Teacher Well-Being as a Priority and a Practice

Posted | by Jennifer Coté | Posted in Ideas that Challenge


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:  

  • The top three areas of stress for faculty and staff tend to be: workload, adapting to new instructional practices, and lack of time to relax or be with family and friends, sleep, and family responsibilities.
  • Teachers work an average of 3 hours a day beyond the expected workday.
  • Teaching itself is not as stressful as the exhaustion of trying to meet all the responsibilities of their job.
  • When teachers feel a strong sense of belonging, they are more likely to enjoy their job and find it interesting and meaningful.

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:

  • Safety and support At the most basic level, all humans need to feel safe and to have access to the necessary resources to survive. Robust COVID safety plans and access to resources to effectively teach are important gestures of support.
  • Plans and predictability As a recent NYT article reminds us “human beings are prediction machines.” Uncertainty creates stress. Have a plan and a backup plan, be transparent, and shore up “predictability” as much as possible, while still being flexible. Just as we encourage our students to create a daily schedule, with routines, breaks, and end times, we should do so for our teachers.
  • Communicate and connect School leaders can normalize the challenges while still focusing on a positive future.  Thoughtful and succinct communication, one-on-one check-ins, “office hours”, and explicitly acknowledging individual efforts can help teachers feel seen, heard, and hopeful.
  • Establish boundaries around work Research shows when individuals have more manageable workloads it increases their sense of competence which increases well-being.  Whether it’s adjusting the workday, “Marie Kondo-ing” the curriculum, creating policies around evening emails, or establishing rules with parents about communication, setting explicit boundaries helps teachers step away from work.
  • Listen in to learn forward Mini-surveys, one-on-one conversations, and focus groups help schools determine what’s working and what’s not. Use small groups of self-selected teachers to help pilot strategies to promote positive change. Bring “teacher voice” to the table when making big decisions that affect their day-to-day practice.

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.