Take some duties off teachers’ plates. Listen to their concerns, and work together to find solutions. Avoid too many new initiatives at once. Don’t fall back on clichés like, “It’s all about the kids.”
Those are just some of the ways that teachers say administrators could better support their mental health, according to a new nationally representative survey.
After all, administrators should be concerned: More than 4 in 10 teachers say their teaching and professional growth have suffered this school year because of the state of their mental health. And more than half of teachers said that the mental health and wellness of teachers in their school has declined over the course of the 2022-23 school year. Just 10 percent said it had improved, and 34 percent said it had remained the same.
The findings come from the second annual Merrimack College Teacher Survey, a nationally representative poll conducted by the EdWeek Research Center and commissioned by the Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College. The survey, which was fielded in January, found that teacher job satisfaction has improved since last year, but they are still struggling with mental health issues.
To better understand how teachers want to be supported by their school and district leaders, the survey asked respondents, “What should graduate programs teach administrators about fostering environments that support the mental well-being of teachers?”
More than 750 teachers responded. They urged administrators to remember what it was like to be a teacher and to consider the extra pandemic-related burdens those in the classroom are dealing with now. Many called for graduate programs to teach empathetic leadership skills and to prioritize teachers’ work-life balance.
As one respondent said, “The mental well-being of a teacher directly affects the mental well-being of the students"—a sentiment that has been backed up by research.
Here are seven themes from the responses. These quotes have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Listen to teachers, and strive for productive conversations
- “You need to truly listen to teachers and try to understand what they’re feeling and where they’re coming from. Trite phrases—such as: ‘We just do the best we can.’ ‘We can do more with less.’ ‘It’s all about the kids.'—do nothing to validate teachers.”
- “Trust your teachers. Don’t micromanage them. Don’t ask them to do unnecessary tasks.”
- "[Administrators need to learn] to give at least as much appreciative, positive feedback as they do ‘next steps.’ Affirmations on what is being done correctly often inspire our students to believe in themselves and achieve more. The same works for teachers, as well.”
- “We are a team. Look for the good first, then include areas for growth. Be willing to listen to staff’s comments and respond respectfully.”
Give teachers a seat at the table
- “What causes the most stress for teachers is when they feel powerless. So include them in all decisionmaking—both big and small.”
- “Give teachers a voice and say in policies. Oftentimes, it seems individuals who have been out of the classroom for quite some time are making the biggest decisions. I think teachers have a lot of great ideas and are feeling like their hands are tied with several aspects of teaching—causing a negative attitude.”
Encourage a healthy work-life balance
- "[Preparation programs] should teach them about work-life boundaries, because it’s twice as difficult to have a healthy relationship with teaching when your boss doesn’t think you need one.”
- “We are humans. Families and self come before teaching.”
- "[Administrators] should be encouraged to support us with stuff that is low-cost or free to the school. Like a jeans day goes a LONG way. Or bringing by an ice cream or piece of fruit.”
- “Teachers are not robots! We have emotions and feelings. We experience situations in our personal and professional lives that can and will affect us mentally. We need resources that will help us manage these situations to help us better serve as educators.”
- “Understand what mental health actually is, what affects it, and how to actually help it (i.e. NOT chips in the lounge, but maybe a mental health day off or extra designated planning time with no kids in the room).”
Be an empathetic leader
- “Treat teachers like the professionals they are. This includes tone of voice, respecting the teacher in conferences, and not assuming anything negative about a teacher until you get the full truth.”
- “Treat all of your staff members fairly. When meeting with a teacher who has behaved unprofessionally, ask them if they are OK, or if there are things going on in their personal life that are pushing them past their limits. We give this grace to students, but not always to adults. Adults should have better coping skills than students, but our teachers are being pushed past their limits on a daily basis.”
- “Teachers have multiple people they have to be accountable to—admin., students, parents—and it is very stressful because it seems like none of them are ever satisfied. Just telling teachers that they’re appreciated makes a huge difference.”
Don’t overload teachers
- “The amount of extra duties you assign to teachers directly and inversely affects their mental health collectively and individually. Take some of those duties on yourself and allow teachers some time to breathe, refocus, and reset between classes.”
- “We’re all human and can’t do 400 things at once. Maybe stick with one initiative for a while.”
- “There is more to do in a day than there are hours. You need to pick your battles and be OK with that.”
- “For every job you add to teachers’ [plates], you need to take one away. Do the math: Are you asking more of teachers than they can possibly do during their planning?”
Spend a lot of time in the classroom
- "[Administrators] need to take over for a full day, including planning and all other responsibilities, so that they have a better understanding of what teachers do. This should be done multiple times a year.”
- “Truly walk in the teachers’ shoes—literally. [Preparation programs should] require them to spend a day per month in a different classroom.”
- “They need to back their teachers with decisions, support with behaviors, and classroom management. They need to be in the classrooms to see what is going on.”
Create a collegial, supportive environment
- “Just as we are supposed to foster relationships with our students as teachers, administrators should foster relationships with us as teachers.”
- “Have a presence. Don’t hide in your office. Be friendly, say ‘hi’ in the hallways. Get to know your staff. If an observation isn’t great, give a chance to redo it. Don’t make things as ‘teachers against admin.,’ genuinely be a team. Offer anonymous surveys to your staff twice a year. We need a voice, we need to feel heard.”
- “Explicitly check in with each teacher individually, as often as possible. Foster a relationship of trust and support. Listen! And when you are hearing that your teachers are tired, work with them to find solutions.”
- "[Preparation programs] need to teach principals how to build and foster community in their school among staff. They also need to play an active role in the community/build relationships with staff. Show they care.”