In many ways, the classroom has returned to where it was before the pandemic. Fewer teachers are logging into Zoom each day and more students are attending school without masks. However, the pandemic has left its scars — both on students and teachers. While many educators try to put on a brave face, the mental health of teachers is still a concern: they’re tired, burned out and pained.
As a school administrator, you might not have control over the state budget or even staff hiring. However, you can take steps to help your teachers. Take some time to understand what they are going through and how other admins in your shoes are stepping in to help.
Teachers Are Experiencing Compassion Fatigue and Secondary Trauma
Along with the physical exhaustion of working long hours and trying to teach students during a pandemic, many educators are also processing psychological trauma after the past two years. One main emotion they are working through is compassion fatigue.
“Each school professional has encountered at least one student and family who has experienced trauma this year,” writes Dana Asby, director of innovation and research support at the Center for Education Improvement. “A large number of educators—after working long hours serving students experiencing the tragedies of death, illness, and racial violence—are reporting increased levels of compassion fatigue.”
Additionally, educators are facing secondary trauma — a type of trauma that comes from being exposed to the suffering of others.
“Secondary trauma describes the impact of intense stress experiences that fundamentally alter people’s personalities and outlook on life, particularly those in helping or service professions, such as social workers, oncology nurses, humanitarian workers and journalists or therapists who are repeatedly exposed to victims of abuse, suffering or other traumas,” says Diana Lee at EdSurge. Secondary trauma is different from compassion fatigue and stands as trauma in its own right.
A medic serving in the military might learn how to identify and cope with secondary trauma. A social worker helping people escape abuse might be prepared for this mentally. However, many teachers weren’t told that this vicarious trauma was going to be part of their careers.
“When I first entered the field two decades ago, I was taught how to design lessons, sequence curriculum, manage classes, calculate grades, etc,” says teacher and author Steven Singer. “Never once did anyone mention that I would be standing between a hurting child and a world he is desperately trying to lash out against.”
The mental health of your teachers is hanging on by a thread — not just from their own overwork, but from the pain their students are also going through.
Stop Pretending Everything Is Okay
The first thing you can do as an administrator is admit that it’s okay not to be okay. You may have used certain survival techniques in your messaging during the pandemic, but your teachers need to know that their emotions right now are valid.
“Calls for educators to be ‘resilient’ can be harmful, making staff feel like they should be able to sustain unmanageable workloads or brush off signs of burnout,” according to the California Teachers Association. “And pain-hierarchy language like ‘they need me more’ or ‘do it for the kids’ enforces unhealthy martyr mindsets.”
The CTA uses the phrase “language detours” to describe this language because it fails to confront and address the concerns of teachers. These language detours are also part of toxic positivity, a “good vibes only” mentality that ignores problems and demands that people focus solely on happy thoughts and ideas.
“Toxic positivity has emerged as a significant force in the lives of teachers,” say Saul Karnovsky and Brad Gobby, lecturers at Curtin University in Australia. “Education administrators are reshaping workplace values and practices to maintain employees’ positivity, happiness and optimism in the face of irrefutable evidence that everything is not great.”
In a toxic positive environment, teachers don’t feel comfortable admitting that they are struggling. That’s because if they struggle, it puts more of a burden on their peers to step up and fill in where they are lacking — adding guilt to emotional burnout.
“I am guilty of toxic positivity, but mostly with myself,” says Carmen Bergmann, senior consultant at Challenging Learning. “I realize that I have not believed that it is okay for me to not be okay. I have never wanted to be a burden to others, and I would surely be a burden if I were ever not okay.”
If your teachers feel safe admitting that they are struggling mentally and emotionally, then they can get the help they need. Your next job as an administrator is to provide this help.
Invest in Mental Health Resources
By neglecting or denying that teachers are struggling with their mental health, administrators place the burden on teachers to get help on their own. They have to pay for their own therapy and schedule it on their own time. Not everyone can afford this or will do this.
“We are not a place that cares about mental health unless we care about mental health for everybody, and that includes our adults on campus,” says Sarah Broome, a school-based Medicaid consultant. “Teaching was really hard before the pandemic, and it’s only gotten exponentially more so. Teachers need places to process [their feelings].”
