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Dec. 7, 2022

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School districts move to ease teacher stress, burnout

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Instructor Emily Daniels, front left, leads a workshop helping teachers find a balance in their curricula while coping with stress and burnout in the classroom on Aug. 2 in Concord, N.H. School districts around the country are starting to invest in programs aimed at addressing the mental health of teachers.
Instructor Emily Daniels, front left, leads a workshop helping teachers find a balance in their curricula while coping with stress and burnout in the classroom on Aug. 2 in Concord, N.H. School districts around the country are starting to invest in programs aimed at addressing the mental health of teachers. (charkes krupa/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

CONCORD, N.H. — With Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” blaring in the background, about 20 New Hampshire educators grabbed wooden sticks and began pounding their tables to the beat.

Emily Daniels, who was leading a two-day workshop on burnout, encouraged the group including teachers, school counselors, occupational therapists and social workers to stand up inside a hotel conference room. Before long, the group was banging on walls and whatever else they could find. Laughter filled the air. A few started dancing.

“Rhythm making offers the body a different kind of predictability that you can do every single day,” said Daniels, a former school counselor who created The Regulated Classroom, which trains teachers on how to manage their own nervous system and, in turn, reduce stress in the classroom.

The training session is part of a growing and, some would say, long-overdue effort to address the strains on educators’ mental health.

Addressing the mental health challenges of students coming out of the pandemic has emerged as a priority for schools nationwide. Many districts, facing hiring challenges, see tending to the educators as a way to retain them amid stressors that range from behavioral problems to fears of shootings.

School districts have provided increased mental health training for staff, classroom support, and resources and systems aimed at identifying burned-out teachers and getting instructors connected to help.

Karen Bowden-Gurley, a fifth grade teacher, said she attended the New Hampshire training because of teacher burnout, but she also feels student burnout.

“The demands on all of us were really high, and we were trying to make up for lost time for the couple of years that they fell back on their curriculum,” she said. “But we forgot that they haven’t been in school for a couple of years so they missed that social-emotional piece. We are dealing with that in the classroom.”

In a survey by the Rand Corp., twice as many principals and teachers reported frequent job-related stress as other working adults. A study from a coalition of mental health organizations of New Orleans found educators working during the pandemic reported rates of emotional distress similar to health care workers — 36 percent screened positive for anxiety, 35 percent for depression and 19 percent for post-traumatic stress syndrome.

“It’s all pretty bad,” said Leigh McLean, the primary investigator at the Teacher Emotions, Characteristics, and Health Lab at the University of Delaware School of Education, who has found levels of depression, anxiety and emotional exhaustion among elementary school teachers that are 100 percent to 400 percent higher than before the pandemic.

She saw those issues increasing the most among early career teachers and teachers of color.

“So it seems like the patterns among teachers are mirroring inequities that we’re seeing in the general population with underrepresented groups being hit the hardest, which is really unfortunate,” she said.

COVID funds invested

Some districts have invested or are planning to invest federal COVID-19 relief money in teacher mental health, seeing it as a way to also improve the classroom environment, boost retention and ultimately benefit the students themselves.

The Atlanta school district launched a service with Emory University using federal funds to provide mental health services. Dubbed Urgent Behavioral Health Response, it funds 11 clinicians from Emory who provide emotional and behavioral assistance during school hours for struggling school employees.

A Delaware district, meanwhile, hired two social and emotional learning coaches who address problems teachers are having in the classroom.

“If you can imagine a teacher has a classroom where students are engaged, they are helping each other and there is a positive supportive culture, their job satisfaction is likely to be higher,” said Jon Cooper, the director of the Colonial School District’s health and wellness division.

Houston, which started building calming rooms where students can go to decompress, is hoping to do the same for teachers, according to Sean Ricks, the Houston Independent School District’s senior manager of crisis intervention, noting that he has seen a “significant rise in teachers that were in distress.”

The rooms would be different from traditional teacher break rooms, a place where teachers could go during time off to “calm down and chill out,” Ricks said, adding that they “could have some aromatherapy, maybe some soft music.”

“We want them to be able to understand that we have to take mindfulness breaks and self-care breaks during the academic day sometimes,” Ricks said.

An elementary school in Indiana starts the week with Mindful Mondays, where teachers guide their classes in deep breathing techniques. There are also Thoughtful Thursdays, when students are called on to write letters to staff members to show appreciation, and Friday Focus, when students and teachers talk about self-care.

“My teachers know when they need to take breaks throughout the day. I want them to take those breaks,” said Allison Allen-Lenzo, the principal at O’Bannon Elementary School.

Taking CARE

A growing number of groups offer training that incorporates breathing exercises, yoga, gentle movements and meditation.

One of these is Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education, or CARE. In studies of its use among 224 New York City teachers, researchers found statistically significant improvements including reductions in psychological distress and stress that comes from not having enough time, as well as improvements in quality classroom interactions. Researchers also found that it extended to the students who showed increased engagement.

“Your stress level can rise without you even realizing it because your attention is so outwardly directed at everything else that’s going on around you,” said Tish Jennings, a University of Virginia education professor who led the team that developed CARE and was the lead researcher studying the program. “So what these practices do is build the capacity to be more aware of how you’re feeling at any given moment, so that you can be proactive.”

Back in New Hampshire, the educators pushed aside the tables and were mastering a series of stretching movements known as qigong. Then, they gathered in a circle for an exercise that aims to synchronizing their nervous system. They began clapping their hands and snapping their fingers in unison.

The educators at The Regulated Classroom training believe these new tools — though on first glance a little unorthodox — invigorated them. Bowden-Gurley felt they allowed her to “train her brain to think differently” and planned to use them in the classroom.

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