It’s become quite clear over the course of the pandemic that educator mental health support is a critical need for schools across the country. Compassion fatigue, stress, absenteeism and even resignations are adding up.
A recent report from the Trauma-Informed Schools Learning Collaborative found that more than a third of educators met the threshold for a diagnosis of depression or anxiety, with 1 in 5 exhibiting significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. By way of comparison, a third of health care workers qualify for an anxiety diagnosis, 17% for depression and 14% for PTSD.
It shouldn’t be surprising that as students fall behind academically, the mental health of educators is also slipping. We all want to feel like we’re good at what we do, that we’re making a positive difference in the world. That feeling is inevitably eroded in teachers when their students struggle, and teachers face the added stress of not meeting the goals set for them by their district, state or federal guidelines.
With teacher stress soaring, resignations are accelerating, compounding a historic teacher shortage. These factors hurt student learning, which causes greater stress in teachers, which further impacts student learning, which then wears teachers down faster … and on and on. It is a terrible cycle.
Unfortunately, since March 2020, only one-third of district leaders in the US have increased mental health support for their staff, according to a recent EdWeek research report. It makes sense that leaders’ time and energy was absorbed by unpredictable learning routines and public health demands. But as months pass and educators’ sense of well-being continues to slip, now is the time to look at solutions to the problem.
Administrators do have some help in supporting teachers through money provided by the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to be used for mental health for students and staff.
But in districts across the country, much of that funding has yet to be allocated for anything, let alone mental health. There is no comprehensive data on how much money has been spent on mental health nationwide, in aggregate. But anecdotally we can pull data from the Edunomics Lab ESSER spending tool and look at each state individually. Wisconsin, for instance, has been awarded $1.38 billion in ESSER funding but has only spent 0.7% of those funds, with only 1.8% of that spending going to mental health support. California, in comparison, seems to be doing better, but that state has still only spent 3.7% of the $13.5 billion in ESSER funding it was awarded, and only 4.6% of its spending has been on mental health support.
Many state and regional organizations are looking for ways to deliver support at scale. For example, my own organization, the Minnesota Rural Education Association, is offering a member benefit for up to three educators from each of our 230 districts to go through EmpowerU’s social-emotional learning course for educators, supported by 1:1 online coaching by licensed social workers to help them increase overall well-being.
We were compelled by the overwhelming feedback we received from our members. They’re also asking for help. They are dedicated to their work, and they want to find solutions. Their number one need is more support for addressing staff mental health challenges — and number two is student mental health support. Schools can’t do it alone. To meet both of these top challenges, principals reported that they would need tools or frameworks, increased knowledge or skills, and/or more personnel.
Not all PD is created equal
Of course, not just any professional development will do; “effective professional development” is content-focused; incorporates active learning; supports collaboration; offers feedback and reflection; and has sustained duration.
“There is a useful distinction between traditional ‘professional development’ and professional learning, which is intended to result in system-wide changes in student outcomes,” ” according to Regional Education Laboratory Pacific. “Professional development, which ‘happens to’ teachers, is often associated with one-time workshops, seminars, or lectures, and is typically a one-size-fits-all approach. In contrast, professional learning, when designed well, is typically interactive, sustained, and customized to teachers’ needs.”
Protecting teachers’ time
More time is the one thing teachers need most, but it is also the one thing we can’t make more of for them. Laser-focused as they are on student growth, even a short break for lunch or a quick trip to the restroom can feel like a luxury.
We may not be able to create more time for teachers, but we can protect the time they do have and set some aside for learning about evidence-based well-being strategies. Does your school already have calendar structures, such as scheduled professional development time, that could be set aside in whole or in part to support the mental health of educators?
It might be helpful to ask teacher leaders where they see this protected time fitting in, or even how they might like that time protected. Getting their feedback will help ensure that your plan works for your team.
Sometimes, there just isn’t wiggle room in the calendar, especially as the school year wraps up. In that case, it may be necessary to find a mental health support plan designed to fit into the needs and routines of educators. Look for an online tool offering short, self-paced lessons that allow educators to learn what they find most relevant to themselves at whatever rate works for them. To be effective, flexible tools should include personalized coaching and features that encourage educators to keep going if their participation slows.
Building a shared language
One of the real advantages of evidence-based resilience courses for supporting educators’ mental health is that they go beyond individual improvement to change a whole school. As educators complete the program, they acquire new, richer — and most important — shared vocabulary to describe their challenges and successes.
That shared vocabulary makes individual teachers more confident and competent in providing emotional support for students, but it also contributes to a stronger sense of community across the entire school or district. A recent report from Mind Share Partners found that the most important mental health resource that respondents are looking for is a more open culture. Shared vocabulary is a simple way to create that kind of openness and mutual understanding.
Healthy stress management, emotional regulation and goal-setting are tools that our educators desperately need for their own emotional well-being. If we can meet that demand, they will be more effective right now. They will also be able to better support the diverse array of students in their classrooms today and in the years to come.
Bob Indihar is the executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, which is currently offering grants for teachers to access EmpowerU’s social-emotional learning course for educators. You can reach Bob via email.
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