Some administrators are taking steps to provide outlets for mental health care. In a letter to teachers, Chris Cochran, a middle school secondary assistant principal, explains how he wants to help the educators that he is supposed to support. “I am not advocating for more vacation days for teachers because – let’s be honest – you will just work during those days anyway,” he writes. “I am advocating for mental health days designed for reflection, stress release, and meditation (however that looks for you).”
Cochran is encouraging districts to provide guidance on what these mental health days look like. He says educators “need permission” from their school leaders to unplug completely for a day or longer.
Additionally, bringing resources for teachers directly into schools reduces the burden of finding and paying for help.
“After establishing [mental health] programs for the parents and after establishing clinics for students, it was clear that we had left out the staff,” says Art McCoy, Ph.D., founder of SAGES: Sever Attainment Gaps Existing in Society and former superintendent of the Jennings School District in Missouri.
During his tenure as superintendent, McCoy hired two therapists who were positioned outside of human resources and outside of the school’s healthcare plan. These are people whose sole job is to be on call for any staff member who needs to talk or process secondary trauma. McCoy notes that teachers need more than just one therapy session to process their emotions. They need constant support and the backing of administrative teams.
Help Teachers Build Support Systems
Healthcare is important, but administrators can also work to change the classroom environment. What is causing your teachers to feel burned out? How can you take items off their plates to reduce stress? For example, some schools are developing mentor programs so educators can build healthy work habits.
“Teacher mentorship programs can foster a more supportive school environment, which research shows may reduce teacher stress,” says Alyssa Rafa, a former senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States. “Providing teachers with support from a colleague in their early career is crucial to their ongoing success in the classroom.”
Mentors can help educators build long-term healthy habits. New teachers can learn to set boundaries, have a work-life balance and streamline tasks in order to save time.
Your goal as an administrator is to preserve teachers’ time so they can heal and be effective.
“Historically, teachers have never had enough time to do their jobs well,” says former teacher Jennifer Gonzalez, who founded Cult of Pedagogy. “This has been a problem for generations, but it’s gotten worse in recent years as standardized testing has become the end-all-be-all for measuring success.”
Teachers also need classroom resources to support students. Not only are teachers drained emotionally, but they also are forced to drain their own bank accounts. A survey by AdoptAClassroom.org of 5,400 PreK-12 teachers found that most educators spent an average of $750 on school supplies out of their pockets for the 2020-2021 school year. Nearly one-third of teachers spent more than $1,000 of their own money on supplies.
Teachers feel pressure when they don’t have the time, tools, resources and funding to be effective. They let down the students they are fighting so hard to support.
Identify What Is and Isn’t Out of Your Control
You might not be able to change every aspect of the school day for your teachers, but more may be in your control than you realize.
Professor of Education David Franklin asked teachers what administrators can do to help teachers reduce stress and pressure. Most of the answers fell into one of four categories: value time, show respect, provide support and express gratitude. He compiled tangible items into a chart that shows how you can take steps to achieve these big-picture goals.
For example, by prioritizing and protecting planning time and by having fewer, shorter meetings, you value the time of the teachers who work for you.
“As leaders, however strong our natural capacity for empathy, we can further develop the skill by engaging in empathic listening and asking questions that help us understand others’ perspectives,” says Thomas R. Hoerr, former head of school and author of “The Principal As Chief Empathy Officer.” Simply asking “what can I do to help you?” can give you the insight you need to take action and create a better place to work.
Many teachers didn’t have these check-ins during the pandemic. Administrators and educators were trying so hard to survive that no one was asking if everyone was okay.
“I don’t know of any district that did support their teachers exceedingly well,” says Scott Filkins, a high school teacher in Illinois, in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I do feel we didn’t get checked in on enough…And I think part of that comes from, if you check in on somebody and they ask for something and you don’t know how to provide it, it just feels awkward.”
Most schools aren’t in crisis mode anymore. Now is the time to reflect, heal and work to build back better. You have the power to learn from the pandemic and develop a school culture that supports the mental health of teachers so they are more effective at leading students.