Special Report
School & District Management

As Teacher Morale Hits a New Low, Schools Look for Ways to Give Breaks, Restoration

By Madeline Will — January 06, 2021 9 min read
Danielle Peirson leads her class in jumping jacks during a mindfulness break in her 4th grade class at the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

After months of teaching during a global pandemic, Wade Buckman felt worn out physically, mentally, and emotionally.

He had been teaching in person all semester, until an outbreak of COVID-19 cases caused his school to abruptly shut down for two weeks. The transition was chaotic, and Buckman was expecting another shutdown to come soon. The workload and pressure, he said, were unyielding.

“Any other educators out there feel like failures? I hate it because I KNOW I’m a great teacher,” Buckman tweeted. “I’m perpetually behind in what feels like EVERYTHING. I’m basically in survival mode as I prioritize tasks daily. It’s only November. I. Can’t. Do. This.”

The tweet hit a nerve. Thousands liked his message, while hundreds of teachers retweeted and replied with similar messages of stress, exhaustion, and burnout.

In a school year rocked by the coronavirus pandemic, teachers say just keeping their heads above water can feel like a herculean task. They’re trying to juggle remote instruction, socially distanced classrooms, or a combination of the two, while often having to quickly pivot based on quarantine requirements or changes from the school district. They’re trying to engage students who are emotionally checked out or hard to even reach. In addition, many teachers are caring for their own children, worrying about high-risk relatives, and otherwise grappling with the mental fatigue of living through a pandemic.

“I’m trying to make sure I get enough rest, I’m trying to make sure I drink enough water, I’m trying to make sure I do all of those self-care things—but even doing those things, it’s still a lot,” Buckman, who teaches special education in rural Missouri, said in an interview. “There’s this emotional fragility. The littlest thing can instantly bring me to tears, which would not be my normal.”

These types of comments, pervasive among teachers on social media, have alarmed school and district leaders, who are working to offer supports for teachers during this difficult year. After all, teacher well-being is intrinsically linked to student well-being. Research shows that among school-related factors, teachers matter the most to student achievement. And high levels of teacher stress can lead to lower student outcomes, some studies have found.

Yet new EdWeek Research Center survey results show that teacher morale has plummeted over the course of the pandemic. In a November survey of a nationally representative sample of 817 teachers, nearly three-quarters of teachers say their morale is lower than it was before the pandemic, and 85 percent say overall teacher morale at their school is lower now. Back in March, just 63 percent of teachers said morale was lower.

Now, 42 percent of teachers say the coronavirus pandemic has made them feel less motivated at work.

[Teaching remotely is] all of the work, but none of the rewards."

Teaching was already a high-stress job before this year, and all the changes, uncertainties, and fear of being exposed to COVID-19 in the classroom have taken their toll, said Christopher McCarthy, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies teachers’ occupational health. His graduate students will be measuring teacher stress and vulnerability over the next couple months, and he worries that the situation will worsen as the coronavirus cases surge around the nation.

When teachers are highly stressed, they feel less satisfied in their jobs and start to develop symptoms of burnout, McCarthy said. That means they may be less effective in the classroom and may ultimately decide to leave the profession, he said.

“Teachers [who are burnt out] feel a reduced sense of accomplishment in their job, they feel emotionally exhausted,” he said. “The way we cope with that is to pull back and become less engaged.”

A Vicious Cycle: Students Disengage and So Do Teachers

Teachers may have tried to shield their students from their feelings of stress and burnout: Only about a third of students said morale levels for teachers at their school have decreased since the start of the pandemic, according to an EdWeek survey of a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 middle and high school students.

That’s important, because more than three quarters of students say that when their teachers have good morale and are confident and enthusiastic about teaching, they are more interested in the class. Eighty-seven percent of middle and high school teachers agree that their own enthusiasm and confidence increase students’ interest, according to the EdWeek survey.

Yet students are also grappling with the stress of the pandemic—their family members might be sick or out of work, and their normal routines and social lives have been disrupted. The EdWeek survey shows that most teachers believe that student morale has decreased since the start of the pandemic, and 88 percent of middle and high school teachers say the coronavirus pandemic has made their students less motivated to do their best at school.

“Kids, especially adolescents, are feeling demoralized and disconnected,” said Patricia Jennings, an education professor at the University of Virginia who studies teacher stress. “To have a teacher feeling those same feelings—it just reinforces it. When people are feeling discouraged, it can be contagious.”

That can be a vicious cycle: Teachers tend to feel defeated when their students aren’t engaged, she said. And in many places, teachers say, a decline in engagement has been a side effect of remote learning.

Zipporah Omari-Eisenhower prays during a mindfulness break in Jessica Miller's 4th grade class at the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Teaching remotely is “all of the work, but none of the rewards,” said Jasmine Lane, a high school English teacher near Minneapolis. “The best part of the job is the students, and that’s what makes us able to get through all of the bureaucratic junk. Pretty much now all we have is the bureaucratic junk, so it weighs heavier.”

Her school does not require students to turn their webcams on, and few of Lane’s students do so voluntarily, so she spends her days “talking to a sea of blank screens.” (Many educators have raised equity concerns about requiring kids to turn on cameras, saying it can make them feel vulnerable or exposed.)

Still, Lane said it’s difficult to gauge her students’ understanding and engagement without seeing their faces, and she can no longer feed off their energy like she would if they were sitting in front of her. “I didn’t become a teacher to hear myself talk,” she said.

