There have been several reports this year, like this one, that point to the enormous challenges teachers are facing both at school and at home, the loss and grief they are feeling, and the negative impact on their physical and emotional health. Educators are also experiencing a form of identity loss. How they have known themselves — as masters of their craft, as empowerers of kids, as mentors to new teachers, as curricular creatives — has been largely undermined. There’s no shortage of suggestions for what or how to teach during these challenging times, but when one is depleted and disconnected, struggling to adapt to a constantly changing environment, no new protocol or digital platform is going to improve teaching. We have to start with teacher well-being.
Historically, teacher well-being has been something teachers are expected to fix on their own. This viewpoint is often enhanced by the “superhero” model of teaching that many teachers themselves adapt. In my own experience as a teacher, my deep care for students often clouded my own practice of well-being, as I would do “whatever it takes” to support them and their learning. Self-care is a critical part of well-being, something each individual has a responsibility to tend to. We have to put our oxygen masks on first. Yet, without a broader scale of checks and support at the workplace, teachers can easily fall into a pattern of stress and burnout as they strive to meet the needs of their students, as well as the many external demands of their job.
As we know from our work with students, the best way to begin the process of promoting well-being and engagement for educators is to listen in. During the pandemic, we expanded our data gathering tools to include a faculty and staff survey. Much like our student survey, this survey looks at School Climate, Engagement and Belonging, Stress, and Workload. Some initial themes have emerged from the data we collected this spring:
Many schools follow up the survey with a Faculty and Staff Well-being Workshop, during which they dig into the root causes of stress in their own community, and together, begin the process of identifying strategies that can ease that stress and promote a more balanced work environment.
There is not a one-size-fits-all recipe for this work, but over the course of the past year, we’ve seen some promising practices from our Challenge Success partner schools:
The pandemic has highlighted many aspects of education that need immediate tending and revisioning. Educator well-being is at the top of that list. We can take this moment to model for our young people what it looks like to put the health of educators, students, and families before everything else. To prioritize support and flexibility, self-care and resiliency. Schools can take a holistic approach to decide together what the “enduring understandings” should be for their community. As we navigate the challenges of these times, let’s also embrace the opportunity to reimagine schools as places of well-being and engagement for all.
Jennifer Coté, M.A. has over 20 years of experience in schools – teaching, coaching, developing curriculum, and empowering both students and teachers alike. She is currently a School Program Director at Challenge Success where she facilitates school change through coaching school teams, leading professional development and parent education workshops, and bringing student voice into the change process.