Teachers’ stress and anxiety have soared and their morale has plummeted during the pandemic, a flammable combination that could burn them out and lead them to leave their jobs. It’s more important than ever, experts say, for districts to support their teachers by looking after their mental health.
Even before the pandemic, districts were paying more attention to teachers’ mental and emotional wellness, offering sessions on mindfulness, yoga, exercise, and healthy eating. But COVID-19 has created wildfires of mental and emotional suffering across all job sectors, including teaching.
The consulting group McKinsey & Co. surveyed 1,000 employers, and 90 percent reported that the pandemic was affecting the behavioral health of their employees. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that rates of anxiety and depression have quadrupled during COVID-19.
The toll on K-12 teachers appears to be particularly acute. One study found that during the pandemic, teachers were more likely to report feeling stressed and burned out than other state and local government-sector employees. Eighty-four percent of teachers surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center in March said that teaching is more stressful than it was before the pandemic.
RAND Corporation researchers found that between May and October 2020, the proportion of K-12 educators seriously worried about burnout rose from one quarter to 57 percent. In another study, those researchers found that one-quarter of teachers said they were likely to leave the profession when they finish the 2020-21 school year, a rate that—if it were to materialize—would be more than triple the normal rate of attrition.
Teachers’ jobs—stressful even before the pandemic—have become even tougher, with longer work hours, struggles to engage students remotely, repeated pivots from hybrid to remote to in-person instruction, not to mention fears that they—or their loved ones—could get COVID-19.
Those dynamics make it “particularly important right now” to tend to teachers’ mental health, said Jill Cook, the president of the American School Counselor Association. “Districts need to understand that and take action,” she said.
In a joint report last summer, ASCA and the National Association of School Psychologists urged districts to provide “psychological triage” not just for students, but for staff, to address trauma and intense stress caused by the pandemic. A new guidebook from the U.S. Department of Education urged districts to step up emotional support for their staff members, even as they focused intensely on supporting students traumatized by the events of the last year.
So how can districts make their teachers’ mental health a priority? EdWeek sought out the advice of workplace mental health experts, researchers, and school districts that are prioritizing the issue. Here’s what they said.
1) Talk openly about mental health issues, including your own
“Making mental health visible is key,” said Darcy Gruttadaro, the director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation. “We need leaders to talk about it. It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”
District and school leaders should look for every opportunity to talk about how difficult the pandemic, and discussions on racial injustice, have been, and how “we all have mental health struggles,” and need support, she said.
Administrators should take care not to overuse email in conveying their support for psychological wellness; there is no substitute for eye contact on such a sensitive, important topic, Gruttadaro said. District officials and principals should use Zoom and face-to-face meetings—schoolwide, or in smaller groups or one-on-one—to express concern, support, and commitment to providing care, she said.
It’s also important for leaders to show their own vulnerability, experts say. Sharing their own struggles and self-care practices sends a powerful message that mental health struggles are normal and accepted, experts say.
As a leader, you can include your therapy appointments in your public Outlook calendar, or mention that you see a therapist. Create a storytelling event where colleagues share their experiences with mental illness. Take a few days off and set your out-of-office message to say you won’t be answering email so you can fully recharge.
All these things—embedded in a culture of support for a “mentally healthy workplace”—can encourage people to share their difficulties and seek help, said Natasha Krol, head of client services and a principal at Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit that advises organizations on workplace mental health.
Avoid burying your colleagues’ emotional difficulties under a blanket of cheerful pep talk, says Carrie Kamm, the senior director of equity in the Oak Park Elementary School District 97 in Illinois.
“What doesn’t work is toxic positivity,” she said. “You have to respond to the temperature in the room. When you try to push past the energy in the room and just stick with the agenda, that’s a problem for people.”
2) Train your team to spot early signs of mental health struggles
Experts increasingly suggest mental health training for leadership teams. Kristi Wilson, the superintendent of the Buckeye Elementary school district in Arizona, has engaged a consultant to train district leaders, principals, and counselors in seeing that a work performance issue might be a mental health struggle in disguise. “It’s about recognizing when you, or someone else, needs help,” she said.
District and school leaders might also consider training a group of willing employees to serve as mental health ambassadors who build awareness and connect colleagues to resources. It’s an increasingly popular strategy in the business world, and would translate well to K-12, Krol said.
Conducting regular surveys or using pulse checks such as this burnout self-test, as the Tulsa, Okla., district does, can help leaders track their teachers’ wellness.
