The Pandemic of Educator Stress
Actions, steps, and strategies to combat caregiver burnout this school year
Consider your own personal journey in the world of education. When you began your story, were there any classes that covered how to grapple with teaching and leading during a global pandemic? Did your coursework provide opportunities to learn how to educate students during a worldwide crisis? Did any of your mentor teachers give you a heads-up about how to completely transform your life from in-person instruction to teaching completely online in just a few days?
The truth of the matter is, educators have been grappling with an ever-present demand to be flexible, to think on our feet, and to pivot at a moment’s notice. We are accustomed to feelings of uncertainty while simultaneously putting on a brave face as we continue to show up day in and day out. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers were tasked with supporting students in the midst of the most seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an educator burnout pandemic.
We know that stress and burnout are not new phenomena to educators, but unfortunately they’re getting worse. According to research, teachers are dealing with increasing demands, lack of resources, and limited autonomy. And their leaders are grappling with burnout, too.
Principals struggle with increased workload, the pressures of 24/7 online access, and the growing diversity of student and staff needs. When teacher burnout increases, teaching quality decreases, which results in less effective classroom management and reduced student engagement. When teacher stress increases, it contributes to student stress, which has been linked to learning and mental health problems.
I’ve recognized this issue as an educator for Baltimore City Public Schools, but before becoming a teacher, as a student in crisis, I learned the importance of supporting mental health and well-being. In both high school and college, I suffered from crippling depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. I represented the one in four Americans who has grappled with a mental illness and the one in ten college students who have contemplated suicide. My teachers were my emotional first responders who noticed the subtle changes in my behaviour, encouraged me to seek treatment and get help, and supported me with life-saving accommodations and differentiation. They are the reason I am alive and writing this today. They were my inspiration to become a teacher myself.
It was as a teacher that I realized the complete lack of preparedness and ongoing support for the emotional demands of the profession – and specifically, for working with children who have experienced trauma or are experiencing ongoing trauma first-hand.
Because of the lack of resources and support around self-care and mental health in the workplace for adult staff, I left the classroom after nearly a decade to start an organization aiming to revolutionize workplace well-being, called Happy Teacher Revolution. (See Happy Teacher Revolution.) I am by no means an expert about how to perfectly master the elusive work-life balance, as I am learning right alongside you as we embark on the next school year together, but I want you to know that this is an opportunity for us to collectively make change by prioritizing our own well-being as a best practice for those we serve. Below you will find my top eight strategies for revolutionizing your own wellness this school year. I hope you take the time to try out one of the action steps I’ve suggested – or create your own and share it with us!
1. Acknowledge that prioritizing YOU is a radical act of personal development.
The first step in prioritizing your well-being this school year is to know that just reading this, and making the intention to fill your cup first instead of pouring from an empty vessel, is an action that you have already taken. So, go YOU! This act of personal development is radical and disruptive in a good way because it is the means to your own professional sustainability. Some ways you might choose you this year are by setting boundaries, saying “no” or “I’ll think about it” instead of an automatic “yes,” or creating more opportunities to spend time enjoying the things you love.
2. The mute button isn’t just for Zoom.
This strategy comes from fellow Baltimore City Public School educator and advocate for teacher well-being LaQuisha Hall. Identify toxic forces that need to be “muted” in your life. Know that these influences may be rearing their ugly heads after you initiate boundaries like I’ve suggested above… but know that the people who will be pushing back on your boundaries are probably the same people who took advantage of your lack of boundaries to begin with.
3. Identify your purpose.
This strategy is one that applies to all of us: whether you are an aspiring educator, a brand-new educator, or you’ve been in the game for decades. Fascinatingly, it doesn’t matter if you’re older versus younger, or if you have a chronic condition or disease, feeling that you have a sense of purpose in life may help you live longer, according to research published in Psychological Science (2014), a journal of the Association for Psychology Science. Research shows that having a purpose in life is a best practice no matter one’s age, and a powerful strategy we could model to our students.
4. Create a self-care action plan.
One of our Revolutionary educators in Alabama, Benita Moyers, suggests creating a self-care action plan. Just as you create intentional plans for your students, consider what it could look like to implement a time every week to pour into your own cup, so that you can continue supporting your students and the community of individuals surrounding you. Carve out a time in your schedule to spend time on YOU. Actually put it into your calendar so that it will happen. Put in a reminder. Even if it feels indulgent to spend time on yourself, recognize that self-care isn’t selfish; self-care is professional development.
5. Offer yourself pre-forgiveness.
This inspired practice comes from one of our very first Happy Teacher Revolution pilot sites and trauma-informed schools in Nashville. To pre-forgive is to acknowledge that you will probably make mistakes and to be prepared to forgive yourself when things don’t go absolutely perfectly. This strategy is the opportunity to be gentle with yourself, just as you would be gentle with any friend or student who could benefit from a nurturing/encouraging sentiment rather than an accusatory one. Acknowledge that the pandemic of COVID-19 was something we could have never expected or “practised” for. Offer yourself pre-forgiveness and self-compassion around the immense amount of change that upended our lives over the last few years. Give yourself the space to grieve the losses, the changes, the ways that our lives will forever be different. Acknowledge that you will continue to make mistakes as you set one foot in front of the other. Pre-forgiveness is knowing that the road may still be bumpy in life post-COVID, and recognizing that the healing process is never linear.
6. Take breaks.
An accommodation that teachers often make for their students is to provide them with opportunities to take frequent breaks. This applies to us, too. Take time to disconnect and detach with love. Unplug from technology and the demand to be “available” all of the time. Put up an auto-response that you are currently unavailable. Go outside in nature. Move your body and take a moment to let your mind rest and digest the stimulation of the day. Disconnect for a time so that you can better connect with those you serve once you are back “on the grid.”
7. Affirm, affirm, affirm.
One of the most powerful practices in our Happy Teacher Revolution meetings has been to offer personal, positive affirmations. Some sentence starters include: “I’m proud of myself for,” “I forgive myself for,’’ “I recognize the courage it took for me to,” and “I’m grateful for.” Write these affirmations down. Say them out loud. Text one to a well-being accountability partner and invite them to share their own. We also utilize opportunities to prioritize autonomy in Happy Teacher Revolution meetings by using the sentence frame, “I choose.” Some choices include: “I choose what to let go of,” “I choose to prioritize the relationships that matter,” and “No matter how the school year started, I choose to finish well.”
8. Find community.
Self-care is an incredibly individualized industry, but we are collectively craving a reduced sense of isolation and an increased sense of community. Now, more than ever, it is of utmost importance to check in with one another. The mental-health crises I experienced personally as a student were intercepted by my heroes, my teachers, because of the relationships they fostered in and out of their classroom community. The mental-health crisis is only getting worse, and we are posited with the unique chance to prioritize workplace well-being as a best-practice approach, not only professionally with each other, with our students, and with our stakeholders… but also personally with ourselves.
To find out more how to foster community care alongside personal care, check out the exciting new collaboration with Happy Teacher Revolution and the EdCan Network at: www.edcan.ca/HTR
Illustration: Adobe Stock
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
Happy Teacher Revolution
Happy Teacher Revolution is an international movement on a mission to organize and conduct well-being support communities for education professionals in order to help increase their happiness, retention, and professional sustainability. To learn more visit www.HappyTeacherRevolution.com
Association for Psychological Science. (2014, May 12). Having a sense of purpose may add years to your life. ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140512124308.htm