Alexandra Cox, Bonnie Solomon, and Dominique Parris
As education stakeholders consider improvements to school climate, school safety, and student well-being, many have turned their attention to the role of schools in promoting mental health. While most of this attention focuses on students’ mental health needs, it is also essential to explore ways of supporting teachers and school staff who often experience high levels of stress.
Relative to professionals in other sectors, educators experience significantly more stress and suffer more often from mental health problems. In fact, 61 percent of educators reported that their work is “always” or “often” stressful. Failing to address the mental health needs of teachers (concurrent with our focus on student stress and trauma) may affect their ability to address critical needs among students. Teacher wellness has been linked not only to teachers’ physical health, but also to stability in schools and to teaching effectiveness and student achievement. Moreover, teachers’ emotions and stress levels have been found to influence those of students and other teachers. In Child Trends’ preliminary research on creating healthy school environments, students, educators, and policymakers all mentioned teacher wellness as an important factor in the overall health of a school.
Research points to several key sources of stress that can undermine teacher wellness: high-stakes job demands, limited resources and professional autonomy, and negative school climate. Heightened attention to student test scores in recent years has placed teachers under increased scrutiny, as their professional success is measured in large part by student performance on standardized exams. They must also navigate challenging student behavior and complex parent and family needs. Teachers are often expected to drive student success for a diverse set of learners and intervene across a range of challenging situations with limited materials, assistance, and control over school and classroom decisions. In fact, teachers are less likely than any other professional group to report feeling that their opinions matter at work.
Existing research suggests that the availability of supports and resources to address students’ needs may affect teacher wellness; preliminary findings from Child Trends research indicate that unmet student needs may be a potentially critical source of teacher stress. When a student experiences trauma at home or lacks sufficient resources to thrive in the classroom, her teacher is often the first to notice that something is wrong and to respond. In the absence of sufficient student support services at the school, or systems that link students with needed services in the community, the teacher may feel helpless to meet the needs of that student. Alternatively, the teacher may become the student’s primary support system. Both scenarios are emotionally taxing for the teacher.
While elements of the school environment and structure seem to cause considerable stress for teachers, the mechanisms commonly suggested to reduce teacher stress tend to focus on the teacher’s responsibility for self-care. Self-care practices such as meditation, exercise, or participation in a support group are inexpensive and straightforward to implement, and certainly have the potential to alleviate symptoms of stress. However, these practices do not address the root causes of teacher stress and may divert attention from the systemic stressors that exist in schools today. Instead, we should address these sources of stress and embrace a holistic approach to teacher wellness. Promoting teacher wellness requires attention to physical and mental health, professional development and support, and resources needed to be effective in the classroom, among other things.
Any profession is bound to have its stresses, and teaching is no different. But when we accept that an unhealthy level of stress is inherent to teaching, and place the burden of stress reduction on the individual teacher, we limit our ability to improve overall school wellness. We can better shape healthy schools for teachers and students by addressing the underlying causes of chronic stress and cultivating environments that promote teacher wellness. Ultimately, such attention could lead to healthier, more supportive school communities and more positive outcomes for students. When teacher wellness becomes a norm, so too will student success.