How Schools Can Build a Culture of Support for Educator Mental Health

Teaching and Learning

How Schools Can Build a Culture of Support for Educator Mental Health

By Diana Lee     Apr 29, 2022

How Schools Can Build a Culture of Support for Educator Mental Health

This article is part of the collection: Exploring the Classroom Experiences of Black Women Educators.

Considering the ongoing traumatic upheaval on school communities in recent years, and the unrelenting pressure on educators to work under difficult, uncertain and constantly vacillating circumstances, it is not a matter of if educators will experience the corrosive effects of prolonged and extreme stress, but rather when. The question is, what can schools do to prioritize and support the mental health and well-being of the invaluable educators at the heart of their school communities?

Through our Voices of Change project, EdSurge has been conversing with educators and school leaders to understand how schools are adapting to meet the needs of their learning communities as they face the 2021-22 school year. EdSurge researchers conducted surveys and facilitated focus groups, small-group virtual convenings and in-depth interviews with more than 90 educators to learn more about their experiences.

In our conversations throughout the year, educators reflected on the pressures they’ve endured and how in focusing on caring for students and families, their own health and well-being was often overlooked and in urgent need of addressing. We saw how having the language to talk about difficult experiences—such as prolonged exposure to intense stress and collective trauma—serves as a critical first step in being able to acknowledge, process and face these widespread events.

We also asked educators what might help them feel more supported by their schools given these circumstances. Three broad themes emerged from these conversations about what school communities can do to better support educator mental health and well-being. First, schools can play a significant role in reducing stigma and barriers to mental healthcare, such as helping with accessing providers, removing financial obstacles and offering dedicated, timely services for educators; second, schools can provide educators with a safe space to consistently discuss experiences with fellow educators; and third, they can establish and maintain a culture of healthy work boundaries and relationships.

Reducing Systemic Barriers to Getting Mental Healthcare

Receiving mental healthcare in this country is no easy feat. The provider shortage and financial roadblocks—even for individuals with insurance—pose major barriers to access for the general public. For teachers, these challenges are compounded by a number of issues, from work hours that create a need for high-demand appointment slots in the narrow windows of time before or after school, to low salaries that exacerbate already high costs for services. This is to say nothing of the time it takes to identify the right provider or overcoming social stigmas related to mental health. Here’s why schools are well positioned to help.

As workplaces, schools can intentionally structure systems and provide resources that decrease some of these barriers, such as addressing the scarcity of dedicated services and supporting educators through convoluted insurance hurdles that make it even harder to seek professional help. By increasing support and creating safe spaces to openly discuss common experiences of stress, schools can establish a culture that normalizes addressing mental health, which can reduce stigma.

Across our conversations with educators, many shared that they would readily utilize professional mental healthcare services to process the heavy weight of ongoing traumatic events they experienced themselves, or that their students or fellow teachers shared with them this past school year, but that time constraints and a lack of access pose significant blocks to getting the help they need.

“If I’m referring a student, I should be able to refer myself too, right?,” Antonieta Avila, Los Angeles-based sixth grade teacher reasoned, explaining that she would like to see a therapist, but time is a real issue. She says that it “would be ideal to have a therapist or some mental health support at school where we can reach out,” adding that if she ran her own school, she would prioritize having someone onsite for teachers and other adults working in the building in addition to having counselors for students.

Avila described some of the challenges this could solve—scheduling appointments after school during busy hours, accounting for travel time, needing to wait two or three months to see a provider.

Not only would a dedicated, onsite mental health professional for educators reduce the time teachers have to spend identifying a provider and waiting to schedule in their services, it would also normalize taking care of one’s mental health.

Given the structural barriers to getting counseling, including navigating health insurance plans and booked in-network counselors, high cost for professional services, or the time and energy it takes to seek and schedule them, schools and districts have an opportunity to examine gaps in what is working for the adults in their communities and to leverage systemic changes to better support them.

While systematically investing in the mental health of individual educators is inherently valuable, fostering communities of practice is also key.

Creating a Safe Space For Educators to Process Together

Indigenous and spiritual wisdom, ancient practices and a growing body of contemporary scientific research all suggest that healing from the isolating impacts of grief and trauma comes through engaging in spaces that foster safe connection and supportive community. This critically important practice has been shown to help people who regularly witness or interact with traumatized individuals as part of their job, such as first responders, medical professionals or journalists covering war, assault or other traumatic events, and increasingly applies to educators who have essentially been the “first responders” of school communities too.

In conversations with educators about the pressures of adapting to the shifting demands and regulations brought on by the pandemic this school year, our researchers kept hearing the same phrase: I thought it was just me. Educators repeatedly expressed relief to be surrounded by others who understood what they were going through.

It’s one thing to have an understanding that the ongoing pandemic and social unrest have created a shared experience of immense stress, but it’s quite another to sit in a room with a person you’ve never met, and see yourself so clearly in their descriptions of the same struggles you are also experiencing.

“Sometimes things get very isolating just because you're in the confines of your own classroom…teachers don't necessarily share things with one another, especially when it involves a traumatic situation such as this,” said Oakland, California elementary school teacher Nikita Gibbs, referring to the upheaval due to the pandemic.

“It was really nice to be able to talk to other people and see that they were actually going through some of the same things,” she told EdSurge researchers in an interview, adding that it was “comforting to hear that, and just find out how they were getting through it.”

Despite hectic, overcommitted schedules, the educators we talked with intentionally carved out time to come together, often expressing relief and gratitude that there was a dedicated time and space to talk openly with a community of peers. Even hailing from vastly different corners of the U.S., this was a place where they felt seen, heard and validated—and for many, the only hour or two they had allowed themselves in recent history to pause and process the toll of the professional challenges they faced throughout the pandemic.

