Rethinking How to Support Teachers’ Emotional Wellbeing in a Time of COVID-19
From Christy da Rosa, LICSW, TIO Research Assistant
Since the start of COVID-19 safety precautions last year, I feel more than ever I have heard incredible stories of how our teachers creatively adapt to unprecedented working environments, working hard to keep their students physically and emotionally well. At the same time, I also hear stories of burnout, desperation, and fatigue, as they just try to keep their heads above remote learning, in-person learning with COVID-19 safety guidelines, school shootings, and limited funding. The UNESCO states that despite high education goals and recruitment, 80% of current teachers are considering leaving their profession (Falecki & Mann, 2020). With high rates of burnout and work stress, teachers struggle with decreased self-efficacy, powerlessness, and isolation which in turn brings challenges with working with stressed students (Cook et. Al 2017; Falecki & Mann, 2020; Smith & Lawrence, 2019). And I can imagine that more than ever, students are stressed.
In these trying times, I turn to research to try to understand what causes teacher burnout. Burnout among teachers is a chronic state of psychological fatigue and stress that can result in exhaustion, depersonalization, detachment, and hopelessness. There are many factors that contribute to or exacerbate burnout and teacher stress. Some common factors are:
Financial instability (Smith & Lawrence, 2019)
Depersonalization and poor self-efficacy (Zee & Koomen, 2016; Smith & Lawrence, 2019; Brunsting, 2014)
Isolation and loss of control (Falecki & Mann, 2020; Ouellete et. al, 2018; Zinsser, Christensen & Torres, 2016)
With the rise of COVID-19 upheaving how we think and understand school systems, I can see each of these factors being exacerbated by COVID-19. More than ever, we need to rethink how to support teachers’ emotional well-being. While research suggests many avenues to promote teacher well-being, there appears to be consensus to implement interventions in the following areas.
1. Organizational Structure/Administrative Support
Though scholarship uses a variety of synonyms, revamping organizational change is a common suggested intervention. In looking at teacher stress, Ouellete et. al (2018) found organizational health was the strongest predictor to mitigating stress and improving satisfaction. Interventions like evidence-based classroom management appeared insufficient to improve teachers’ overall well-being. Thus, Ouellete et. al (2018) recommend developing a healthy work environment, manageable workloads, support for teachers to develop collegiality among each other, support from administration and peers, and alignment of goals across all levels.
When looking at what interventions can promote teacher well-being, Cook et. al (2017) chide, “The results of this study suggest that school systems will ultimately need to go beyond believing that it is important to support the well-being of teachers to actually delivering supports that target promoting their well-being” (p. 24-25). Thereby Cook et. al (2017) and other scholars (Brunsting, 2014) suggest that if schools are invested in teacher well-being, well-being cannot solely rest on the shoulders of teachers or other equally stressed staff (like paras). Administration must listen to teacher concerns and make real effort to resolve them. Support, psychological resources, and self-care must be integrated in school standards and enforced by administration rather than presented in one day of training leaving teachers to implement the changes on their own. In fact, teachers with high stress are likely to already be seeking out new well-being strategies but often simply lack the capacity or skill to sustain them (Falecki & Mann, 2020). While there are a number of curricula and models that test well to decrease teacher stress, all are meaningless unless administration and the school infrastructure itself is able to integrate such curricula into its own practice.
2. Teacher Relationships/Networking
With teachers voicing isolation and lack of support, teacher networking for both empowerment and professional development is found to be associated with positive teacher well-being. The National Center for Education Evaluation observes that with organizational development comes inclusivity and safety in the workplace. Following that sense of safety offers relationship building, teacher networking, and knowledge sharing among teachers. Research regarding teacher networking was referenced both internally and across districts. In a blog about improving teacher well-being, Richards (2020) cites The Happy Teacher Revolution, a Baltimore-based region-wide network of teachers offering monthly meetings for peer support and to share teaching strategies as an example. For schools just starting to foster teacher connections, Roman (2020) suggests formative assessment tools to carry out check-ins with teachers to maximize collaboration and prioritize empowerment. Regardless, professional learning communities were found to be highly effective in developing mutual support and meaningful relationships, and reinvigorating the passion for teaching among teachers in addition to developing practical activities, collaboration, and school-wide planning or action (Owen, 2016).
With such networking opportunities comes fostering professional development. When discussing practical means to build teaching well-being, Falecki & Mann (2020) reference professional development as a pillar for psychological development.
3. Psychological Care
Psychological care is a broad umbrella for self-care strategies. Teachers are found to benefit from social and emotional skills curricula aiming to improve awareness and support for their mental health (Richards, 2020). But as discussed in above in (1) Organizational Structure, passing on self-care guides like highlighting a wellness strategy for the week, while well-intentioned, can be superficial and meaningless when there is no time and energy to implement them. First, autonomy and self-efficacy must be addressed. Owen (2016) found that with mutual support comes action. Teacher-to-Teacher connections can offer check-ins and exchanging of self-care strategies. Teachers who have more influence in making decisions and have a greater sense of autonomy experience less stress (Smith & Lawrence, 2019). In a synthesis of 165 articles on teacher self-efficacy, Zee & Koomen (2016) found self-efficacy was associated with challenging depersonalization and being better able to flexibly respond to their classroom needs. Overall, self-efficacy led to less conflictual relationships with students, increased job satisfaction, and improved psychological well-being. This finding was found to be a curvilinear association, meaning that just relying on teacher self-efficacy may not be sustainable. Thus, research finds evidence to suggest that teacher growth means well-being but only in the context of sustainable, healthy organizations.
