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Educator Wellness: The Trickle Down Effect of Supporting School Staff

While the days of pandemic-related hybrid and remote learning might be winding down, the impact of Covid-19 on the field of education continues to be strong.  Teaching has never been an easy profession.  Even before the pandemic, 44% of teachers resigned and left the field within their first 5 years.  Teacher stress has increased recently  as educators are frantically trying to address the learning gaps created by the Coronavirus.   During school closures and remote learning, some students continued to learn at a steady rate while others paused their learning or even regressed.   Now that these students are back in the classroom, there is an even wider range of abilities in which teachers need to address.

In addition to wide variances in academic learning, students have also returned to school with various levels of social emotional skills.  In some cases, being isolated at home has resulted in a backslide of soft skills such as getting along with others and following teacher directions.  In other words, many teachers are finding themselves spending large amounts of time re-teaching students how to “do school” and function in a classroom.  Students have come back to the classroom, but many need a great deal of social emotional support before they will be ready for academic learning.

Unfortunately,  addressing student needs is only part of the problem.  Many schools are short-staffed, which means remaining teachers need to give up their lunch and plan times to substitute.  If there isn’t a teacher or substitute available, the students in the uncovered class are sent to another classroom that has a teacher, thus doubling the class size.  These increased demands are having a major impact on the mindset, resilience, and overall well being of educators everywhere.

Of course, many teachers are rising to the challenge because teaching is their life’s passion.  They are there for the children and do whatever it takes to help their students experience success. They will stay late into the night to refine lesson plans, answer administrator and parent  emails on weekends,  attend workshops or read professional literature over the summer, and spend days worth of unpaid time creating a welcoming, stimulating, and aesthetically pleasing classroom.  But, even the most dedicated teacher tires from the increasing and endless demands placed on them. It is important to realize that adding even more to these teachers’ plates can affect more than just the teacher’s state of mind.   Research is showing that a stressed teacher leads to stressed children and decreased learning.

Thanks to the Stress Contagion Effect, a teacher under a high amount of stress can spread their stress to those around them.  Emotions can be contagious, which means that a tense teacher can have a negative impact on their colleagues and even their students.  In fact, teacher wellness is linked to physical health and overall stability in schools.  Studies have shown that teacher stress can have a negative impact on the quality of instruction, classroom management, and the ability to establish strong teacher/student relationships.  Furthermore, students become stressed when taught by a stressed teacher.  In districts in which teacher burnout runs high, students have an increased amount of the stress hormone, cortisol.  

Inversely,  happy teachers lead to positive student experiences in the classroom.  Teachers with high job satisfaction tend to have students that feel supported and more academically successful.  In one study that provided an 8 week stress reduction program to teachers, students reported improved classroom climate and a decrease in overall classroom difficulties.  Students in these classrooms also felt stronger in their own perceptions of their academic success.  The improvement in student/teacher relationships is especially relevant as research suggests that strong relationships are a significant predictor of school adjustment and/or behavioral problems.  The benefit of fulfilled  teachers goes beyond student well being.  Studies have found that students actually have higher levels of reading achievement by 5th grade when taught by a teacher that enjoys their profession.

The good news is that we still have teachers that love their jobs.  There are also administrators who recognize the impact of a positive school culture on the staff and students.  These administrators work hard to protect their staff from extra initiatives and non-essential demands.  Teachers also report that having a voice in their school’s decisions and policies helps to increase job satisfaction.  Feeling helpless or powerless frequently leads to negative emotions and poor job satisfaction.  For this reason, some district leaders carefully consider the thoughts and ideas of their educators.   If teachers are asked how to increase their job satisfaction, most would say that they would like more time to plan and prepare stimulating lessons and to collaborate with colleagues.   Teacher stress would also be alleviated with less required meetings and less non academic tasks such as lunch duty or hallway supervision.

One approach to reducing educator tension has been met with varying approval.  This approach puts the onus on the teacher to practice “self-care” with activities such as yoga or meditation.  Research suggests that these types of practices increase the wellbeing of the teacher and positively trickles down to their students.  Only about 11% of teachers, however, feel that these practices will actually help the profession.  Many teachers say that yoga and meditation can only go so far because these methods do not do anything about resolving the issues at hand.  Real systemic changes need to occur if we want teacher job satisfaction to increase.  Patricia Jennings, professor of education at University of Virginia says, “If we’re going to give them more responsibility, give them a lot more freedom and choice,” she said.

Districts across the country are experiencing a teacher shortage as more and more educators are leaving the field.  The remaining teachers are experiencing increasing demands, stress, and negativity.  If we want our children to go to school and feel happy and loved while learning the skills they need in order to be successful, we need teachers that are content and feel empowered to make a difference.  If we want to keep qualified and effective teachers in the classroom, we might just need to rethink how they are treated at work.


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