Schools, Not Teachers, Must Reduce Stress and Burnout—Here’s How

The health and well-being of educators should be prioritized in school culture; school leaders can help create the conditions for this to occur.

School counselors bear “the tremendous responsibility of assisting young people in healing from the momentous events of the past year and ongoing traumas,” write Justina Schlund and Amanda Fitzgerald for ASCD’s In Service blog, and school leaders should prioritize counselors’ well-being.

Read More: Investing in Your Child’s Education: Here’s How

However, there is no doubt that the stress of this disrupted school year is affecting all educators, and even under more normal conditions, teachers are besieged by stressful, taxing conditions such as overcrowded classrooms, long hours, crushing workloads that they frequently tote home, and the expectation that they meet the emotional and physical needs of all of their students.

While many of the larger issues that contribute to widespread teacher burnout are beyond the control of school leaders (for example, class size), others are. If the well-being of teachers is jeopardized by issues inherent in the school system, issuing vague or impractical guidance that places the onus on teachers to fix it is unfair and will not work.

Instead of “finding time to exercise more” or “making space to restore your balance,” schools must acknowledge their role in the problem and create structures, practices, and time for self-care, reflection, and general well-being among educators, school staff, and leaders themselves.

Here are seven ideas for getting started:

1. Survey Teachers—And Listen to Them: In an effort to help teachers and staff manage stress this year, school leaders at Arcadia High School, outside of Los Angeles, are developing “unconventional but extremely successful channels of support for not just our teachers but all of our staff—certificated and classified,” writes assistant principal Michele Lew.

The school’s leadership team, on the other hand, did not simply “impose what we imagined would serve [the team].” Instead, they polled teachers and staff via an online wellness survey, and then “listened when they told us what they needed.”

As a result, the school established a helpline through which school personnel can dial in for “mini check-in therapy sessions.” They planned a series of 30-minute lessons on topics of interest to teachers as identified in the survey, such as mindfulness, positive psychology, and self-care strategies.

Rather than telling teachers to try yoga, the school hired a local certified yoga instructor to lead virtual yoga classes for staff each week, as well as mindfulness and breathing exercises at the start of staff meetings.

2. Give Teachers a (Real) Break: Teachers at Fall-Hamilton Elementary in Nashville use a system called “tap-in/tap-out,” which allows teachers to send a quick text message to a colleague in the building to relieve them from the classroom for a few minutes.

It’s a quick way to get out of the classroom, take a breath, and get back on track when things get too much. It also reinforces the notion that teachers are not superheroes or martyrs; that asking for help is important and perfectly acceptable; and that colleagues in the school have each other’s backs.

3. Stop Watching the Clock: Oregon principals Rachael and John George write for ASCD’s In Service that teachers “put in an incredible number of hours early in the morning, late at night, and on weekends.” So, these school leaders advise, try giving educators some leeway when it comes to tracking work hours and time spent in the building (or online).

If teachers “get their work done and are available to students,” they write, “we should call it even.” “Grading can happen in a coffee shop, and online in-service training can be done at home in pajamas,” as long as essential job functions are met. “Everything is fine,” they say. “Having that flexibility means everything to teachers, and we all know how important they are.”

4. Create Shared Agreements: When self-care is not reflected in the school culture, it is up to teachers to make time and resources for themselves. However, Schlund and Fitzgerald write that “self-care should become part of the school culture rather than a responsibility for individual staff members to seek out on their own.

” They recommend that teachers create shared staff agreements to give them a say in establishing parameters and norms such as how staff “interact with and listen to one another,” set “realistic boundaries around work,” or establish routines “reflecting on their own wellbeing.”

5. Plan for both formal and informal check-ins: Regular quick morning check-ins with teachers—even if it’s just a few minutes at the classroom door—show teachers that you care enough to make time to see how they’re feeling and deal with the demands of their classroom and workload.

However, check-ins do not always necessitate advance planning; an unplanned drop-in can be just as meaningful. “Swing by, look for something positive, and then leave [the teacher] a sticky note on their desk explaining what you saw,” writes WeAreTeachers teacher Kimmie Fink.

6. Schedule Planning Time for Teachers: As teachers’ responsibilities grow, so do their work hours—time that, for many, crosses over into personal time, consuming hours they desperately need to decompress and relax.

Principal Justin Uppinghouse of Whitsitt Elementary School in Nashville devised a schedule that allows teachers regular chunks of time for collaboration and prep while students receive enrichment activities.

Uppinghouse writes that the schedule incorporates professional development into the workday, “which ultimately improves our school’s instructional capacity, student learning, and culture and climate.” “In essence, my team and I have been deliberate in prioritizing ‘teacher time,’ while remaining focused on improving student achievement and establishing community partnerships.”

7. Support and Model Wellness: According to Katy Farber, a professional development coordinator, teacher stress levels can be comparable to those of emergency room doctors and nurses. It is critical for school leaders to set a positive example of wellness and self-care.

“Encourage teachers to take breaks and set boundaries and set boundaries yourself,” Farber writes. During the workday, take a quick walk outside. Practice not responding to emails after 6 p.m., and inform teachers that you will not be bothering them with emails or expecting them to respond to emails on weekends.

Set aside a few minutes each morning before the start of the school day for meditation or quiet time. Intentionally scheduling these few minutes, perhaps by lightening teachers’ workload elsewhere, relieves teachers of the burden and communicates that wellness is a priority in the school’s culture.

Most importantly, Farber advises, “consider who on your staff may be experiencing significant stressors, and make it clear to them that you value their wellness and would like to help them develop a coping strategy.”

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