4. Mental Health Resources
Scholarship suggests offering mental health related resources and strategies to improve teacher well-being. Smith & Lawrence (2019) offer the IECMH as an example: a consultation that offers mental health professional assistance to teachers and guidance about education strategies. Tests of schools that used IECMH found lower expulsion rates and decreased depression among teachers. However, they found timely access is needed, with a study showing decreased benefits with decreased access. In addition, a similar project (Chicago School Readiness Project) found that teachers had improved understanding of the resources but decreased self-efficacy and overreliance on consultants. Another resource Smith & Lawrence (2019) explored was dispositional mindfulness, a daily mindful practice which was found to result in less teacher-student conflicts and positive relationships. In a randomized control study of a resilience curriculum, Cook et. al (2017) also found that mindfulness served as a component for relieving stress and improving self-efficacy.
Providing resources is more than passing information along. Lecture-based trainings and presentations also have minimal impact or engagement for learning (Falecki & Mann, 2020). And with availability of resources, there must also be capacity and opportunity. When stressed, teachers do tend to seek out new well-being strategies but may lack the skills to sustain them (Falecki & Mann, 2020). Roman (2020), when tracking teacher mental health via an assessment tool, found that though awareness of mental well-being is helpful, teachers may not choose to engage in recommended activities. Thus, when offering resources, Roman (2020) suggests there be a safe environment to implement resources, foster trustworthiness, and maximize autonomy and collaboration. Sokal, Trudel, & Babb (2020) also observed that the only resource most strongly and significantly associated with accomplishment was support from administrators.
What Is Oregon up to?
I’d like to spotlight a great resource dedicated to teacher wellness: OEA Choice Trust. OEA Choice Trust provides benefit programs for school employees and is dedicated to supporting the well-being of Oregon school employees. They have a plethora of resources related to wellness programs that foster resilience and reduce teacher stress, webinars, blogs, and grant opportunities. Their website offers a guide for building and supporting sustainable employee wellness programs applicable for school districts and community colleges. Their School Employee Health and Well-being Model reflects resilience, personal well-being, and cultural and environmental elements to foster organizational change needed to prioritize teacher well-being.
OEA Choice Trust is accepting funding applications to support the health and well-being of Oregon public school employees in response to the challenges of COVID-19 and racial/political tensions. The next funding request deadline is Thursday, January 20, 2022. If you are interested in this funding opportunity and curious to learn more, please visit the OEA Choice Trust website.
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Cook, C. R., Miller, F. G., Fiat, A., Renshaw, T., Frye, M., Joseph, G., & Decano, P. (2017). Promoting secondary teachers’ well‐being and intentions to implement evidence‐based practices: randomized evaluation of the achiever resilience curriculum. Psychology in the Schools, 54(1), 13–28. https://doi.org/10.1002/pits.21980
Falecki, D. & Mann, E. (2020). Practical Applications for Building Teacher WellBeing in Education. In Mansfield, C. F. (Ed.), Cultivating Teacher Resilience International Approaches, Applications and Impact (175-191). Springer Singapore: Imprint: Springer.
Ouellette, R. R., Frazier, S. L., Shernoff, E. S., Cappella, E., Mehta, T. G., Maríñez-Lora, A., Cua, G., & Atkins, M. S. (2018). Teacher job stress and satisfaction in urban schools: Disentangling individual-, classroom-, and organizational-level influences. Behavior Therapy, 49(4), 494–508. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beth.2017.11.011
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Roman, T. A. (2020). Supporting the mental health of teachers in COVID-10 through trauma-informed educational practices and adaptive formative assessment tools. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 28(2), 473-481.
Smith, S., & Lawrence, S. (2019). Early care and education teacher well-being: Associations with children’s experiences, outcomes, and workplace conditions: A research to policy brief. Child Care & Early Education Research Connections. Retrieved from https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/d8-ngw9-n011
Sokal, L. J., Eblie Trudel, L. G., Babb, J. C. (2020). Supporting teachers in times of change: The Job Demands-Resources Model and teacher burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Contemporary Education, 3(2), 67-74. https://doi.org/10.11114/ijce.v3i2.4931
Zee, M., & Koomen, H. M. (2016). Teacher self-efficacy and its effects on classroom processes, student academic adjustment, and teacher well-being: A synthesis of 40 years of research. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 981–1015. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654315626801
Zinsser, K. M., Christensen, C. G., & Torres, L. (2016). She’s supporting them; who’s supporting her? Preschool center-level social-emotional supports and teacher well-being. Journal of School Psychology, 59, 55–66. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsp.2016.09.001