How Prioritizing Teachers’ Mental Health Directly Affects Student Outcomes
By Nadine Levitt
We have to talk about the elephant in the room. Our teachers are tired. They are running on fumes, trying as hard as they can to show up for our kids while covering for staffing gaps as more and more teachers leave the profession.
For those of us who have been in the field for a long time, we know to expect the proverbial pendulum swing to a degree. Challenges arise, conditions change, federal or state legislatures throw us some bones, or wrenches, depending on the year.
The pendulum has always swung back, restoring a state of relative equilibrium. Since March of 2020, though, it’s felt a little like that pendulum is suspended in mid-air, pulled way back to the farthest reaches of its arc.
We’re likely to get back to some sense of equilibrium eventually, but the question is: What do we do in the meantime?
How do we support our teachers so they remain in the classroom rather than join the many who have left the profession altogether?
What can we do, today, to help ease the overall burden on the education system, so we can get the best outcomes for every student?
Yes, we have a teacher burnout problem. But to echo the sentiment voiced by Secretary of Education Cardona – this boils down to a teacher respect issue more than anything. The lack of respect is reflected in the low pay, the way teachers are treated, and while our society often espouses an honor of the teaching profession, this is rarely demonstrated in practice. This leads to low morale, a diminishing sense of purpose, and a beating down of educational innovation and inspiration.
When we find a way to solve this respect issue, we will see student outcomes improve across the board.
Let’s get back to basics for a moment. What motivates a person to become a teacher?
To give back to the community
To inspire young minds
To make a difference
To take part in shaping future generations
Insert any number of forward-thinking reasons for entering the profession. New teachers show up with enthusiasm, ready to get to work inspiring young minds.
At some point, that enthusiasm begins to fade.
A survey of 30,000 teachers revealed that 89% said they had been enthusiastic about teaching when they started the profession, but only 15% reported being enthusiastic at the time they completed the survey. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6350815/#R22
What happened in that interim to dim their enthusiasm so drastically?
A pre-COVID review of common stressors for teachers cites the following:
● High-stakes testing;
● Large (and growing) class sizes;
● Student behavioral challenges;
● Inadequate resources;
● Poor physical space;
● High responsibility for others;
● Perceived inadequate recognition or advancement; and
● The gap between preservice training expectations and actual work experiences
Notice that, aside from the one entry on student behavioral challenges, none of these items are student-centric.
The causes of stress cited most often by teachers are not about the students themselves. It’s the “cramming in” of all the ancillary, systemic, administrative stuff that is devoid of inspiration.
No one chooses to become a teacher for the paycheck. They want to help and foster young minds, but when we don’t help set them up for success, that goal becomes unattainable. Learning is relational, so classroom sizes matter. Specialized roles like counselors and special educators should never be imposed on anyone without the mastery required. These are just two examples of challenges that teachers face daily, that massively impact their sense of competence.
Yes, some flexibility and extra work is unavoidable. But have we considered that perhaps we’ve allowed the extra to overtake what’s actually important?
A recent study revealed that, on average, teachers work 54 hours per week, with less than half of that time being spent face-to-face with students. The rest of the time is spent grading, replying to emails, planning, attending meetings, performing extra duties, etc. Tasks that aren’t exactly the type of fulfilling work that lights most teachers up.
It is not that meetings with adults are less fulfilling than class time with students, because at the end of the day connection refuels us. But the connection with adults is so often fraught with conflict, or opposition, rather than a feeling that we are all on the same team, moving toward a common goal.
When the majority of your work week is filled with tasks that drain us, we are likely to feel the effects of stress, anxiety and ultimately burnout at a higher level.
The effects of workplace stress show up in very particular, well documented ways:
● Emotional numbing;
● Feeling “shut down”;
● Disengaging and simply “going through the motions”;
● Loss of enjoyment;
● Lack of energy;
● A sense of cynicism or pessimism;
● Increased illness or fatigue;
● Aches and pains;
● Increased absenteeism and “sick days”;
● Greater problems with boundaries; and
● Difficulty making decisions or making poor decisions
Of course, any person experiencing any number of those outcomes is going to have a hard time putting their best foot forward in service of students. When teachers are exhausted, stressed and burned out, student outcomes suffer.
The data backs this up.
A 2016 study found that teacher burnout level explained more than half of the variability in students’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol, meaning students had an actual physiological response based on their teacher’s emotional state. (Oberle & Schonert-Reichl, 2016).
