From the first day they stepped into their classrooms, educators have made personal sacrifices to help their students succeed. Whether they were purchasing school supplies with their own money or spending time outside of work writing up lesson plans, they did it with few complaints because for them, teaching was their calling.
But there comes a time when a calling isn’t worth the threat to one’s health and happiness. And for some educators, that time has long since passed. While we don't yet have hard numbers on how many teachers left the profession during the 2022 school year, some districts have been hit hard by mid-year departures.
We know far too many teachers have fled the field—brokenhearted at leaving the kids they loved behind, but relieved to no longer deal with mask wars, pandemic fallout, and low pay.
As frustrated as many teachers are, they’re also hopeful—especially when school leaders address the stressors they experience day after day. During the Institute for Education Innovation 2022 Winter Summit, which focused on cultivating and maintaining a positive school culture, educators and superintendents from across the country discussed the programs that worked in their district and which ones were a waste of time.
Here are four takeaways that can help a district map out its wellness efforts moving forward.
Develop a Staff Well-Being Policy
Since the start of the pandemic, discussions have centered on protecting students’ social-emotional wellbeing. However, we can’t only focus on our children when we have broken adults, many of whom are dealing with unimaginable grief. Educators have to take care of themselves first, then their families, and then their students.
According to Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Jr., Superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) in Virginia,
“The best thing administrators can do to promote work-life balance is affording staff opportunities to take time off when needed and incorporating nontraditional time away from school, such as unplanned no-school days or virtual teacher workdays.”
In addition, districts should strive to offer additional resources to teachers while meeting the unique needs of their school communities—an approach that was successfully carried out by school leaders in Indiana.
“Through a large collaborative grant project, we facilitated a partnership with a regionally recognized mental health agency and 31 of our districts,” explained Katie Lash, Executive Director of the East Central Educational Service Center. “We saw districts quickly accept this support, but they chose to approach it differently. Some used the opportunity to offer direct student services. Others focused on professional development. Some districts chose to implement employee assistance services provided by the agency. Districts recognized that social and emotional support was a priority for students and adults alike.”
Break Down the Walls Between School Leaders and Staff
When teachers were out sick with COVID-19 and substitutes were unavailable, administrators stepped into different roles to prevent temporary school closures. Out of a crisis came a greater understanding of the pressure teachers were experiencing and more empathy for their situations.
“When we’re short on staff, I offer to cover buildings, float between classrooms, handle the phones—whatever our schools need,” said Dr. Barbara Mullen, Interim Assistant Superintendent, Student Services of Cambridge Public Schools in Massachusetts. “Can it be a bit taxing for me? Yes, but the most important thing is to show the teachers that I’m there for them.”
Superintendents and administrators also need to model good self-care habits and give their staff space to do the same. One way to start is by clearly stating the importance of work-life boundaries.
Unless school leaders tell them differently, teachers often feel an internal pressure to answer parent emails after hours or check their work voicemails on weekends. The ability to disconnect from work takes practice and self-discipline, and the sooner teachers start, the better.
The issue is that most educators are workaholics by nature, burdened by a self-imposed obligation to always be available. School leaders have to let their staff know it’s O.K. to take a day off or make time for themselves, and the most effective way to do that is to lead by example.
Create a Culture of Appreciation
In order to be successful, wellness programs must begin with teacher input before they’re implemented by administrators. Too often, school leaders assume—instead of ask—what their team needs, and in most cases, their good intentions fall flat. Handing out gift cards to teachers at the end of their ropes likely won’t entice them to hold on longer, but professional development opportunities during school hours and accessible self-care programs (such as massages or meditation sessions) may help ease their stress levels.
Even small, but heartfelt, expressions of appreciation, such as a handwritten note of gratitude or an encouraging email from administration, can be significant as teachers feel their voices are finally valued, and their struggles are recognized.
“Just sitting with teachers one-on-one and asking them how they are can create a healing space between their school and the central office,” Dr. Mullen explained.
Accentuate the Positive
If navigating the pandemic wasn’t difficult enough, many teachers now find themselves the unexpected enemy in political battles between parents and districts over masks, critical race theory, and book bans.
With the constant negativity surrounding schools, districts can’t just react to sensational stories in the news. They have to be proactive and spread joy by spotlighting their teachers’ achievements.
“We focus on our students and thank our staff who come to work bringing their ‘best self’ on behalf of our young people in ACPS,” shared Dr. Hutchings. “Instead of focusing on the staff leaving the profession around the country, we celebrate the staff, who in spite of the pandemic, are still fulfilling their destiny of educating students in public education.”
COVID-19 isn’t just a pandemic—it’s a magnifying glass, bringing the stress educators were feeling into focus. Districts are finally talking about what they should have been discussing pre-COVID and putting action plans in place to protect the well-being of staff. While their efforts might be too late for teachers who have already left the profession, administrators can better recruit and retain talented staff when they ensure educators feel seen and appreciated.