By Effective School Solutions
In recent months there’s been a lot of attention on the mental health crisis affecting our country’s young people. We’ve heard from the President and the U.S. Surgeon General as well as prestigious organizations like the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, all declaring that far from being all right, our kids are in the midst of a mental health emergency.
That this is being widely discussed and that solutions are being called for are encouraging developments. But while attention is righty focused on our nation’s young people, it’s important not to overlook another group of people who are having their own crisis in our current era: Teachers.
As the 2021–22 school year heads into its final months, educators across the country are at a breaking point. It’s critical that districts recognize the scope and severity of the situation and find effective ways to address it — for the sake of the educators themselves and the students who need them.
The Issues Facing Teachers
There isn’t just one issue facing today’s teachers, but a confluence of factors that are leading to stress, burnout, and dissatisfaction.
The Pandemic’s Toll
It goes without saying that teachers, like everyone else, have just lived through the greatest period of disruption in our lifetime. The pandemic brought unparalleled levels of stress, loss, upheaval, and grief. Teachers across the country, like people everywhere, saw loved ones get sick and die. Some fell ill themselves. And even those who managed to come through relatively unscathed nevertheless experienced the shared trauma of a global pandemic that is still ongoing.
In the early months of the pandemic, teachers were expected to carry on teaching. With little preparation, they pivoted to remote instruction, transforming their homes into classrooms. A significant percentage of these teachers also had to care for their own children — who were now suddenly at home all day — while simultaneously doing their best to provide instruction to their students. It was a recipe for misery. In a survey conducted by the Rand Corporation in early 2021, one in four teachers said they were experiencing symptoms of depression. The survey also found that reports of job-related stress were significantly higher among teachers than among the general population. And that was before the full resumption of in-person teaching.
Chaos, Angry Parents, and Staff Shortages
When educators finally returned to their classrooms last fall, many were hopeful that things would be, if not quite “normal,” then at least something close. Instead, they found chaos. They encountered staffing shortages, fluctuating guidelines, ongoing uncertainty, and students with more and greater mental health challenges than ever before. As if this wasn’t enough, teachers also became misplaced targets of angry parents, caught in the middle on a slew of contentious issues. “Lauded during the early days of the pandemic, The Washington Post reported last October, “teachers and their unions quickly became a target of attack by people who wanted schools to open in areas of high coronavirus transmission.”
Staff shortages have also added to the difficulties. Shortages of teachers and staff are not an entirely new phenomenon. Teachers have been leaving the profession for years as the challenges they face have slowly mounted. But many districts report that the shortages they faced this year felt unprecedented. “The stress of teaching in the COVID-19 era has triggered a spike in retirements and resignations,” the Associated Press reported last September. One California district began the school year with fifty open teaching positions. Undoubtedly, much of the burden has fallen falls on the remaining staff.
Violence and Other Student Behaviors
Most teachers enter the field because they want to be of service to young people. But being on the front lines amid a national mental health crisis is more than many bargained for.
Students’ emotional distress manifests in countless ways, such as withdrawal, substance use, and self-harm, but by far the most alarming for teachers is violent behavior. Incidents of student aggression and violence were already on the rise before the pandemic, but in the aftermath of school closures and the resulting isolation and trauma, these behaviors have shot up dramatically.
A task force of the American Psychological Association (APA) surveyed nearly 10,000 teachers and hundreds more administrators and other school staff on the issue of violence and safety at school. One out of three teachers reported at least one incident of verbal harassment or threatening behavior from a student, and roughly 14% of teachers reported incidents of physical violence. Administrators and staff members also reported being assaulted.
“Violence against educators is a public health problem, and we need comprehensive, research-based solutions,” said Susan Dvorak McMahon, PhD, who headed up the task force. The APA’s report cited one teacher among many who called for support: “We need policies, procedures, and interventions to identify, address, and respond to student behaviors that lie outside the management capabilities of K-1 teachers in the general education program.”
Invariably, students’ violent and aggressive behavior signals deeper issues that need attention. In a recent report on violence in schools, “63% of school attackers showed signs of severe depression, sadness, or isolation or openly talked about experiencing these emotions.” Reaching these youth with appropriate interventions and care is urgent.
