Special Report
Teaching Profession

Superficial Self-Care? Stressed-Out Teachers Say No Thanks

By Alyson Klein — March 01, 2022 6 min read
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Louise Williamson’s phone lights up whenever an administrator raises the importance of self-care and wellness in a meeting.

“This is the last thing I needed to hear right now,” someone will write on a text chain the English teacher in Southern California has going with some of her colleagues. “Just shut up and let me go home,” someone will write. Or, “They say they care about our wellness, but we’re told to go teach in a petri dish every day.”

Being a teacher—always a difficult job—is especially stressful these days. Teachers often lose their own planning period to cover classes for absent colleagues, who may be out sick or quarantining after a COVID-19 exposure. Students are wrestling with trauma brought on by lockdowns, losing a family member to COVID, and more. Talk of lost learning time fills professional-development sessions. Violence in schools is on the rise. And some teachers worry they are putting their own health on the line every time they come into work.

What’s more, many teachers have had to prepare both for in-person instruction, and virtual learning for kids quarantined at home. That means creating slide decks, videotaping lessons, and more, Williamson said. Her planning time has more than quintupled this school year.

To help teachers cope with what many say has become an emotionally draining, bottomless workload, administrators around the country are turning in part to the wellness and self-care practices that have become increasingly popular—and fueled a multi-billion dollar industry—over the past decade.

Mindfulness is not going to help with the kinds of structural problems that stretch teachers beyond their limits. Just telling a teacher to breathe when they haven’t had a break all day is not going to help at all.

Districts have held professional-development sessions on meditation and breathing exercises. Staff emails remind teachers to remember to take time for themselves and their families. Teachers are encouraged to check out yoga, aromatherapy, or write in a journal, typically on their own time. One large urban district sent out a calendar with self-care reminders like, “On the 25th, take a walk.”

Some teachers say they find this sort of thing helpful. Others see it is well-intentioned, but no substitute for the kind of broader, systemic change that would keep them from feeling that their jobs have become untenable.

And still others see it as myopic and even insulting.

“I think that when people in charge people recommend wellness to teachers instead of fixing the situation, it comes off as being insincere, patronizing, or even just shortsighted, wanting to put a Band-Aid on a problem,” said Williamson, a nearly 30-year veteran educator who teaches at Hilltop High School in Sweetwater Union High School District, south of San Diego.

Or, as Tiffany Moyer-Washington, an 8th grade English teacher in Hartford, Conn., put it: “I feel like I’m drowning, and they throw you a rubber ducky. Rubber duckies are cute and all, but I’m not in a position to take it [because] I’m literally drowning right now.”

‘People get soured on the whole concept’

That doesn’t mean that mindfulness techniques aren’t helpful—up to a point.

In one study, first published in 2017, with follow-up results published in 2019, researchers randomly assigned 224 teachers working at high-poverty elementary schools in New York City to a group that received professional development in emotional regulation, mindfulness and more, and one that did not. After nine and a half months in the program, the teachers who got the training reported significant decreases in psychological distress, fewer physical aches and pains, and an improved ability to stay calm amid the intensity of the classroom, compared to the control group teachers.

The problem is that while mindfulness can help teachers deal with their high-pressure jobs, it doesn’t take away the cause of that pressure, said Patricia Jennings, a professor of education at the University of Virginia and the lead author of the study.

“Mindfulness can help teachers be more aware in the moment, when their own stress level is starting to rise, and do things proactively to calm themselves,” she said. But, she added, “mindfulness is not going to help with the kinds of structural problems that stretch teachers beyond their limits. Just telling a teacher to breathe when they haven’t had a break all day is not going to help at all.”

Fans of mindfulness worry that districts’ superficial embrace of self-care and wellness has backfired, closing teachers off to the real benefits of those techniques.

“People get soured on the whole concept,” said Williamson, a certified yoga teacher and daily meditator who wakes up at 4:30 a.m. every day to get her practice in before school. “And then when it is sincerely presented, or when there are practices that would be helpful, they reject them. They want to go on the warpath against wellness.”

What’s more, Shayna Boyd, a middle school teacher in Chicago, wonders whether self-care would be coming up so often if education wasn’t a female-dominated profession. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, telling construction workers to “take a bubble bath or get some candles” in response to pervasive stress on the job, she said. “It just seems a bit sexist.”

Being ‘honest about what’s hard’

What many teachers say they want instead of breathing exercises: The kind of big, structural transformation that will make their jobs more manageable.

Those broader changes could include: hiring more social workers, school counselors, and others who can support teachers in dealing with student mental health; giving teachers more time to prepare for their classes; reducing class size; hiring more paraprofessionals to help with the workload; and offering better compensation, especially for teachers who take on extra responsibilities.

Teachers recognize that those sorts of high-level changes may be costly, take time to implement, or be beyond the purview of a single principal or even a superintendent.

Other suggestions might be easier to act on. Administrators could combine important announcements into one easy-to-digest email a day, instead of bombarding teachers’ inboxes with information, Williamson said. And they should consider cutting way down on the number of meetings teachers must attend, at least for the rest of this school year.

Or, if districts are going to embrace self-care and mindfulness, they should “take it seriously,” said Rachel Vidaure, a kindergarten teacher in Los Angeles. That might mean hiring certified meditation instructors or breath coaches and sending them out to school sites, she suggested. Teachers have also recommended that any self-care training be entirely optional, and that professional-development time devoted to mandatory mindfulness might be better spent by allowing teachers to get work done, or even leave for the day.

Administrators can also work on building community and encouraging teachers to take time for themselves, even during a hectic school day.

A case in point: Earlier this year, Moyer-Washington realized she wasn’t really getting to rest her teacher brain during her lunch break. So, she brought a puzzle into the teachers lounge and invited her colleagues to help her complete it.

“Everybody friggin’ loves it,” Moyer-Washington said. “We finished 11 puzzles so far this year.” The time spent working on a fun project also helps cut down on the shop talk during lunch, she added. “It just naturally gives people time to get out of the stressed headspace of teaching all the time.”

It’s a good idea to give teachers a chance to talk about what strategies they think would help tackle job-related stress, Jennings said.

“Give teachers some voice about what their needs are,” she said. “Let them talk, let them communicate, let them be engaged in the problem-solving process. Because right now teachers are sort of left out of the conversation.”

Teachers also appreciate when leaders are frank about the challenges K-12 systems face.

“My principal is really honest about what’s hard. She acknowledges when she is struggling,” said Neema Avaisha, who teaches ethnic studies in Boston Public Schools. “So many people in positions of leadership aren’t able to just say, ‘This is hard, and it’s hard for all of us. Here’s how we can take care of each other during this.’ ”

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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