It is still too soon to fully understand the impact of the pandemic on K–12 education and educators. Teaching has always been, and still is, a highly challenging and stressful profession (Easter, 2021). A recent RAND Corporation study found stress to be the central contributing factor for educators leaving the profession, both during the pandemic and in the years immediately prior (Diliberti, M. K., Schwartz, H. L., & Grant, D. 2021).
Research also shows that the pandemic has only exacerbated stressors felt by educators. In a recent survey of K–12 educators working during the pandemic, 41% indicated a substantial increase in work hours; 55% indicated the nature of their work was impacted significantly; and 6 in 10 had to cope with their own children being home while trying to do their jobs (Mission Square Research Institute, February 2021). Forty-one percent of teachers reported being less motivated in their work during the pandemic (Will, 2021). For many teachers, interaction with students is one of the great rewards of teaching, and remote learning environments have made those connections harder to establish and maintain.
How Teacher Well-Being Impacts Learning
Jennings and Greenberg (2009) describe what follows the accumulation of stress and exhaustion as the “burnout cascade.” The burnout cascade is marked by the deterioration of classroom climate as characterized by increased levels of conflict and problematic student behaviors, inappropriate emotional expressions, disruptive communication and interactions with others, and poor problem-solving. Teachers’ responses become more reactive and punitive which, in turn, contributes to even greater disruptive student behavior, and the waterfall continues.
The well-being of teachers is important because they set the tone of the classroom. Socially and emotionally competent teachers are equipped to sustain a classroom marked by “developing supportive and encouraging relationships with their students, designing lessons that build on student strengths and abilities, establishing and implementing behavioral guidelines in ways that promote intrinsic motivation, coaching students through conflict situations, encouraging cooperation among students, and acting as a role model for respectful and appropriate communication and exhibitions of prosocial behavior” (Jennings et al., 2009).
Moreover, we also know that teacher attrition reduces student achievement, impedes the ability of schools to build coherent curricula, and creates additional expenditures for districts who need to screen and hire teacher replacements (Sorenson and Ladd, 2019).
Exposure to Trauma and Secondary Traumatic Stress
Research indicates that one in five children experience adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and this number increases among children ages 12 to 17 (NCSEA Report, 2019). Educators can expect to encounter students with ACEs at some point in their career whether these students are specifically identified or not.
Throughout the pandemic and in the aftermath, educators are faced with not only dealing with their own stress, but also being on the frontlines for the experiences of their students. In an effort to “be there” for their learners, educators are exposed to the traumas their students experience and bring into the learning environment, including poverty, grief, family problems, racism, addiction, and more.
For professions like firefighters, law enforcement, trauma doctors and nurses, child welfare workers, therapists, and case managers, there is a growing recognition of the effects on the provider in working with those in trauma.
The National Child Trauma Stress Network (NCTSN) defines secondary traumatic stress (STS), as “the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another.” STS is also known as “vicarious trauma” or “compassion fatigue.” Educators can experience the same symptoms that students of trauma exhibit: withdrawal, anxiety, depression, and chronic fatigue (Walker, 2019). Educators “may recognize the cumulative stressors that they face, but they don’t always realize that their symptoms are a common reaction to working with traumatized children—and that these symptoms have a name” (Lander, 2018). Emerging research indicates STS can affect teachers’ well-being, health, and professional practice (Lander, 2018).
Organizational & Individual Supports for Social-Emotional Well-Being of Educators
As districts and schools prepare long-term structures for supporting student success, the social and emotional well-being of teachers is as important as that of the students. Within the conversations regarding accelerated learning, we must guard against focusing on academic growth at the expense of the social-emotional well-being of students or educators. Moreover, we must provide ways to heal and restore both organizationally and individually.
At the organizational level, this begins with open communication, creating a culture of awareness, and developing a trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive environment in schools and districts.
Open communication is of paramount importance to addressing and alleviating some of the anxiety and uncertainty teachers feel. Recommendations coming out of the RAND Corporation include involving teachers and other educators in the identification of stressors, which can actually reduce the stress that they feel (Diliberti et al., 2019).
Navigating and recovering from the pandemic can also offer an opportunity to refresh policies around teacher roles. Perhaps, configurations of shared teaching roles, co-teaching, and other arrangements for teaching and learning can offer teachers greater control of their schedule.
Creating a Culture of Awareness
Creating a culture of awareness around mental health and STS conditions offers educators language and a way of naming what they are experiencing. While we have recognized teacher burnout, doing so can imply that the individual educators’ ability to cope is linked to their ability as an educator. The message of “self-care” must be the new narrative.
The National Council of State Education Associations (NCSEA), in partnership with the NEA Center for Great Public Schools (2019), offers several recommendations for promoting self-care based on their comprehensive look at trauma.
- Employee mental health and assistance programs are essential in the support of educators at all levels in the system.
- Wrap-around services for students as well as educators promotes a true learning community.
- Engaging students, families, educators, and the community provides ways of intervening in the cycle of disengagement and the burnout cascade.
- Lastly, other helping professions have found that peer support groups offer a mechanism for emotional collaboration and cooperation. Providing space and professional assistance for educators can provide a form of resilience or wellness coaching (Lander, 2019).
The emerging research around students with ACEs has led greater numbers of districts and schools to develop trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive learning environments. The very foundation of these environments relies on teachers understanding trauma and giving educators the tools to better work with students having experienced trauma and also recognizing and building the capacity for educators to address their own compassion fatigue. Teacher professional development is integral in this process. “These teacher behaviors are associated with optimal social and emotional classroom climate and desired student outcomes” (Jennings et al., 2009).
Individually, educators can look to develop awareness, balance, and connection. The Center on Great Teachers and Leaders identifies six dimensions of trauma-informed self- care: mind, emotions, physical, relationships, work, and spirit (April 2020). Strategies that support awareness, balance, and connection in each of these dimensions builds capacity for resilience.
Educators need the ability to be observant and aware of stress and to notice when their “emotional elevator” is amiss. The utilization of techniques like mindfulness (e.g., body scans, breath awareness exercises) or other contemplative practices (e.g., yoga, movement) can begin to attune one’s attention and focus. This also includes positive self-talk to refrain and refocus negative thoughts and stories.
Intentionally making time to refresh and rejuvenate all dimensions: mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, and social relations in both personal and professional lives. Educators can determine what gives them joy in each area and intentionally schedule time for these things. If they find gaps in any of the dimensions, they can work to find something to fill them.
As social beings we naturally thrive when we feel grounded, connected with others, a sense of purpose and meaning, and can see a “bigger picture.”
Velma L. Cobb, Ed.D., CPCC, ACC is an Associate Professor and Director of the Lander Center for Educational Research in the Touro College Graduate School of Education in New York. The Lander Center is a leader in the development of habits of mind and praxis on the intersection of equity, social justice, and systems change. She teaches in the School Counseling program. She has more than 35 years of professional experience in the education, not-for-profit, and government sectors. Velma is an ICF certified leadership coach; trained CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Educators) Mindfulness facilitator; licensed Bigger Game© trainer; and a Leadership Circle Profile (LCP)©, LCP Culture Survey©, Emotional and Social Competency Inventory© (ESCI) 360 assessments practitioner. She is a Daniel Goleman Emotional Intelligence Meta-Coach and a Qualified Administrator of the Intercultural Development Inventory© (IDI), and the Intercultural Conflict Styles© (ICS) Inventory. Velma has served as a Bill George True North Leadership Program Fellow.
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