Academic reports, news articles, and firsthand accounts tell a similar story: Educators and school leaders have faced extraordinary challenges during the pandemic. Add the pressure to address student learning, and what may have once been viewed as a luxury has now become central: Leaders must attend to the well-being of the adults in their school community.
Substantial evidence from multiple academic studies indicates that teacher well-being influences students’ well-being as well as their academic performance. Recognizing this relationship, Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD) in California partnered with the Learning Accelerator (TLA) to gain greater understanding of their educators’ experiences and needs to identify potential solutions.
Understanding Adult Well-Being in Schools
As a term, adult well-being is an abstract concept encompassing mental, emotional, and physical health. For education leaders, this ambiguity can make it a difficult topic to address. LUSD and TLA conducted a focus group and a review of existing literature to develop a framework and common language for adult well-being based on four interrelated drivers:
- Affect: The ability to work through negative emotions toward a positive state of being
- Autonomy: Agency over health, time, and personal decision-making
- Engagement: The act of finding work valuable and sustainable
- Relationships: The existence of meaningful connections with others
When attended to and nurtured, these drivers push individuals toward a positive state of well-being. For education leaders, this framing allows them to identify concrete strategies that support their educators. Beyond one-and-done programs or individual self-care initiatives, educators need systemic, community-wide support to feel an authentic sense of well-being in their jobs.
Initiatives about well-being often focus primarily on adults’ emotional and relational states. In a professional context, however, autonomy and engagement serve as essential starting points and, while frequently overlooked, have direct implications for educator efficacy. To foster these drivers, school and district leaders can take three actions.
3 Tangible Ways to Help
1. Facilitate collaborative planning: Repeatedly, teachers across multiple studies reported increased workloads associated with preparing for remote and hybrid learning. Back in person, they face new challenges as they differentiate instruction and work to accelerate student growth. To increase engagement and make work more sustainable, leaders can set aside dedicated time for collaborative planning.
In Texas, Austin Independent School District leaders facilitated remote planning sessions so that teachers could work within grade-level and subject-area teams from across the district, reducing their workload. At New Mexico’s Taos Academy Charter School, leaders created dedicated planning time that encouraged teachers to build connections across the curriculum, design active learning projects, and divide their teaching time to create more opportunities for students while increasing their own capacity.
Collaborative planning has tangible benefits. It allows educators to reclaim time, giving them a greater sense of autonomy; it reduces their workload, making their work more sustainable; and it encourages collaboration, fostering deeper engagement.
2. Support work-life balance: Anecdotal evidence collected by TLA researchers revealed that some educators felt as though they had more autonomy during remote learning. Suddenly, they had control over their daily schedules. Teachers also reported struggles, however, in balancing the demands of home life and work life with technology making them feel always on.
To help educators retain their autonomy and find their work more sustainable, leaders can actively encourage their teachers to disconnect after work hours, whether by turning off app notifications or removing school communication tools from personal devices. They can also clearly communicate norms such as expecting emails to be returned only during the work week—and then respect those boundaries—and manage expectations about communication with students and their families. Perhaps most important, leaders need to model these behaviors themselves.
3. Distribute leadership: During remote learning, some schools and districts supported autonomy and engagement through distributed leadership and decision-making. By including multiple stakeholders in decision-making processes, leaders meaningfully involved teachers in decisions that directly affected them. This created a greater sense of coherence and increased buy-in for various initiatives such as small-group tutoring and new Covid protocols. It also mitigated threats to agency and autonomy because educators felt ownership.
Leaders from multiple schools and districts reported that distributed leadership increased their capacity to respond to challenging situations. At the same time, collective decision-making positively supported educators’ sense of autonomy and increased positive engagement.
Leaders face a unique challenge in that no single solution exists for addressing adult well-being. Although this article suggests three strategies, a first step should always be to ask educators what they actually need. Whether through a formal survey, an informal poll, or individual interviews, leaders should solicit input before designing potential solutions, so that educators will perceive programs as professionally helpful—leading to engagement—rather than as a threat to their agency and time.
Leaders also need to realize that to sustain autonomy and engagement, both must become socialized into the broader culture. While it can be tempting to focus on short-term wins, the ultimate goal should be to socialize a culture of well-being within schools and districts. When this happens, the onus for adult well-being shifts away from principals and district leaders and toward the collective.