“You're so busy with the day-to-day, and handling problems, and putting out fires, and scheduling things and so on and so forth,” reflected New Jersey-based preK-12 special programs supervisor Christie Schutz Vincelli, Ed.D., in an interview. “It was really refreshing to sit and have my own little session where I could just say, "Okay, it's not just me…there are other people struggling too…I actually felt better when I left,” she admitted.

Recognizing this need for community and fellowship, some educators formed or reinvigorated their own formal or informal groups, such as book clubs or check-ins because they found that fostering this kind of safe space helped them to support each other and move towards healing together.

Like any group with a major shared experience, educators can benefit from intentionally-designed safe spaces to connect with each other. This is always true, but particularly salient in a time of collective trauma and change.

Establishing a Culture That Practices Healthy Boundaries

The importance of setting and maintaining healthy work and relational boundaries was also a popular thread in conversation. But most of the educators we heard from said that could only happen within a school setting that actively set the stage for it.

In one small-group virtual discussion, educators commiserated over the rapidly changing regulations that impacted schools during the pandemic and the unrealistic expectations set forth for them. A number of them expressed frustration that despite the constant disruptions to teaching, their schools expected them to go about business as usual. That included keeping up with assessments and reporting paperwork, and administering the same pre-pandemic standardized tests they used to give in-person to their current students but now online. Several educators expressed that policymakers pulling the levers seemed far removed from the classroom, especially when they simultaneously acknowledged the extenuating circumstances classroom teachers were facing, while still requiring unrealistic teaching and learning goals.

“At my school it was ‘self care,’ and then, ‘I need you to do these five things before school on Monday,” reflected Daria Hall, a high school teacher from North Carolina. She understood that the shifting demands were difficult for everyone—school leadership was responding to late directives from the district, and the district was late because it was waiting on guidelines from the state. However, she and other educators still felt the effects of policies coming down the pike that were clearly meant to be rapidly implemented, while the reality of their workload and mental health were not being seriously considered or prioritized.

“It just was like a catch 22, where you’re saying ‘oh yeah, take care of yourself,’ but not really, honestly giving us an opportunity to try and take care of ourselves,” she reflected.

In small group discussions, some teachers talked about setting firm boundaries and advocating for their well-being, sharing the importance of explicitly saying no when they're at capacity, even when it's uncomfortable. Some recommended being explicit when reaching emotional and physical limits, and asking school leaders directly for support, like replacing a professional development session with paid time off to spend time recuperating.

Some schools and districts do give mental health days, but even that can backfire if it’s not implemented equitably. Niki Henry, the curriculum and instruction coordinator for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe in Michigan says that these mental health days can be a much needed reprieve for teachers, but in her district, the mental health days only apply to classroom teachers. Henry says it’s also important to consider all of the administrators who have been overextending themselves to make the whole system work. If not, she says, “it actually compounds the frustration” and experience of burnout for them.

While some solutions have to come from institutional and systemic levels, such as declared mental health days, other boundary work can be done at the school level or through personal practices.

For example, Schutz Vincelli, the special programs supervisor in New Jersey who works with a range of early childhood, elementary, middle and high school teachers in her district, was well aware of the pressures teachers are under, and vigilant about the likely risks of educator burnout, or worse, if not careful. So she made it a mission to model and reinforce a culture of setting and maintaining healthy work communication boundaries when she saw more and more teachers working late nights and weekends, pushing themselves to the limits.

“I had to set those boundaries as a leader so that my people felt that they could take those liberties too,” she shared. It doesn’t have to be a whole program or curriculum, she explained, but can be as simple as setting expectations about appropriate hours to engage with work emails and other forms of communication.

“Guys, I took email off my phone,” she told her staff. She explained to them how working from home, she had access to it all the time. “I would go to sleep, wake up in the middle of the night and be like, ‘oh I forgot to answer that email.’” The incessant feeling of needing to be “on” to help and immediately respond to each seemingly urgent message every day and at all hours was starting to get to her. She knew she had to be better at deciphering real emergencies from everyday communication that would still be there tomorrow, for both herself and the teachers and students she worked with. “You have to take care of yourself,” Schutz Vincelli said. “If you can't take care of yourself, you can't take care of anybody else.”

This act of committing to working during set hours is simple and effective, yet requires intentionality, consistency and a supportive environment to maintain. Schutz Vincelli does her best to practice what she preaches, but says that sometimes she needs help maintaining and reinforcing boundaries too. The good thing about establishing a culture of healthy communication and work expectations is that accountability goes both ways. If her teachers receive work emails from her during evenings, weekends and other “off” hours, they call her out on it, and she checks herself to prevent overstress and burnout.

Other educators described similar experiences of firming up work and communicative boundaries, including scheduling in five minute walking breaks, setting up office hours specifically for work conversations and making it a point to not engage about work when running into families at the grocery store or at restaurants in the neighborhood. Having a school culture that sets up expectations that everyone in school communities maintains these norms means that everyone can support others to enforce healthier work boundaries and relationships, and in turn, everyone benefits from it.

Understanding Both Individuals and Institutions Play a Role

Many school communities have focused on how teachers and administrators need to address the traumatic experiences students had during the pandemic, and not the impact of ongoing direct or vicarious trauma experienced by educators. To move towards healing and better supporting everyone, the effects of the pandemic on adults in learning communities needs to be considered and addressed.

The pandemic qualifies as a collective traumatic experience on a global scale. As such, processing and moving forward requires a collective approach. Educators are looking to school and district leaders to provide support in this area, saying they cannot do it themselves. While educators have a role to play in building their own awareness and coping strategies so they can better take care of themselves and their students and families, they can only do so with structural, institutionalized support—including having dedicated mental health services for educators, carving out time and space for educators to reflect and heal together, and setting expectations around healthy work-life boundaries.

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