Today’s teachers aren’t just tired – they’re exhausted, drained, and jaded. This is more than burnout, which the National Education Association (NEA) considers a temporary condition, but collective demoralization that leaves educators feeling they’re unable to perform their work to the professional and personal standards they uphold.
The mass exodus from our children’s classrooms can be seen nationwide, with 25 percent of educators planning to join millions of other overwhelmed and overworked professionals in today’s Great Resignation. Schools are already struggling to fill positions with National Guard members and state employees stepping in to sub for teachers impacted by COVID-19 and high school students taking over custodial and food service roles in the very schools they attend.
The emotional and mental toll on educators is caused by several issues, including bouncing back and forth between in-person and remote learning, concerns for their health and that of their students, and working unpaid hours in their free time just to catch up. Over the past few months, the stress has skyrocketed as teachers have become targets of divided communities – pawns in political debates over everything from mask mandates to Critical Race Theory (CRT) to social-emotional learning (SEL).
Without a stable workforce in place, districts can no longer prioritize their students’ education – they’re just trying to keep their heads above water.
What districts can do to help educators and the students they serve
To slow teacher attrition and attract new educators, school districts and legislators have to end the status quo and make substantive changes to boost teacher morale. As the NEA said, “Educators don’t need any more chair massages or Casual Fridays” – it’s truly all about support and autonomy. Some steps educators recommend include:
· Giving teachers a voice in policy-making that impacts their classrooms – In one study, 50 percent of teachers say they have little input in school decisions. That lack of invited input is detrimental to the overall school environment as teachers are the ones who have direct contact with students and better understand the needs of the individual child. Creating committees that engage teachers and embrace their opinions can strengthen the overall educator/administrator relationship.
· Allocating a portion of federal COVID-19 relief funds to supporting teachers – Districts have successfully discovered ways to address challenges to teacher retention. The Christian Science Monitor reported that schools in Los Angeles gave teachers a pay boost with relief funding while Tennessee and Minnesota focused on recruiting educators that represent the students in their districts and developing teacher residency programs. In addition, ESSER funds can be used to provide both students and teachers with access to online counseling and in-person support.
By understanding that long-term wellness requires embedded mental health services, districts can proactively ease a teacher’s stress.
· Focusing on curriculum that fits how an educator teaches – Digital learning platforms shouldn’t add to an educator’s stress by diverting their attention from instruction to record-keeping and data entry. New curriculum should integrate seamlessly into the solutions you’re already using, require a minimal learning curve, and build on what educators are teaching in the classroom.
As Doris Santoro of Bowdoin College explained to the NEA, school leaders need to have conversations with teachers about new tools. “They should be asking educators, 'what is the most time-consuming part of your job, what tasks aren't as important and what are the systems that we can put in place so you can do the work that you think matters most?’”
· Honoring a teacher’s autonomy – Right now, parental rights activists believe they should have the final say in shaping a school’s curriculum. For teachers who have successfully taught for years, the threat to their independence can be disheartening and demoralizing. Teachers who experience greater autonomy in the classroom report higher rates of job satisfaction, are more motivated to stay, and experience less stress. In addition, integrating professional learning communities (PLC) within school hours can offer teachers the chance to learn from each other and provide support.
· Better supporting teachers of color – In the wake of social justice movements over the past two years, Black and Brown educators have been tasked with uncompensated “identity-based labor” to mentor students of color and educate coworkers on diversity issues. At the same time, their focus on creating equitable learning opportunities is being challenged by opponents of CRT while their pathways to higher positions at an administrative level are often blocked by biases and a lack of support. Districts have to identify any toxicity in the learning environment and not expect their teachers to repair it on their own.
The goal of every educator is to provide a solid foundation for every child. But without an engaged and supported workforce, districts and students will continue to struggle. School leaders have to change today’s dynamic to prioritize their teachers’ well-being before it’s too late.