classrooms, long hours, crushing workloads that they often tote home, and the expectation that they meet the emotional and physical needs of all of their students.

While many of the larger problems that lead to widespread teacher burnout are not within the power of school leaders to change—class size, for example—others are. If the well-being of teachers is compromised by issues inherent to the school system, then dispensing vague or impractical guidance that places the onus to fix it on teachers is unfair, and won’t work. Instead of “make space to restore your balance” or “find time to exercise more,” schools need to acknowledge their role in the problem and put in place the structures, practices, and time for self-care, reflection, and general well-being among educators, school staff, and the leaders themselves.

Here are seven ideas on how to get started:

Survey Teachers—And Listen to Them: In an effort to help teachers and staff manage stress this year, school leaders at Arcadia High School, outside of Los Angeles, are developing “unconventional but extremely successful channels of support for not just our teachers but all of our staff—certificated and classified,” writes assistant principal Michele Lew

But the school’s leadership team didn’t simply “impose what we imagined would serve [the team].” Instead, they checked in with teachers and staff via an online survey focused on wellness—and then they “listened when they told us what they needed.” As a result, the school set up a help line where school staff can dial in for “mini check-in therapy sessions.” They organized a series of 30-minute lessons on topics teachers identified in the survey as being of interest, such as mindfulness, positive psychology, and self-care strategies. Instead of telling teachers to try yoga, the school hired a local certified yoga instructor to offer staff virtual yoga classes each week, and to lead mindfulness and breathing exercises at the beginning of staff meetings.

Give Teachers an (Actual) Break: Teachers at Fall-Hamilton Elementary, in Nashville, practice a system called “tap-in/tap-out” which allows teachers to call on a colleague in the building via a quick text message to come relieve them from the classroom for a few minutes. It’s a way to briefly step out of the classroom environment when things get overwhelming, take a breath, and get back on track. It also reinforces the idea that teachers aren’t superheroes or martyrs; that it’s important and perfectly OK to ask for help; and that colleagues in the school have each other’s backs.

Stop Watching the Clock: Teachers “put in an incredible number of hours early in the morning, late at night, and during the weekend,” write Oregon principals Rachael and John George for ASCD's In Service. So try cutting educators some slack when it comes to tracking work hours and time spent in the building (or online), these school leaders say.

If teachers “are getting their work done and are there for students, we should call it even,” they write. As long as essential job functions are being fulfilled, “grading can happen in a coffee shop and online inservice training can be done at home in pajamas. It is all OK,” they say. “Having that flexibility means the world to teachers, and we all know that they work way more than their contract requires anyway.”

Create Shared Agreements: When self-care isn’t reflected in the school culture, it falls to teachers to carve out time and resources to support themselves. But “self-care should become part of the school culture rather than a responsibility for individual staff members to seek out on their own,” write Schlund and Fitzgerald. They suggest a good place to start is to create shared staff agreements to give teachers a say in setting parameters and norms around things like how staff “interact with and listen to one another,” set “realistic boundaries around work,” or establish routines “reflecting on their own wellbeing.”

Plan for Regular and Informal Check-Ins: Regular quick morning check-ins with teachers—even just a few minutes at the classroom door—signal to teachers that you care enough to carve out time to see how they’re feeling and coping with the demands of their classroom and workload. But check-ins don’t always require pre-planning; sometimes an informal drop-in means a lot too. “Swing by, look for something positive, and then leave [the teacher] a sticky note on their desk telling them what you saw,” writes teacher Kimmie Fink for WeAreTeachers.

Schedule Planning Time for Teachers: As teachers’ responsibilities grow, so do their work hours—time that for many teachers crosses over into personal time, eating away at hours they desperately need to decompress and relax.

At Whitsitt Elementary School, in Nashville, principal Justin Uppinghouse developed a schedule that allows teachers regular chunks of time for collaboration and prep while students receive enrichment activities. The schedule also builds PD into the workday, “which ultimately improves our school’s instructional capacity, student learning, and culture and climate,” Uppinghouse writes. “In essence, my team and I have been intentional about prioritizing ‘teacher time’ while remaining focused on improving student achievement and building community partnerships.”

Model and Support Wellness: Teacher stress levels can be on par with those of emergency room doctors and nurses, writes Katy Farber, a professional development coordinator. It’s important for school leaders to set an example of wellness and self-care. “Encourage teachers to take breaks from work and set boundaries—and do so yourself as well,” Farber writes. Take a quick walk outside during your work day. Practice not answering emails after 6 p.m. and let teachers know you won’t be bugging them with emails—or expecting them to answer emails—on weekends.

Carve out  a few minutes from the schoolwide schedule for meditation or quiet time each morning before the school day begins. Intentionally building these few minutes into the schedule, perhaps by lightening teachers’ workload elsewhere, takes the burden off teachers and signals that wellness is a priority in the school’s culture. And most importantly, “consider who on your staff might be experiencing significant stressors, and make it clear to them that you value their wellness and would like to help them develop a strategy to cope,” Farber suggests.

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