As we settle into the third school year that has been impacted by the pandemic, my social-media feed has been dominated by books, articles, webinars, and smartphone apps offering the promise of “educator wellness.” I’m all for educators being well, but I do have a problem with this pursuit of wellness being placed squarely on the shoulders of already overburdened educators.
As an instructional coach for grades 6-12, I witness the strain my colleagues are under every day and I am endlessly frustrated that it’s beyond my control to provide them with the support and relief they deserve. Teachers should not be tasked with the additional job of pursuing their own wellness, just so they can trudge through yet another week of school in their N95 masks surrounded by students, hoping they don’t bring COVID-19 home to their families.
Plus, teachers are still recovering from the frustrations of the past school year when they had to try to motivate, engage, support, teach, and assess students virtually. Not only did the technology entail what for many was a new set of skills to master, but teachers also often found themselves facing a screen full of black boxes. Had students simply turned their devices’ cameras off, or were they not there at all? Teachers wanted so badly to do a good job, and although they were working long hours, there were few signs of success.
This year, teachers want their students back at school, and kids absolutely need to be back at school. But that just brings new challenges. At the most basic level, how do teachers quickly learn students’ names at a social distance when everyone’s faces are mostly covered by masks? How do teachers master unfamiliar names when they can’t see a student’s mouth move nor can they stand closer to hear them more clearly? How do teachers forge meaningful connections with students when our school systems have not created space for healing from the personal traumas suffered over the past year and a half?
In spite of these obstacles, school is marching on, pretending to be business as usual when all of us on the inside know that nothing is as usual. Standardized tests are back this fall with a vengeance, measuring “learning loss”—an arbitrary and deficit-oriented term—and prompting already weary teachers to frantically run on the hamster wheel to “catch students up.” Policies that emphasize compliance and control at the state and district levels are firmly in place, and school schedules remain as rigid and unforgiving as ever.
Professors Justin Reich and Jal Mehta remind us that what our students and teachers need most is “healing, community and humanity.” Addressing those matters, they write, “is not peripheral to the academic mission of school, it is a vital part of such a mission.”
Fortunately, teachers have long known that supporting students’ social and emotional well-being is foundational to learning, and they are doing the best they can for their students despite an inflexible system. But again, who is taking care of the teachers’ social and emotional well-being? Apparently, according to self-proclaimed wellness experts, teachers are supposed to be doing that as well. And we wonder why teacher burnout has been a long-standing issue.
Lora Bartlett, an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies the teaching profession, reminds us that even before the pandemic, more than 40 percent of teachers left the profession by their fifth year, and 8 percent left the profession annually, according to federal longitudinal data. “The most common reason teachers give for voluntarily leaving the profession is dissatisfaction with school or working conditions,” Bartlett wrote.
I’d say wearing a mask all day amid a throng of unvaccinated children with the constant threat of a COVID-19 outbreak and the looming concern of a pivot to virtual instruction certainly constitute unsatisfactory working conditions.
If we want teachers to remain in the profession, state departments of education, school districts, and parent groups must step up. The way to support the people who are taking care of our children is for others in the education community to pool their resources and consider doing some of the following:
- Schedule all after-school meetings virtually or even asynchronously if possible. After a full day of teaching in a mask, teachers deserve to breathe easier and perhaps even attend meetings from home.
- Offer stipends when asking teachers to offer their time for additional duties during the school day and beyond. (A shortage of substitute teachers has prohibited release-time during the school day and thus increased after-school meetings for teachers.)
- Create and prioritize time in the school day for teachers to plan together. Collaboration eases the planning burden on teachers, and collective efficacy impacts student learning.
- Ask for and act upon feedback from teachers regarding school schedules and building protocols; no one knows better than teachers what will most benefit them and their students.
- Extend extra sick days to teachers for the purposes of mental health and family issues for their continued service under extraordinary circumstances.
- Provide wellness opportunities for teachers to choose from such as free mindfulness apps, health-club memberships, and yoga classes as additional support.
The teaching profession can’t afford to lose the expertise of senior teachers who mentor our newer teachers, nor can it afford to lose newer teachers who can in turn bring fresh ideas to seasoned teachers. There is so much that we can’t change about the pandemic, but what we can do is offer our teachers autonomy, respect, flexibility, and gratitude as these are not finite resources; we just need to get our priorities straight to be willing to provide them.
A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2021 edition of Education Week as Teacher Wellness Shouldn’t Be A Teacher’s Job