On the other hand, when schools implement programs that actually seek to improve mental health and support teachers’ well-being, student outcomes improve. (Carrol et al, 2021)
In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers examined what sort of “downstream” effect a focus on teachers’ mental wellbeing could have on students. The results were eye-opening.
The study followed 19 teachers and their 238 students. The teachers participated in one of two eight-week teacher stress reduction programs. While wellness programs are quite common in the corporate world, the researchers noted a surprising lack of similar opportunities for teachers.
Wellness is defined by the National Wellness Institute as “an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence.” It is further described as an evolving and self-directed process in which an individual is working to achieve their fullest potential and which may include mental, physical, and/or spiritual well-being.
In the corporate world, these programs are considered well worth their costs most of the time. Companies with effective wellness programs had, on average, a 28% reduction in sick days, a 26% reduction in health costs, and a 30% reduction in workers’ compensation and disability management claims. (Lever et al, 2017)
Would the same be true for educators?
The answer is most definitely: Yes.
By the end of the eight weeks, students reported some very positive changes. Overall, they reported fewer difficulties at school. They felt that their teachers were more helpful and supportive. Students also had more positive perceptions about their own academic abilities.
The teachers reported a significant decrease in distress and feelings of burnout after participating in the wellness programs.
So what did these programs consist of?
The eight week programs helped teachers find ways to relax, manage anxiety and build their emotional resilience. They were educated on how to improve wellbeing through exercise, music and nutrition.
Overall, the training focused on mindfulness and compassion, and importantly, teachers were provided time to focus on their own mental health.
As leaders, we must take notice of this last point especially. Data supports the notion that happier, healthier, more balanced teachers are able to serve students better. Ask yourself what can be done in service of your teachers’ wellbeing, and then make time for it. Does your staff really need to spend an hour of PD learning a new technology tool they may or may not need, or could that time be spent tending to their mental health?
A teacher who feels supported, seen, appreciated and inspired is worth so much more than whatever value may be gained through the same old, uninspired PD.
This was the thinking behind PD Reimagined – a full year nationwide wellness program for school leaders and educators, to refuel, celebrate and honor them. It consists of:
● Monthly inspiration boxes delivered to their doors
● Virtual summits with thought-leaders from wellness, sports, media & entertainment, politics, science and business
● Wellness toolkits and resources
● Access to local events
● Connection to a supportive community
● Micro-credentialing opportunities
● Teacher appreciation discounts and experiences offered by companies that want to honor them!
It has had an enormous impact on the teachers who have participated, with 100% of last year´s respondents reporting that they would recommend it to their colleagues. And we have plans to expand the inspiration to even more educators who desperately need a boost in morale that actually works.
But there is something that we can ALL do, no matter what your role.
If you are a school leader, open a dialogue and ask your teachers what they need. Find an evidence-based wellness program to implement (PD Reimagined or another one).
If you are a parent, acknowledge the difficult work teachers are facing each day, and celebrate their efforts!
And on a more human level, share your own experience with stress, anxiety and mental health so that we can normalize the conversation.
We are standing at a significant crossroads in education right now. One path has us slogging through the status quo, continuing to do what we’ve always done while losing far too many talented teachers.
The other path leads us to a brand new opportunity, where our teachers are equipped with all the supports they need to thrive and inspire. I think it’s worth a try, don’t you? Let’s reimagine and reinspire our teachers together.
About the Author
Nadine Levitt is the thought leader for a fresh approach to education and is revolutionizing the way children are taught through creativity, music, and artistry.
As a leading Global Education & Emotional Intelligence Expert and Founder of PD Reimagined, she believes that the current education paradigm does little to reflect the future of work, relationships, business and health, and aims to restructure the future of education.
Nadine is a parent and education advocate who has experienced every facet of K-12 education for over a decade, and has observed over 400 classrooms. She is an acclaimed author & serial founder of WURRLYedu, My Mama Says, and the newly launched Emotion Wonderland. Her curriculum is currently used in schools nationwide.
As an acclaimed speaker and globally recognized expert, Nadine has spoken on acclaimed stages such as SXSW, and has been featured in USA Today, Parents, Yahoo! and more for her creatively infused reformative approach to education.
This article was originally published by The Learning Counsel, a research institute and news media hub focused on providing context for the shift in education to digital curriculum.