Many educators, students, and parents across the country would agree that the long-awaited “return to normalcy” after the pandemic has never materialized. Yes, schools have fully resumed in-person learning and most sports and other school-based activities, but the school environment, as with life in general, feels forever changed.
Life in America has changed in many ways since the first days of the pandemic. Generally, we feel less safe, less in control, and that the world is less predictable. Being confronted with the threat of illness and death from COVID-19 was only the beginning: what followed was the intensification of racial, cultural, and political divisiveness; an increase in gun violence and crime of all kinds; economic woes; and a world ravaged by war, extreme weather conditions, intolerance, and cruelty. Human beings by nature resist change, and extreme stress only heightens the tendency to hold on to the familiar. But the world is changing, and try as we might, we can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
Since ESS last visited the topic of teacher stress in December 2021, the news about teacher burnout has come to rival the concerns about soaring student mental health problems and learning loss. As The 74 reported on February 4, 2023, “Teachers are tied with nurses for experiencing more job-related stress than any other profession.” At the same time, there are many barriers to accessing mental health services, given varying levels of health insurance coverage, long waiting lists to see a mental health practitioner and ongoing stigma about asking for help. For example, “Overall in the 2018-19 school year, 4,550 New York City teachers accessed free short-term confidential counseling services through their union, the United Federation of Teachers. Last year, the number exceeded 20,000. Daily calls to the program soared, from about 20 to 100 per day; hundreds of school social workers volunteered after school and on weekends to meet the need.”
“In a 2022 survey conducted by the National Education Association, 55 percent of educators said that they were thinking about leaving the profession, many of them citing pandemic-related difficulties and burnout.” (The New York Times) But educators had been sounding alarm bells about the state of their profession long before the start of the pandemic due to poor compensation and a widespread lack of respect, autonomy, and mental health support for teachers. Being at the center of the pandemic storm only exacerbated these problems. Teachers were hailed as heroes one minute for above-and-beyond efforts to keep students engaged in learning and criticized in the next for voicing COVID-19 safety concerns, for not being tech savvy enough, for being inflexible, for expressing the difficulty of juggling both online and in-person students and curricula. The impact of this has been a surge in teacher mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and higher turnover rates. In March 2023, Chalkbeat reported turnover numbers across eight states for the 2021-22 and current school years and found that turnover was at its highest point in at least five years, typically around 2 percentage points greater than before the pandemic.
What is Contributing to Teacher Burnout?
There are many layers to the troubling problem of teacher burnout, those that existed prior to the pandemic and those that have emerged since. In her October 2021 Cult of Pedagogy article, Jennifer Gonzalez summarized three basic categories of teacher burnout: time, trust, and safety.
“Teachers have never had enough time to do their jobs well,” she noted, and the return to in-person learning in the fall of 2021 only exacerbated this chronic problem. Many districts prioritized the recovery of learning loss, with little attention paid to the extra demands being placed on teachers, including complying with COVID-related safety requirements, conducting more assessments and screenings, supporting traumatized students, and covering extra classes because of staffing shortages.
In addition to the lack of time, many teachers express concern that there is a lack of trust in their ability to conduct themselves as professionals. And finally, when one does not feel physically safe it is difficult to concentrate on much else. “Prior to 2020, teachers already had enough to worry about when it came to safety. In the U.S., for example, gun violence in schools is a very real concern and has been for a long time.” COVID-related fears only exacerbated teachers’ perceived lack of safety, and their distress was heightened when either administrators or the public at large appeared to ignore or invalidate these fears.