The Looming Threat of a Mass Exodus
These last two years have eroded the well-being and threatened the commitment of even the most dedicated teachers. Yet these educators are the foundation of our schools and ensuring their well-being must be a top priority. It isn’t only important for the teachers themselves. It’s vital for students, too. There’s research showing that teachers experiencing depression, anxiety, and burn-out are likely to be less present, less engaged, and less effective teachers overall.
If the issues facing teachers aren’t adequately addressed, many educators may find themselves walking away from the profession, as several recent surveys attest. In one poll conducted in January by the National Education Association — the nation’s largest teachers’ union — 55% of educators said they were planning to leave the profession sooner than they had originally expected. Of those polled, 90% cited feelings of burnout as a serious problem. Teachers across the country feel overwhelmed, overburdened, and under-supported.
It’s clear the situation is reaching a crisis point, and districts must urgently take action. Educators everywhere are in need of support, but we should not confuse support with superficial fixes or an overemphasis on strategies of “self-care” — a concept that can trivialize the enormity of the problem. As Melissa Callen, Regional Director for Effective School Solutions, put it, “A bubble bath and a glass of wine aren’t going to cut it!” While self-care has its place, it is in no way a substitute for practical schoolwide and district-wide solutions. So what steps can districts take to help teachers weather this challenging era in ways that are beneficial for them and their students?
Training and Professional Development
A report issued by Inseparable, a mental health advocacy coalition, entitled “America’s Mental Health Report Card,” evaluated all 50 states on eight separate policy areas, including teacher and staff training, mental health education, and the number of mental health providers available to students. The report notes that many states are making real strides, but all states have significant room for improvement.
The authors note that “Regular training in mental health, substance use, and suicide prevention can help educators and staff feel better equipped to identify warning signs of mental health or substance use problems, to respond appropriately, and to have knowledge of available resources and effective interventions.” They add that, “While we did not focus on trauma-informed trainings, we believe that such training is a valuable complement to training on mental health, substance use, and suicide prevention.”
Trauma-informed trainings enable teachers to see beyond disruptive and problematic student behaviors to the trauma and distress underlying them. Rather than seeing kids who are acting out as “bad” or “trouble makers,” appropriate training can equip teachers to view behavior through a more compassionate and ultimately a more productive lens.
The call for more training was echoed in a research brief by EdResearch for Recovery. The authors write that a survey of more than 500 teachers “found that teachers want more training and resources to support their and their students’ mental health.” These resources can include training for embedding student mental health supports into the classroom, trauma-informed professional development, and development for educators to improve relationship building with students.
Having the Right People In Place
Professional development and learning can equip teachers to recognize and identify which kids are in need of intervention. In many cases, teachers are the first to spot red flags in students’ behavior because they spend time with them daily. It’s not uncommon for school staff to identify issues even before family members do.
But teachers are not mental health professionals. Their skills lie elsewhere, and their responsibility is to all the students in the classroom. Schools function best and our students are best served when the right professionals are performing the right job.
When teachers do identify students in need of mental health services, what then? Schools must have a system in place to ensure these young people get the care they need from fully trained clinicians.
Multi-Tiered Systems of Support
By implementing a Multi-Tiered Systems of Support framework — the framework utilized by Effective School Solutions — districts can systematically ensure that students, teachers, and staff have the support they need to have a more successful school year.
Tier 1 support focuses on mental health awareness and prevention. It involves teachers, parents, and administrators so they can recognize and respond to struggling students. Tier 2 provides support for students with mild to moderate health challenges and can fill the gap not met by school counselors. And Tier 3 offers the most intensive support, though in-school clinical support, helping students stay in district.
In the Surgeon General’s Advisory issued last fall, Vivek Murthy calls on schools to “Provide a continuum of supports to meet student mental health needs, including evidence-based prevention practices and trauma-informed mental health care.”
The good news is that if districts follow this sensible advice to address the student mental health crisis, they will also be supporting teachers and helping to stem the crisis among educators at the same time.