“Without well teachers, we will not have healthy schools and successful students”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers faced very challenging situations that have led to high levels of burnout and many teachers leaving the profession across the world. Even under the best conditions, teaching is a highly demanding profession. Learning soars when students and teachers develop trusting and caring relationships. One thing we have learned during the pandemic is how important the teacher-student relationship is to learning.
Don’t you, as a reader, find it is at least somewhat surprising that teacher wellness has not become a central policy issue – at least until now? If we are to take the task of supporting teacher’s well-being seriously, there are three key approaches that need to be pursued. They are:
- Supporting teachers social and emotional development on the job;
- Reforming teacher training to better prepare teachers for the job they face;
- Making systemic reforms at the district and school levels to support teacher well-being.
Supporting teachers social and emotional development on the job
The past decade has brought increased attention to supporting teachers’ social and emotional competence. Teachers’ social and emotional competence and well-being influence student behavior and achievement. Recently, the 2018 National Commission shined a spotlight on the importance of adult SEL (social and emotional learning). The CASEL School Guide to systemic SEL places a major focus on adult SEL and recommends focusing on adult SEL before implementing evidence-based SEL Programs for students.
What Have We Learned So Far from Teacher SEL Research? A meta-analysis of teacher mindfulness/SEL programs indicates significant effects on teacher well-being and psychopathology. There are now a number of Adult SEL Programs that have been carefully studied in randomized trials, and two of the most prominent, CARE and CALM are recommended as potential teacher interventions in the CASEL School Guide. These programs have been shown to improve teacher well-being, their enjoyment of teaching, and to lower burnout and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Programs have also shown effects on the quality of classroom instruction and positive effects on physiological indicators of teacher health (cortisol and blood pressure). Further, qualitative studies illustrate how such programs enable teachers to respond more compassionately with students and colleagues .
The fact that evidence-based Adult SEL programs have led to such broad improvements should be of great interest to administrators, school boards, and unions – all of whom are deeply invested in teachers being well and successful. Yet, professional development for teachers focused on their own social and emotional competence is a rare event.
Reforming teacher training to better prepare teachers for the job they face
Teachers give their heart and soul to their jobs, and while relationships with their students are often very rewarding, teaching can be emotionally exhausting. As a result, teachers often experience vicarious trauma from their support of the many needs of their students. As Marc Brackett has noted, “Educators have always known that emotions play a key role in teaching and learning, yet few systematic efforts have been made to train teachers and educators on the skills associated with emotional literacy “.
The Current State of Teacher Training and SEL I hope it is at least somewhat surprising that in teacher pre-service training, a very rare College of Education requires teachers to take a course on SEL, either in regard to students, or for teachers themselves. In fact, in many Colleges of Education, no SEL courses are offered. This creates an enormous gap between the preparation teachers receive and the situations in which they find themselves when faced with their own classroom. It is no wonder that teachers suffer very high rates of stress and burnout. This lack of preparation leads many new teachers to feel unprepared to manage their classrooms, and the secondary impact on their own well-being often leads to teacher turnover. In 2010, the cost of teacher turnover was estimated at 7 billion dollars per year in the U.S., and the cost of each teacher departure is estimated to cost between $10,000 and $25,000.
If we want teachers to succeed and schools to thrive, we must address the preparation of the next generation of teachers. This requires that we develop quality preparation programs that give teachers a deep understanding of the science and practice of evidence-based SEL. Such coursework can help teacher candidates develop inclusive and supportive classroom environments. In addition, we can support their own well-being and teach skills and habits to support the emotional labor of teaching.
To do so, College faculty will need to reflect on their own teaching and integrate practices that support SEL in their coursework. Finally, there is a need to conduct research on the effectiveness of innovative preparation programs with outcomes that include teacher instructional quality as well as teacher well-being, satisfaction, and retention.
Making systemic reforms at the district and school levels to support teacher well-being
As Lee Shulman noted almost two decades ago, “Classroom teaching... is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented.”
However, there is a prevailing and widespread belief that teacher stress and burnout is the individual responsibility of each teacher, e.g., if teachers were only more resilient then the problem would disappear. This thesis places the burden on the teacher and has the risk of “blaming the victim (i.e., the educator)” rather than looking at the systemic organizational issues that are often responsible for teacher burnout and attrition.
It is Mostly About Relationships. Most, but not all of the factors that influence teacher burnout and attrition are related to the quality of relationships that are promoted between teachers, and between teachers and administrators, parents, and students. Administrators set the tone by the quality of relationships they promote, the trust that develops from strong communication skills. By listening with full attention, and approaching decisions with an open and accepting attitude, and creating an “ethic of care”, principals can create caring school climates, and help teachers develop the skills necessary to exhibit these same qualities with their students. To read the research on the role of principals in supporting teacher and school climate go here.
There are four types of programs that have been shown to help teachers reduce stress, improve well-being and student outcomes, and even save schools’ money. You can find more details here.
Mentoring and induction programs for beginning teachers can improve teacher satisfaction and retention, as well as student achievement, if they are well-planned, comprehensive, and long-term.
Workplace wellness programs address teacher’s health and well-being by targeting lifestyle changes to reduce health-risk behaviors and costs. Such programs can reduce health risks, health care costs, and absenteeism among teachers.
SEL programs that promote SEL among students may reduce teacher stress. Teachers trained and supported in implementing SEL programs have lower job-related anxiety and depression, higher-quality interactions with students, greater teacher engagement, and greater perceived job control.
Mindfulness and SEL training for educators: There are numerous careful randomized trials that have shown that nurturing teachers own awareness, communication, relationship skills, and mindfulness can improve teacher’s well-being (see above)
Supporting Principals to Support Teachers: What is most surprising in making systems change is the dearth of research on how principal training can improve teacher well-being. There is very little research to demonstrate how, what and when models of principal training and coaching improves the well-being and retention of teachers.
If we are to improve outcomes for students, we must focus on the lives of teachers. We can reduce burnout and attrition and increase instructional quality by focusing on both student and adult SEL, reforming teacher education, and creating systemic change at the school level to increase support for teachers. If not now, when?