Social-Emotional Learning: Support for Teachers Who Are Feeling the Burn
It is no exaggeration to place teaching among the most important professions in our society; after all, teachers are uniquely positioned to have a profound impact on young people by inspiring their actions both within the school walls and beyond them. Sadly, it is also no exaggeration to place teaching among the country's most stressful jobs.
The pressures and overwhelming nature of teaching are by no means a secret. In many cases, teachers are overworked and underpaid, and the resulting stress can negatively impact them and their students. To compound the situation, teachers frequently encounter challenges related to high workloads, growing class sizes, student behavioral issues, lack of funding, and more.
Among respondents to a 2017 survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), 61% of educators and school staff described their work as “always” or “often” stressful. Among teachers, more than half (58%) described their mental health as being “not good” for at least one full week out of the previous month—a marked increase from the 34% who reported the same in 2015.
With survey results trending in a disheartening direction, what can be done to bolster the well-being of our educators? After social-emotional learning (SEL) programs emerged as a popular and effective resource for students, school districts have begun to consider how such initiatives might be used to address teachers' often-overlooked mental health.
Teacher burnout affects educators, budgets, and even students
Although school districts may hesitate to make the financial investment associated with implementing SEL programs for teachers, human development and psychology professor Mark Greenberg of Pennsylvania State University warned that inaction comes with its own costs—which have the potential to massively impact school districts' budgets.
“The first [cost involves] absenteeism and payment of substitutes," explained Greenberg, who has written extensively about the causes and impact of teacher stress. “The second is healthcare costs, which have not been examined directly in this field. We know teachers under stress are using more medication, they’re going to the doctor more often, they’re missing work.”
Healthcare and HR expenses are further inflated by high teacher turnover. More specifically, about 13% of American public school teachers either move or leave the profession each year, and recruiting and training their replacements may cost states as much as $2.2 billion annually.
Ask teachers why they chose their profession and they'll likely respond by saying they wanted to make a difference and help students unlock their full potential. Unfortunately, when teachers are burnt out and demoralized, students may begin to feel the same way. After all, burnout begets fatigue, which tends to reduce patience and understanding. Students who pick up on this may experience increased stress levels, reduced motivation, and a decreased ability to learn.
Change course by addressing teachers’ mental health
Despite SEL yielding positive results for students, SEL options for teachers remain few and far between, albeit not entirely absent. According to The 74, there are at least two mindfulness-based programs in existence that aim to turn the tide for teachers (and, consequently, for their students):
CARE for Teachers: Through more than 30 hours of in-person and over-the-phone training spread across four months, CARE for Teachers helps educators learn to identify and self-regulate stress and other manifestations of overwhelm by applying practices such as breathing awareness and self-compassion. Beyond boosting educators' mental health, this teacher-focused SEL program was also found to have a positive effect on the classroom environment.
SMART in Education: Research has shown that after attending two-hour SMART in Education sessions every week for eight weeks, teachers were able to “focus better, improve working memory, and cultivate self-compassion.” The program specifically encourages participants to recruit their fellow staff members, as partners and groups can help each other stay involved in mindfulness classes after the course concludes.
Be proactive, not reactive
Although SEL programs like CARE for Teachers and SMART in Education are valuable resources in the effort to alleviate chronic teacher stress, they are no substitute for critical examination at a systemic level. Administrators who take the time to identify major institutional stressors and are willing to make the required investment to ameliorate these factors can help shape school environments that foster good health and well-being from the beginning, as opposed to simply rectifying issues after they manifest.
So many teachers join the profession with the goal of making a difference in students' lives, and now it's up to administrators to do the same thing for teachers.
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