Frustrated. Overwhelmed. Stressed. Tired. Those are four of the top five emotions K-12 teachers reported feeling back in 2017 — well before the pandemic and 18 months of unfinished learning, trauma and economic instability. The pandemic’s disproportionate toll on Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities, amid daily reminders of ongoing racial injustice, added fuel to this fire.
It’s no secret that teaching is one of the most stressful jobs in our country: a perfect storm of long hours; frequent double duty as a guidance counselor, nurse, social worker or grant writer; outmoded compensation structures; lack of high-quality support and development; and often crushing student debt. Increasingly, teachers are also caught in the crosshairs of debates politicizing curriculums and school reopenings.
Now our schools and educators are gearing up for a year of doing more than ever to support students’ well-being and social and emotional learning (SEL). Trauma is nothing new for many students, and the rates of trauma have risen to crisis levels during the pandemic. Yet educators themselves are experiencing a mental health crisis years in the making. We won’t be doing right by our students in this moment if we don’t also provide our educators with the supports they need and deserve.
One place to start is by expanding educators’ access to affordable therapy, coaching and other resources that foster well-being. The need for these social and emotional supports is even more urgent in the extended face of the pandemic and its disruptions. A spring 2020 survey found that only 3 percent of teachers felt that administrators were addressing their social and emotional needs during remote learning.
In addition to investing in affordable wellness resources, schools and districts must help educators cultivate their own social and emotional competencies. Research shows that teachers who develop mindfulness and resilience, manage stress and build self-, social and situational awareness not only improve their own well-being but also aid the social, emotional and academic development of their students. Incorporating this kind of training for school staff can lead to a healthier school climate, higher staff attendance rates and lower turnover.
We can also ease educators’ stress by ensuring that they feel prepared to nurture their students through this moment. An Education Week survey found that only 29 percent of teachers received ongoing training in SEL throughout the school year.
In another national survey, the vast majority of educators (98 percent) agreed that all teachers need training in trauma-informed practices, which can include how to be emotionally available to students, build relationships with them, recognize psychological trauma and emotional triggers and respond proactively, set boundaries and consequences and create structures that help kids feel safe. However, 7 in 10 of these same educators did not feel prepared to implement trauma-informed practices.
Let’s make sure teachers can build their knowledge of how trauma affects student learning and behavior and apply that knowledge to student SEL and academic support. Doing so will not only help students recover mentally from the trauma and loss of the pandemic but also help them rebound from unfinished learning; research shows that fostering SEL improves students’ academic achievement by an average of 11 percentile points.
The Urban Assembly network of schools in New York City prioritizes the social and emotional competencies of all staff and students. Their immersive SEL program has been so effective that it has expanded to schools outside their network, including many in Los Angeles, Houston and Syracuse. Schools where students feel safe and empowered are healthy environments for educators too.
Many teachers are also feeling stress and uncertainty about virtual instruction during the pandemic. High-quality professional development in remote teaching practices and technology can help. We know that impactful remote instruction requires a fundamentally different set of skills from teaching in person. Yet in a nationally representative survey, more than one-third of principals leading high-poverty schools said that additional training from their district on distance learning was still a “major” or “very major” need for educators.
Schools and districts must help educators foster their own social and emotional competencies.
There are different approaches. In Milwaukee Public Schools, teachers had access to biweekly virtual coaching to support the switch to remote learning. The national public charter school network Rocketship Public Schools set aside nearly a full day every week for teachers to learn new skills related to distance learning. And Guilford County Schools in North Carolina offered 200 virtual learning sessions last summer after a state mandate forced them to cut five days of teacher professional development.
We have prioritized SEL at Teach For America, and we can all learn from schools and districts who are leading the way, acting on the understanding that academics and SEL are deeply connected. We’ve doubled down on efforts to make teacher well-being an integral part of our program, partnering with external providers to offer mental health supports and resources at no cost to our nearly 5,000 corps members. In just three months, more than 1 in 4 signed up for BetterHelp, an online platform that allows patients to interact with counselors and therapists over text, phone and video.
Our educators have already exchanged more than 32,000 messages with therapists and attended 4,300 live sessions, even as the school year is just beginning.
Teacher and student well-being won’t improve overnight, so it’s essential to stick with it. Our approach must be rooted in equity, listening to students and educators, and adapting and evolving as we learn more.
Our teachers do more than teach — they model behavior. What more powerful behavior can they show our students than prioritizing care for themselves and others? Let’s support teachers as they do that. Investing in educators’ well-being today will impact our students and our teaching force not only through the pandemic but for decades to come.
Elisa Villanueva Beard is CEO of Teach For America, which has built a leadership network of more than 65,000 corps members and alumni working inside and outside education to ensure that all children have the access and opportunity to learn, lead and thrive.
This story about teachers and SEL was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.