Teacher Burnout and Vicarious Trauma
Since posting her original article on teacher burnout Ms. Gonzalez has responded to reader feedback by acknowledging that she missed some things. “Specifically, one issue that is creating an incredible amount of stress, fear, and heartbreak for so many teachers: the pushback from parents, community members, and the media on Critical Race Theory, SEL, culturally responsive teaching, and other teaching and curricular approaches that fall under this umbrella.” Considering the current culture wars about whether and how to talk with children about gender and sexual identity and about the country’s racial history it is not surprising that many teachers feel that their jobs have become impossible. Numerous sources have noted that teachers of color are at even greater risk of occupational stress, as they may feel isolated amongst mostly white colleagues and may feel pressure to lead school district initiatives about racism and inequities in addition to their other responsibilities.
Another important factor that contributes to teacher burnout and stress is known as vicarious trauma, often seen in helping professionals including healthcare workers, teachers, and emergency personnel. Vicarious trauma, sometimes called “the cost of caring”, is a change in the mental, emotional, and/or physical wellbeing of those who witness the fear, pain, and terror of those who have directly experienced a traumatic event or situation. In other words, it is the vicarious traumatization created by working with others who have been traumatized. Depending on the communities in which they work, teachers either routinely or occasionally deal with students coping with extreme poverty, homelessness, community violence, food insecurity, and/or significant trauma histories (including neglect and physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse). Common signs of vicarious trauma are bystander guilt, shame, feelings of self-doubt, being preoccupied with thoughts of students outside of the school day, over-identification with students (including having horror or rescue fantasies), becoming either over-involved emotionally with students or distancing from them, persistent feelings of sadness and/or rage about a student’s situation, and persistent feeling of hopelessness and pessimism.
Still other stressors relate to the ongoing fallout from the pandemic. Teachers are working feverishly to help students catch up with pandemic learning loss. They are providing support to students who are even more dysregulated and symptomatic than prior to the pandemic. They are covering classes and doing other tasks to fill in for staffing shortages. And their own efforts to seek help are often thwarted because of the severe shortage of mental health workers created by both increased demand and the loss of practitioners who themselves are burnt out by the increased need for mental health services. To make matters worse, teachers and administrators may see very little light at the end of the tunnel: the trend of fewer people entering teacher training programs has continued, and COVID-related relief funding for schools is coming to an end.
The High Price of Teacher Burnout
According to a Rand Corporation survey, more than a quarter of teachers and principals reported experiencing symptoms of depression as of January 2022 with nearly 75% of teachers and 85% of principals saying that they were experiencing frequent job-related stress, compared with only a third of working adults.
In turn, teacher depression has been shown to impact learning. A depressed educator may have less energy to plan; may rely more on independent learning strategies instead of whole-class instruction; is more likely to overreact to problem behaviors and respond in a punitive rather than a trauma-informed way; is less likely to respond to students with warmth; and generally will have less bandwidth to enter each student’s world to figure out what that child needs to feel safe and to learn.
According to Kenneth Polishchuk, senior director for congressional and federal resources and the education policy lead at the American Psychological Association, “When teachers’ morale is high, their confidence is high, and enthusiasm about teaching is high as well, students are more interested and engaged in the classroom. Strong mental health among educators is also a positive for the school environment as a whole…Teachers and administrators with better social-emotional skills have better class climates and improve the overall social, emotional, and academic development of students.”
Similarly, many of the same factors that are weighing on teachers have implications for America’s global competitiveness. Speaking at the end of the International Summit on the Teaching Profession (a meeting of education ministers and teachers’ union leaders from 22 countries), Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona noted that “American students’ global competitiveness is at risk as divisive efforts take hold across the United States to ban books, restrict curriculum, and penalize teachers for talking about race, gender identity, and sexuality.” The United States is not alone in its struggles to recruit and retain educators — it is an international problem that is tied to a variety of factors, not just pay scales. In addition to efforts to raise teacher pay, Secretary Cardona said that “he plans to focus on increasing teacher voice in policy conversations; improving teacher working conditions by helping schools find more times for breaks and professional development; and hiring support staff like mental health counselors, school nurses, and paraprofessionals.”
