Advocacy Agenda: September 2022
Over the years, much attention has focused on why and how schools need to invest in student wellness. Besides supporting the health and positive development of children, supporting student wellness (e.g., providing comprehensive mental and behavioral health services, supporting social-emotional learning, addressing physical health, and promoting good nutrition, etc.) directly benefits student achievement.
When schools make a concerted effort to address student wellness, students’ self-esteem and self-efficacy improve. We see an increase in positive peer and teacher-student relationships (another foundation of school success), school climate improves, and importantly, there is a reduction in bullying, behavioral infractions, and other risky behaviors often associated with poor life outcomes. The evidence is clear, and now, more than ever, educators, school leaders, families, and policymakers understand the importance of supporting student wellness. And we have made great progress in viewing these services as integral, not ancillary, to the mission of schools.
What About the Adults?
Despite such progress, it is only recently that greater attention has been paid to supporting the wellness of educators, school leaders, and other school staff. This article will focus on concrete and effective strategies that school leaders can implement to support the wellness of their staff members, as well as pitfalls to avoid. Given that school leaders set the tone and climate for the school community, we must support their well-being in the same way we support the well-being of our students.
Relative to other fields, educators experience more stress than other professionals. Even before COVID-19 and the obstacles associated with teaching during the pandemic, a survey reported that educators found work to be stressful 61% of the time. Educator burnout has increased in the United States over the past decade, and it has been attributed to chronic strain that results from the mismatch between job demands and available resources to cope.
Further, in recent years, adult rates of self-reported anxiety and depression (not just among educators) have tripled. At the beginning of the 2021–22 school year, there was significant emphasis on ensuring that schools prioritized student wellness over academic learning and recovering disrupted instructional time. However, many educators noted the difficulty in balancing their own mental health while addressing student academic needs and unprecedented student emotional and behavioral challenges, exacerbated by severe staffing shortages. Not only did many schools lack access to mental health professionals (e.g., school psychologists, school counselors, school social workers), there were critical instructional and support positions left unfilled, which meant that everyone in the building was stretched thin.
Just as addressing student mental health and wellness should not be viewed as a luxury or “add-on,” neither should educator wellness. In fact, educator wellness is linked to improved physical health for staff and students alike, more effective teaching, improved student learning, and improved student wellness. In addition, educator wellness can improve school stability and reduce staff turnover, which is critical, especially as districts struggle to maintain an adequate workforce. Retention of existing staff must be viewed on par with recruitment, and intentional efforts to support educator wellness are crucial in supporting school and student success.
More Than Cookies in the Staff Lounge
Despite long-standing research on educator wellness, it took a pandemic for this issue to rise to the forefront. Many educators equate wellness with self-care—carving out time each day to engage in activities for rejuvenation. Self-care by itself is hardly the same thing as wellness. Self-care places the full burden of responsibility on the educator and does not address the root cause of some job-embedded sources of stress. As a result, it is equally important to create a system for educators to seek help when they need it, and to create a culture of respect, belonging, and self-autonomy, much like we do for our students. What follows is a non-exhaustive list of strategies for school leaders to consider:
Develop systems for supporting all staff. We have systems in place for identifying students who need support without sole reliance on self-referral. School leaders can routinely collect, and use, data on staff wellness and burnout. These surveys should be anonymous and administered with the goal of supporting wellness and preventing burnout. It is imperative that school leaders be prepared to acknowledge and honestly address the information gleaned from these surveys. School leaders can engage in small group facilitated discussions to problem-solve ways to address issues contributing to burnout and scale up efforts to promote wellness. To be effective, this approach requires buy-in and authentic engagement from staff.
Develop a tap in/tap out system. Self-referral should not be the only mechanism by which teachers can access support. They need the space to ask for support, without fear of repercussion, during the school day. One such example is tap in/tap out. Such a system allows a teacher to signal that they need to step away from their classroom to regroup and have another staff member come in and temporarily cover for them. This can be done via a school-based app, local messaging system, or other method that works for the school community.
Create and model boundary setting. Teaching is not an 8 a.m.–3 p.m. job. School leaders and educators are dedicated to supporting their students and routinely spend time after hours refining lesson plans or thinking of new ways to engage students. However, significant after-hours work should not be the expectation. It is important for school leaders to model appropriate boundaries and give educators “permission” to focus on themselves, their families, and personal interests after school. For example, set blackout periods from email, and stick to them. Communicate to families that while family engagement is important, teachers are not expected to respond to emails or other communications in the evening. There will be exceptions of course, but the idea that a teacher is “on-call” should be refuted.
Engage in regular gratitude and appreciation acknowledgment. It is important that school leaders routinely acknowledge the hard work of their staff. However, this should not be limited to staff meetings. Sharing gratitude and acknowledgment of hard work and effort among one’s peers is important, and staff should be given the opportunity to acknowledge the work of their colleagues in front of students and families. School leaders can highlight specific accomplishments during morning/afternoon announcements, assemblies, PTA meetings, in newsletters, and on social media. These acknowledgments should not only focus on major accomplishments—although those should certainly be highlighted—but small successes, or even efforts that didn’t meet the expected outcome should be recognized. School leaders can also routinely solicit input from students and families about how staff supported them throughout the year.
Communicate about community resources and employee assistance programs. Often, school districts offer a variety of benefits to employees to support their mental and physical wellness. School leaders can routinely remind staff of what is available to them and how to access it.
Advocate for improved mental health and wellness policies. The voices of school leaders carry tremendous weight with school boards and other decision makers. Advocate for flexible leave policies that allow all employees to take adequate time off to care for their mental health. In some districts, students can now take mental health days as an excused absence. What could this look like for educators? In addition, contact your school board members, state representatives, and members of Congress and tell them to allocate sufficient funding so students and staff can access the proper complement of school mental health professionals.
We can all do more to ensure that our staff members are supported so that they are better able to support the needs of our schools, our students, and our communities.
Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, PhD, NCSP, is director of policy and advocacy at the National Association of School Psychologists.
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