Teaching is one of the most difficult careers there is, with the never-ending workload, student needs, public expectations, and low pay. Although most teachers enter the profession with a yearning to leave an impact on the next generation, sometimes, this fire may not be enough.
In fact, stress was the number one reason behind teachers quitting even before the arrival of COVID-19. And the pandemic has only brought about a new wave of difficulties and even higher levels of burnout — impacting not just teachers, but students and the greater community as well.
A stress epidemic among teachers
“The straw that broke the camel’s back.” This is how Lisa Pellegrino, a fourth-grade teacher in Maryland, described COVID. Increased class sizes and budget cuts over her past seven years of teaching, combined with the difficulty of remote instruction and the villainization of teachers who didn’t want to return to the classroom, forced her to take a three-month leave due to anxiety disorder. And her case is just one of many.
Every year, around 8% of teachers leave their profession — a number that’s only expected to rise as the pandemic continues. Among those who’ve left their teaching posts voluntarily, the stress from COVID-19 was the biggest reason behind their resignations. One in three, meanwhile, cited health conditions that put them and their families in greater risk of complications. And still others quit because of childcare responsibilities, the difficulty of remote teaching, and inadequate administrator support.
With these unexpected demands, our educators are extremely stressed, scared, and frustrated — emotions they inevitably pass on to their students.
The impact on kids and communities
Teachers do so much more than just lecturing. Over time, the stress from classroom management, student assessment, and parent conferences pile up. And when it does, it affects not only their job performance, but also their students’ outcomes.
Studies have shown that teachers with high levels of stress tend to teach less effectively. Physically, they are more susceptible to illnesses and pain. Their mental stamina is also reduced, which is exhibited by mood swings, irritability, and exhaustion. In fact, Keith Herman, a professor at the University of Missouri’s College of Education, noted that among students, teacher stress leads to more instances of disruptive behaviors and less prosocial actions. As teachers engage less with their students, they are indirectly causing lower student academic and behavioral achievement.
Moreover, teacher stress causes higher turnover rates, as it drives even the most talented and passionate teachers out of the profession. As a result, the school community has to adjust, affecting class size, scheduling, curriculum planning, and professional development. If a school community has less dedicated teachers, it will have less chance of producing quality graduates, who supposedly are the future innovators and contributors to society.
Given all this, we must ask: How, then, can teachers be empowered, so that they can also empower their students?
Of course, there are ways to lessen teacher stress, but these should start with a change within the school system. Herman goes on to highlight that administrators set the tone when it comes to improving support for teachers and their well-being. And according to Dr. Susan Bartel, associate professor of Higher Education Leadership at Maryville University, this starts with putting oneself in the shoes of teachers and staff — people that administrators serve. This is key to strategic change and innovation, quantitative and qualitative data analysis of teacher welfare, and future-focused governance.
School administrators should listen and understand their teachers’ side, so they can design appropriate support programs. They can cultivate better working conditions, which include sufficient professional training, adequate compensation, more breathing room in teachers’ schedules, and empowering collegial relationships. Also, they can holistically empower their teachers by supporting their endeavors beyond the classroom. Through networks of support and respect, teachers will not feel isolated.
While schools can also implement wellness programs to create a healthier environment, teachers must actively take care of themselves, too. They can create a self-care plan that outlines signs of stress and ways to manage it. An effective stress-reducing activity is yoga. Donna Richey, Tribal Services Director with CIS of MId-America and an amateur yogi, practices it herself as it calms her down and impacts her self-regulation in a positive manner. She also encourages teachers to do breathing exercises and mindfulness meditation.
Yes, solutions to combat teacher stress do exist, but they take time, effort, and diligence from school administrators. With our current anxiety-inducing reality, now is the time for them to step up and improve the well-being of teachers and, consequently, of students and the greater community. Band-aid solutions are no longer enough — the school system must be drastically changed to accommodate the ever-changing needs of children, for children.
Here at Communities in Schools of Mid-America, we aim to make a difference in the lives of children. So if you wish to help, your support — whether time, effort, skills, expertise, cash, or in-kind — will be greatly appreciated.
Article contributed by Roseanne Jules
Exclusively for Communities In Schools of Mid-America, Inc.