This feeling has been echoed by teachers across the country. Michele Lew, an assistant principal at Arcadia High School in California, which is fully remote, said the special education teachers she supervises have become discouraged this year as some students remain disengaged, despite their best efforts.

“They feel like it’s a personal failure,” she said. “I tell them, ‘It’s not you, it’s the situation.’”

To help support teachers, Lew implemented a mental health support hotline that’s staffed by counselors in training from local universities. So far, she said five staff members have called the help line, and two have used it more than once. The school has about 130 people on staff.

Lew has also helped develop optional 30-minute wellness sessions on topics like mindfulness and self-care strategies, which are recorded so teachers can watch when they have time. She’s also put together a monthly virtual social hour, after teachers said they missed the casual social interactions that happened on campus. The school also holds virtual yoga classes once a week.

“Let’s offer as many options as possible. If they take it, they take it, but if they don’t, it’s OK—but it’s there,” Lew said. “Not feeling like there’s something out there that you can lean on, that’s when it can feel a little helpless.”

A Need of Connection

In Reno, Nev., the Washoe County school district administered its annual survey on teacher burnout this fall and saw a significant increase from years past—83 percent of respondents this year said they feel burned out and 80 percent feel tense, restless, or anxious in the classroom. Nearly 60 percent of the district’s teachers responded.

Elementary schools in the district are open for in-person instruction five days a week, while secondary schools were operating under a hybrid model until late November, when the board voted to temporarily make them all-remote. Teachers have had to adapt to teaching in socially distanced classrooms and pivoting their instruction method frequently due to children’s quarantine requirements and districtwide changes, said Brandy Olson, the district’s coordinator of psychological services.

Also, she said, Washoe County—like many districts across the country—has struggled to hire enough substitutes to meet the increased demand, given teacher quarantine requirements and the need for staff to stay home with symptoms that could be signs of COVID-19. That means teachers have had to help cover their colleagues’ classes at times.

The district hosted a mandatory professional-development session in early August that helped teachers recognize signs of secondary trauma—which can happen when they’re exposed to students’ trauma—and learn to emphasize self-care, Olson said. District leaders have also held optional “virtual restorative circles” for staff, where teachers can commiserate and connect.

Those opportunities have been a bright spot, Olson said, because teaching this year can feel isolating. The teachers’ lounge is off-limits, due to social distancing requirements, and there are fewer opportunities for teachers to see their colleagues in common areas, like the cafeteria or the playground, since students are grouped together into cohorts for contact tracing purposes.

See Also

Kari Munoz and other teachers from Zavala and Travis Elementary Schools in Odessa, Texas, used noisemakers last month to greet their students, who are learning from home because of the coronavirus. Distance-learning has taken a steep toll on teacher morale, EdWeek Research Center data shows.
Kari Munoz and other teachers from Zavala and Travis Elementary Schools in Odessa, Texas, used noisemakers last month to greet their students, who are learning from home because of the coronavirus. Distance-learning has taken a steep toll on teacher morale, EdWeek Research Center data shows.
Ben Powell/Odessa American via AP

Teachers around the country say they want their bosses’ support and flexibility. The EdWeek survey found that 39 percent of teachers said that their administrators made efforts to improve teacher morale, and it helped. But nearly a third of teachers said their administrators’ efforts had no impact on their morale levels.

“I don’t need more screen time, I don’t need a workbook to help manage my stress—I think we need our district administration to just leave us alone,” said Josh Thompson, a high school English teacher in Blacksburg, Va., who is teaching in a hybrid setting. “Don’t give us more things to do, stop changing things, just let me go.”

Thompson’s school district, Montgomery County, has designated every Wednesday as a teacher and student workday, with no classes. Schools are closed for deep cleaning, so teachers can work from home. Thompson said he spends that day planning and catching up on grading.

“That has been the saving grace for every teacher in the county,” he said. “If it were not for that, I would seriously have been thinking: Is this sustainable for me?”

To help lighten the load for Minnesota teachers, Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order this fall that requires schools to give teachers an extra half-hour of planning time every day for remote or hybrid instruction. Teachers, he warned, are “stretched too thin.”

And at Milton Hershey School, a private cost-free boarding school for low-income students in Hershey, Penn., teachers are encouraged to text an administrator to cover their classes when they need a quick break during the school day. They’re in self-contained classrooms with students all day as a safety precaution, and they might need a few minutes to regroup or even participate in a school-offered counseling session, said Tara Valoczki, the principal of the elementary school.

Each classroom also has daily mindfulness breaks, where school psychologists come in to teach a social-emotional lesson relevant for life in a pandemic, like breathing exercises or coping strategies for fear and anger. Teachers and students participate together—a reminder, Valoczki said, that their well-being is “directly correlated.”

“When our teachers are happy and rested and feeling good about themselves, their energy is in the classroom,” she said. “You have to take care of yourself first.”

Ideas for School Leaders to Boost Teacher Morale

  1. Give teachers more planning time. Many teachers say that’s the No. 1 thing keeping them afloat during this unpredictable school year.
  2. Offer opportunities for socialization. Teachers are isolated from their peers this year, so offer chances for them to connect outside of a work setting, like a virtual social hour or an activity like virtual yoga.
  3. Provide mental-health support via a hotline or in-school counseling sessions. Teachers are under immense pressures this year, given the changes to their jobs and the stresses of living through a pandemic, and might benefit from talking to a professional.

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from The Allstate Foundation, at AllstateFoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2021 edition of Education Week as As Teacher Morale Hits a New Low, Schools Look for Ways to Give Breaks, Restoration

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