What defines self-care, and what is explicitly teacher self-care? We have all seen enough lists of seemingly simple strategies for self-care to last a lifetime. And, not surprisingly, we found them wanting. It’s not that mindfulness and breathing exercises and physical activity and eating right and getting enough sleep and taking time for oneself are bad ideas. It’s that the reality of people’s lives can make these actions unattainable. And, as many employers have discovered in the years since the pandemic, it’s that an individual approach to self-care is insufficient, and even insulting. Systemic, organizational, and cultural changes are ultimately what is required to enable individuals to engage in self-care.
Teacher Stress is Through the Roof
A simple search of the internet reveals an abundance of blogs and articles that speak to the extreme stress of our nation’s teachers, many of whom are in a state of physical, mental, and spiritual exhaustion. Educators had been sounding alarm bells about the state of their profession long before the start of the pandemic, but evidence is growing that teacher burnout and demoralization have surged in the last year.
Poor compensation and a widespread lack of respect, autonomy, and support have plagued the profession for years. A September 2023 survey by the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) found that 77% of teachers are feeling more frustration and burnout than in the past, in many cases the highest level of burnout ever—and nearly three-quarters (74%) say they are more likely to retire or leave the profession early. Adding insult to injury, over the last decade more and more responsibilities have been added to teachers’ already time-starved days, and the increased focus on accountability and data points have led teachers to feel micromanaged and disrespected.
The Core Issues Affecting Teacher Self-Care
American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten said, “Teaching has never been an easy job, but today it’s harder than ever—and this profession needs support and respect if we have any chance of recruiting and retaining good folks to meet kids’ needs.” Many districts pay little attention to the extra demands being placed on teachers. These demands include conducting assessments and screenings, supporting traumatized students, and covering extra classes because of staffing shortages.
In addition to the lack of time, many teachers feel that there is a lack of trust in their ability to conduct themselves as professionals. For example, school leaders typically require them to hand in detailed lesson plans, to document all interventions, and to attend professional development activities in settings where their participation can be verified.
Teachers also feel that both school leaders and community members have marginalized their safety concerns. They are expected to somehow know how to manage the surge in student aggression in their classrooms.
What Are the Solutions for Teacher Support?
The problems described above are long standing and complex. And as with all complex problems, the solutions are multifaceted and will take time to implement. There is some consensus, however, derived from research and from surveys of educators across the country, about what district leaders should consider to affect meaningful change.
Before discussing these suggestions, it is important to acknowledge that school administrators are themselves stressed beyond belief. They are struggling to meet the academic and mental health needs of students, to support and retain high quality teachers, to appease parents and school boards, and to follow state and federal mandates. Most are sincere in their efforts to address everyone’s needs, while at the same time recognizing that the various stakeholders have different and sometimes opposing priorities. With this in mind, here are some dos and “don’ts” to consider for addressing teacher burnout.
What Will Not Help Support Teachers
- While “wear your jeans to work” days and offering coffee and donuts occasionally are nice employee appreciation efforts, they do nothing to address the underlying issues.
- Avoid offering one-shot seminars or newsletters that offer suggestions about individual self-care activities (breathing exercises, exercise, time for self, etc.). These can inadvertently place a further burden on teachers, conveying that they are responsible for both creating and addressing the stress that is structural in nature.
- Don’t conduct teacher surveys or focus groups about how to reduce teacher stress and then proceed to ignore their suggestions about what would make things better.
- Don’t assume that short bursts of extra time (e.g., ending a meeting early to give teachers more time) is useful. Small, unexpected pieces of free time do not help teachers catch up with work that requires concentration and focus.
- Avoid banners and pep talks about how great teachers are unless these are backed-up with substantive organizational changes.
- Don’t avoid difficult conversations to address the performance problems of individual teachers by making blanket statements/warnings to all teachers, most of whom are not engaging in the problem behavior.
- Be careful not to adopt a stance of “Toxic Positivity”, that is, a stance that accentuates the positive (“we are all in this together”, “we are strong”, “it could be worse”, “look on the bright side”) while invalidating the very real pain that everyone is experiencing. Denying or ignoring unpleasant emotions tends to make them worse, not better.
What Can Help with Teacher Support
- Engage teachers in problem solving teams to identify and implement substantive ways to give teachers more time. Examples include cutting back on testing and data analysis; holding fewer and shorter meetings; putting a hold on new academic initiatives while increasing mental health initiatives conducted by school-based mental health professionals; hiring individuals who can assist with administrative tasks; compensating teachers for extra work; protecting classroom time by minimizing interruptions; reducing teaching hours to allow for more prep time and follow-up time.
- Treat teachers like the professionals that they are. Increase trust by decreasing micromanagement, for example, by eliminating the requirement for all teachers to submit detailed lesson plans or reducing unnecessary accountability documentation. Shadow multiple teachers for a day to experience first-hand the reality of their days. Allow teachers the option to attend meetings and professional development activities virtually. Address staff performance issues on an individual basis rather than issuing global reprimands that don’t apply to most teachers.
- Communicate directly, clearly, and frequently.
- Involve teachers in the creation of targeted professional development activities that are the most meaningful for them.
- Ask teachers about what specific help they need to improve classroom management.
- Engage the Board of Education in developing a plan to increase teacher compensation over time, taking into account that many administrative and clerical tasks that are now required of teachers might ultimately be delegated to less highly compensated individuals.
- Advocate at the local, state, and national levels to re-assess burdensome testing and data collection requirements.
- Create a culture of work-life balance to encourage teacher self-care. Recognize measurable indications of quality teaching rather than behaviors that signal a “more is better” approach (always coming in early and staying late, volunteering for everything, talking about working all weekend to catch up, etc.).
- Counteract toxic positivity by acknowledging that teachers are hurting and need space to grieve the continued losses associated with the pandemic.
- Ask teachers what mental health or other supports they need to cope with their own distress. Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of introducing trauma-informed strategies, including an emphasis on compassion fatigue and secondary trauma, as well as mindfulness strategies that are part of institutionalized wellness routines.
- Assess student mental health needs and create or enhance the district’s mental health Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). Having student mental health resources onsite can help relieve teachers who are ill equipped to address the myriad of mental health symptoms that students are exhibiting.
A Word for Teachers
Teachers themselves are encouraged to look at their own behavior and how they contribute to the culture that maintains a chronic state of burnout. To improve teacher self-care, advocates recommend:
- Reassess boundaries. Remind yourself frequently (in all areas of life) that it is OK to say “no”
- Stop consistently showing up early and staying late, and wearing this as a badge of honor
- Stop taking work wherever you go
- Stop saying “yes” to more work than you think you can handle or that falls outside of contracted hours
- Let go of the 24/7 narrative about a teacher’s life
- Teaching is a profession and a mission, and a job and it’s ok to see it that way
We need to consider both bottom-up and top-down perspectives of self-care. You don’t have to quit yoga. You don’t have to quit eating well. But also consider how groups, organizations, employers, and governments play a role in our access and implementation of self-care strategies and work-life integration. The lesson we should take is that we can no longer neglect self-care on the individual.