The pandemic has taken a toll on teachers’ mental health. Stress was the most common reason teachers cited for leaving the profession before and during COVID-19, according to a RAND Corporation survey published in February 2021. Three of four former teachers said work was often or always stressful in the most recent year in which they taught in public school.
In addition, teachers are experiencing a great deal of vicarious trauma, from supporting overwhelmed, depressed and anxious students who have lost loved ones, face food and housing insecurity or are the main caregivers for younger siblings.
If experienced for an extended period of time, stress can worsen teacher burnout and push teachers to leave the profession at higher rates than we have ever seen before. The number of educators leaving the teaching profession before COVID-19 was already high: 200,000 teachers left the teaching profession, with nearly two out of three for reasons other than retirement.
In addition, Black teachers (who positively impact academic achievement, graduation rates, and aspirations to attend college, among other benefits for all students, but particularly Black students) are leaving due to racism and regular microaggressions, who can make teachers feel “like second-class citizens in the school community.”
Although many of the reasons why teachers leave the profession are systemic organizational issues, there is a “prevailing and widespread belief that teacher stress and burnout is the individual responsibility of each teacher” according to Dr. Mark Greenberg. This puts the burden on the teacher and assumes that if teachers developed more resilience, the problem would go away.
While there are things that teachers can do to build their resilience and HEART skills, we need to consider the social and emotional conditions that impact teacher burnout and attrition. In Teaching with the HEART in Mind, I discuss the importance of seeing SEL as a vehicle to create positive conditions for teaching and learning:
“Educational systems need to invest in creating systemic and systematic SEL initiatives that include supporting the HEART skills of educators and staff working with children and youth. (…) Unless we support adults in growing their social and emotional capacity, students and the learning environment will be greatly impacted.”
In order to create better schools not only for students, but also for teachers, schools need to be relationship-driven, where educators’ social and emotional needs are acknowledged and supported through professional development and trauma-informed self-care tools. School administrators need to examine how the work conditions impact educators’ ability to do their best work, and support them in ways that are meaningful to them.
In addition, school administrators have the ability to create a working environment that is welcoming, respectful of individual differences, and committed to examine hurtful biases and practices that harm educators based on their race, ethnicity, gender, ability, sexual orientation, and family background, among others. When adults feel safe, supported and have a sense of belonging, they can bring their best self forward to help students grow and thrive.