Finding a Path Forward: Supporting Teacher Mental Health
Educators have long argued – correctly – that schools provide students with much more than the “3-R’s”. Schools are places where children get fed, receive healthcare, learn social and self-regulation skills, find support from both peers and caring adults, and engage in a variety of recreational, character-building activities. These are all crucial aspects of healthy child development, but schools are typically not funded or staffed to sustain the full range of these activities.
One hopeful sign is a new bill with bipartisan support that calls for improved mental health services for teachers, principals, and other school staff members who continue to struggle with depression, burnout, and stress. Supporting the Mental Health of Educators and Staff Act was introduced in the House of Representatives in early February by Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Penn., and Susan Wild, D-Penn. This federal bill follows the path set by a handful of states that have passed bills to address the mental health of educators, and among other things would mandate that the Department of Education identify evidence-based practices to help educators and would establish federally funded programs to promote mental health support for teachers and the education workforce.
While remaining hopeful that this legislation will successfully navigate congress, districts can consider other strategies, being mindful that effective changes must be system-wide, not focused on how individual teachers can improve self-care:
- In her new book, “Whole Child, Whole Life: 10 Ways to Help Kids Live, Learn, and Thrive,” Stephanie Malia Krauss discusses the need for Mental Health First Aid “cross-training” for educators. Teachers are increasingly expected to be part social worker, part mental health worker, part advocate, and part life skills coach for their students. She argues that besides learning instructional methods, teachers also need initial training and ongoing professional development on how to provide mental health first aid for students across many facets of their lives.
- Districts should consider including professional development activities that focus on the signs of and remedies for vicarious trauma to assist staff in becoming more self-aware and to feel more supported.
- Support groups for early career teachers and teachers of color can be encouraged as these groups are the most vulnerable to teacher stress and burnout.
- Districts should develop regular mental health awareness campaigns that focus on both staff and students, to provide information about mental health symptoms and resources and to reduce stigma.
- A review of staff health plan benefits should be conducted regularly to ensure that barriers to seeking mental health care are minimized (for example, high co-pays and overly restrictive networks). Districts can consider establishing an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that provides 3-5 free, confidential counseling sessions for all employees. Using EAP services may be more palatable for some individuals who are resistant to seeking mental health treatment and provide a path to getting help.
- Engage teachers in problem solving teams to identify and implement substantive ways to give teachers more time, e.g., cutting back on testing and data analysis, holding fewer and shorter meetings, etc.
- Data suggests that extended school closures and disagreements about curriculum priorities have soured many Americans on public schools (nationwide enrollment has fallen by 1.3 million students or 3% according to federal data). At the same time, most Americans are privy to the lack of support for teachers and value their own children’s teachers. Engage PTOs in processes to foster understanding and collaboration amongst the various constituencies and to help dial down unhelpful rhetoric.
- District administrators and teacher training programs can consider non-traditional paths to teacher certification within their states. The return on investment to get an education degree is low and discourages some individuals from pursuing a teaching career. It is expensive to get a degree and there are many onerous and expensive steps to achieve certification. Apprenticeships and other on-the-job paid training opportunities might be considered along with alternate paths to certification.
- Administrators can review the comprehensive October 2021 guidelines published by Brown University “Structural Supports to Promote Teacher Well-Being” to identify a variety of strategies that can be implemented.
The Rocky Road to Prioritizing Mental Health for Teachers
It seems clear that the stress on our public school system is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. As reported in the NY Times, “all the education battles that had erupted since the start of the pandemic — over school closures, over how the country’s racial history should be taught, over what sort of role parents ought to have in the classroom — were really about the same thing: whether America’s children should continue to be educated in government-run public schools. Did the pandemic and the culture wars reveal the indispensability of these schools to their communities and to the broader fabric of the nation, or did they only underscore their inherent limitations — in effect, making the case for school choice?”
Debates about school funding will, of course, only complicate the efforts of school administrators who are trying to maximize the wellbeing of both students and educational staff. But, as with every other thorny problem in life, we must tackle what we have control over, one day at a time.