3) Ask yourself whether you fully recognize your teachers’ needs
In a March survey by the EdWeek Research Center, 7 in 10 district leaders said teachers’ emotional and physical well-being rank high on their priority list, but fewer than one-quarter of teachers said those things were a high priority in their districts. Asked what their schools or districts had done to support teachers’ well-being, only 29 percent of district leaders—and 16 percent of teachers—said their school or district had provided adequate mental health benefits.
Mental health issues often hide in plain sight. Studies show employees are reluctant to share their struggles or ask for help. A 2019 study by Mind Share Partners found that even before the pandemic, 6 in 10 employees had experienced symptoms of mental illness in the past year, but most never told anyone at work about it.
4) Create ongoing systems of support, like virtual groups and call lines
Like most of the district leaders EdWeek interviewed for this story, Chicago’s work to support its staff is part of a larger, ongoing program to build strong social-emotional support for students. As a part of that work, Chicago created virtual support groups for teachers, principals, and assistant principals, facilitated by staff from a community mental health partner and the district’s office of social emotional learning.
Only a few teachers signed up for the “circles of support” group early in the year, but as more schools have reopened in the district, participation has picked up, said Hellen Antonopoulos, the district’s executive director of social emotional learning. Increasingly, teachers are requesting sessions for their own schools, rather than connecting with their colleagues districtwide, Antonopoulos said.
When the district runs its “healing circles” for school administrators, it’s careful to allow principals and assistant principals from the same school to sign up for separate groups, and it also has its outside partner conduct the sessions.
“We wanted it to be an opportunity to exhale, to meet with people who get it, and not to worry about something they share in confidence,” Antonopoulos said.
The Tulsa district created teacher and principal call lines. District social workers and counselors, and staff from the office of student and family support services, help callers connect with support resources, or pay a visit to help, said Stephanie Andrews, the interim executive director of Tulsa’s student-and-family office.
In one recent example, a school leader used the line to report that his teachers, who’d returned to on-campus teaching two weeks earlier, were miserable. Staffers from Andrews’ office visited and saw that the teachers were grieving for all they’d lost during the pandemic.
“The trauma they experienced, but also the time they’d lost with their students, and the progress” were taking a toll, Andrews said. “Here they had worked really hard, and their students aren’t where they thought they’d be academically.”
Andrews’ office called in grief therapists from a community partner group, who agreed to provide free weekly sessions to help teachers process their feelings.
5) Build a culture of check-ins
Many employees dread the time-suck of meetings. But they can be a key lever in building a mentally healthy workplace, experts said. For district and school leaders, those gatherings can be an opportunity to engender a culture in which genuine inquiries about colleagues’ well-being—and supportive responses—are woven into daily practice.
In the Oak Park district, four “culture and climate coaches” have helped district and school leaders build emotional check-ins into nearly every meeting and professional learning day during the pandemic.
“I’ve changed how I hold meetings,” said Kamm, of the Oak Park district. “I started telling people more often, ‘If you’re not able to do this today, that’s OK,’ and asking, ‘Do you need a 15-minute coffee with me today?’ I also increased my one-on-one check-ins with people from monthly to a few times a week.”
6) Recognize that some employee groups may need more support than others
Black and Latinx employees, as well as those in the LGBTQ community, were far more likely to experience symptoms of mental illness, from anxiety and sadness to nightmares or paranoia, according to the Mind Share Partners study. And Black and Latinx employees are also much more likely than their white peers to have lost loved ones to COVID-19, or to have been sick themselves.
Don’t assume all employees need the same supports or services, experts say. Through conversations, surveys, and other methods, inquire.
7) Reduce barriers to getting services within your employee assistance and health insurance programs
Leaders should find out how widely these services are used, and investigate what might be standing in the way, experts say. Teachers might have a tough time getting counseling through their health insurance plans, for instance, because in-network counselors are often booked months in advance or not taking new clients.
Gruttadaro advises district leaders to press their health insurers to beef up those networks. “Leverage your buying power,” she said.
The Hamilton County school district, which serves Chattanooga, Tenn., tried to reduce barriers a different way. It waived the typical 60-day waiting period for full-time employees to use their health benefits, which include mental health care.
“We could see the stressors on our employees, the weight of the pandemic,” said Penny Murray, the district’s chief talent officer.
The district also made free, same-day virtual counseling available to all 6,000 employees, including its 1,000 part-timers, through the community partner that runs its school-based clinics.
EdWeek Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky provided support for this article.